I rescued the quivering ball of fur from the jaws of my cat. Its tiny head stuck out of one side of Coco’s mouth, a grey tail trailed from the other side. I wasn’t even sure he had anything, but as I followed him on our evening walk, he had crouched and flicked his tail. It was the hunting crouch.
The creature had wandered away from its nest, shoving its little body inch by inch into the brave new world, then it lost its way. Not more than a few days old, I surmised. When I realized he had something I grabbed the scruff of Coco’s fluffy black neck and told him to drop it. I scooped up the creature; Coco paced.
Sometimes I detest my cat. Especially when he kills small creatures–lizards, baby rabbits, deer mice, packrats. He’s even taken down a fully grown jackrabbit. So I stood there with that baby trembling in the palm of my hand, its eyes barely open, and I could only think ill of my cat. That was so unsporting of Coco. There was no challenge to the hunt, no courtesy, no consideration at all. The poor thing had not a chance. It was a baby, for gawd’s sake. But since I retrieved it so quickly, Coco had not yet gotten to the crunch.
It was a kangaroo rat, with oversized hind legs, long face, and brown and white fur. It was so smooth and tiny, weighing barely an ounce. Little claws dangled from little padded toes. Its long tail curved around the back of my hand, almost clutching it, like a prehensile digit. I stroked its back, feeling for broken bones, looking for punctures, blood.
Its warm heart pounded. I put my ear close and heard its cry–like a teeny whimpering puppy. Coco sat down, admitting defeat, but he was on the lookout for more prey on this fine summer evening. The juniper trees fluttered their needle-like leaves, and I stood there.
The den was nearby, under a massive juniper tree branch. All the holes dug in the dirt appeared to be plugged, making it impossible to identify which ones were actively used. I didn’t dare put the little fellow down while Coco was about. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and asked my son to get off his computer action game and help me with the situation. I had a cute kangaroo rat in my hand and I couldn’t manage the rat and a slobbering cat at the same time.
My son appeared and transported Coco back home, while I contemplated my new charge.
So warm. So helpless. So alive.
What to do? I put him down on the dirt above what I thought was the den. He just lay there. I looked around, searching for tracks, other lost babies, open holes, anything that would tell me he’d be alright. A mom, maybe? Nope.
Oh gawd, what have I done, he’s dead. My heart sank. I crawled back to where I had placed him and picked up the limp bundle. His heart was still racing and he squinted his eyes.
I could not find a clear hole into the den. How did he get outside the den? What had happened? Had Coco massacred the mom and the other babies, leaving one lone baby to be crunched later?
I took him to my neighbor next door imploring him to help me keep a kangaroo rat baby alive. He suggested kitty milk formula in an eye dropper. Hours of caring for a rodent infant filled my head. This sweet creature, now no bigger than a walnut, would grow into a hopping kangaroo rat, hungry for seeds and exercise in my house. He’d be roommates with Coco. Yeah, sure, that would work.
I went out to the would-be kill site again, searching for the den entrance. As I approached, a rodent hopped beneath the juniper tree, then disappeared down a hole I had not seen earlier.
Mom? Mom! She was searching for her kid kangaroo rat. Kangaroo rats never leave their den during the day, instead basking in its safety with all the entrances plugged. Unless a mom was looking for her lost babe.
Giving the little guy one last stroke on his silky fur, I placed him in the hole entrance. With a mighty shove from his spindly rear legs, he propelled himself into the earth, disappearing into its snug shelter.
Breathing a relieved sigh only a mother knows, I waited a few moments, just to make sure mom wasn’t going to kick junior back out the door. Then I imagined her smothering him in licky kisses, scolding him for straying from the nest, and then offering him some milk to soothe his trauma.
I needed a drink myself. But before fetching a glass of wine, I thought about the bigger picture. Was the encounter some kind of personal message?
There’s that children’s book manuscript I wrote that has not yet found a publisher. One of the main characters, King Cyrus, is a kangaroo rat. Maybe the encounter was to remind me that I need to nurture that story, do a little more to assure it would find a life in the greater world.
With glass of wine nearby and laptop on my stretched-out legs, I started pounding out yet another query. Please please let this be the one that leads to the birth of The Dreaded Cliff and its heroine, a precocious packrat named Flora; please let the story find its place in the bigger world. And her friends would go with her–King Cyrus, Dayana the cottontail rabbit, and Paco the porcupine.
And please Coco, please don’t mess with a porcupine. Even a baby one.