Sunday, August 9, 2009
Let it be known throughout the land: Raccoons respect my piss.
In a recent blog piece, I reported on my “solution” to unwelcome raccoon visitors entering the house through the cat flap.
A couple of nights ago, I heard a mysterious scratching outside my bedroom door. A neighborhood cat? Return of the raccoons? I made a noise, then heard the flap of the cat door, signaling the sound of the animal in full retreat.
At two in the morning, I woke up, put on my glasses, and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I spotted something furry out of the corner of my eye. A skunk!
It’s a good thing I had my glasses on, or I might have mistaken the critter for my long-haired calico cat Bullwinkle. I have a bad habit of scooping Bullwinkle off the floor and nuzzling my face into her fur. Close call.
So here was the skunk, promenading in my direction across the living room floor as if he (let’s assume the skunk was a he) owned the place. Not a trace of fear.
“I laugh at your peeess!” the skunk sneered in what I swear was a French accent. “I hold your entire species in contempt! You are unworthy of the dis-stink-shun of odious! You want smell? Allow me to demonstrate smell!”
Slowly, very carefully, I backed into my bedroom and closed the door. The battle of the amygdalae was on.
Being fellow mammals in confrontation mode, our respective brains were now operating very similarly. Our limbic systems were both alerting us to danger and governing our immediate reactions. In particular, the amygdala - which mediates fear and arousal - was kickstarting our “fight or flight” response. Already, I was in a heightened state of awareness bordering on panic.
Think of the amygdala as a 911 call and the limbic system and autonomic nervous system as rapid responders. In nothing flat, my entire being was mobilized to face the threat. Adrenaline flowing, heart pounding, neurons zapping, breathing accelerating, digestive sugars pumping raw energy into the muscles.
In one microsecond, I was primed to fight like a kung-fu master on steroids or run faster than Michael Phelps can swim. But millions of years of evolution never anticipated the exigencies of modern living gone bad, namely me trapped in my bedroom with a skunk just outside.
I needed to think things through.
But our brains don’t work that way. Survival depends on instant reaction. Only later does actual thinking enter into the picture. Which explains why in the modern world we do stupid things such as panic and fly off the handle and start fights and fall in love and otherwise act against our own best interests.
Moreover, the cortical areas don’t automatically take over, even when they do come back online. In theory, the thinking parts of the brain are supposed to modulate the reactive parts of the brain, but too often it works the other way around.
“Bang on the door! Make noise!” That was what my limbic-influenced cortical regions were telling me. Bad thinking.
Pepe Le Pew was working off an amygdala almost the same as mine, only the “end” result of an alarmed reaction, from my point of view, would be far more consequential and dramatic.
So here was trick: Under no conditions could my amygdala set off his amygdala, and the only thing to prevent that from happening was for my cortex to take charge.
Scratch-scratch-scratch. Pepe was now on the hardwood floor just outside my room.
Scratch-scratch. Now he was on the concrete. The only thing separating me from a living weapon of mass destruction was the bedroom door - a door with cat flap.
Bang on the door! Make some noise!
No! Cortex to the rescue. “Just wait!” said the voice of reason with not a second to spare. “He’s headed out the other door. All you have to do is breathe.”
A sound. The cat flap, but not in fully-committed mode. Slowly, carefully, I opened the bedroom door a crack and peered out. The skunk was stalled three-quarters of the way through the cat door, tail inside, fully upright.
“Hurry him up!” said the panic-influenced part of my brain. “Bang on something! Now!”
“Wait, you idiot!” my voice of reason cut in. “In case you haven’t noticed, the operating end of this walking violation to the Geneva Convention has not yet left the building! Don’t - I repeat - don’t! Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t ...”
One Mississippi, two Mississippi ...
An eternity, another one, and another. Then - the welcome sight of an unfurling tail disappearing through the door followed by the definitive sound of the final flap. Deliverance!
My elation at having prevented a “situation” from escalating into nuclear destruction was dampened by the realization that skunks think my piss is a joke. Clearly, this is going to require years of intensive therapy to get over.
In the meantime, Pepe, I implore you - not a word to the raccoons. Please?