When my mother and stepfather moved to Key Largo in 2002, they brought their love of songbirds with them. They bought a mobile-home property in the Taylor Creek neighborhood and set up a bird bath and feeder. While the birdbath was a perfectly fine idea from the start, the feeding played out as animal feeding often does. It was a rash of unintended consequences fraught with peril.
There were no less than 13 Christmas palms on their new property, as well as a hedge of arecas along one fence line. What my mother didn't realize at the time was that these species are of Philippine origin and are apparently a native food source for the palm rats that get in our roofs. The bird seed that reached the ground combined with that factor to create a rodent bonanza. And then of course it seemed like every feral cat in the neighborhood wanted to live under her house, and a horde of nasty arthropods moved in.
The feed mistake was realized within a year and quickly discontinued. Yet the rat, cat and bug problems persisted beyond my stepfather's death in 2010. We'll never know if his leukemia had anything to do with the heavy use of pesticides by which he tried to keep the house livable.
In late 2010 I moved in and brought my knowledge of biology with me. I pulled out all the destroyed batt-type insulation, cleaned out the crawl space, phased out 11 of the 13 Christmas palms and cleaned up all the nuts on the ground. I worked with the Upper Keys Animal Care Coalition on the cat problem and did everything imaginable to the rats. Yet the rat problem was what persisted the longest. There was a coup de grace though.
One day I was beating the last of the rat-ified batt insulation from my shop-vac filter onto the ground and the drifting smell attracted a handsome five-foot yellow rat snake from my neighbor's yard. It seemed to want to penetrate the custom skirting I had built around Mom's crawl space. I did what would seem unthinkable to many people. I opened the panel and let it right in. I dove into the crawl space after it and removed all the rat poison and snap traps. Within a week, the smell of rat urine disappeared from our home forever.
Some people seem upset about the diminishing role of cats in our outdoor ecosystem lately. What I wish a lot of people would realize is that they are very hard on native predators like snakes and fledgling owls that are not odorous, and don't even carry the mind-altering brain parasite called toxoplasmosis gondii.
Maybe some folks around here used to make money selling cat food to the tourists. Please stop breaking Monroe County's codes regarding how cats are to be fixed, vaccinated and licensed. When it comes to the feral cats, there were no good old days. There were only a whole lot of sick, pregnant and road-killed animals with no hope for adoption.