A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife

Cockroaches: Nature’s Perfect Pest

The first time I ever saw a cockroach was when I was living at the graduate students residence at U of T. I opened my typewriter case one day and a strange bug crawled out. My roommate helpfully identified it. Turns out the building was pretty much infested and although they did fumigate regularly, it didn’t take long for them to re-establish themselves. I learned to loathe them as much as everyone else who lives with them. Luckily, once I graduated I moved to a decent apartment in a house and the bug problem went away.

When I came back to the city after a sojourn in Saskatoon, I had to get a cheap apartment while I was going to business school. I found a reasonable lowrise in an only marginally dodgy part of the city. After a few years without them, I had pretty much completely forgotten about cockroaches, but they had lost none of their claim on Toronto’s rental housing. I tried to control them with various remedies and thought I was doing a pretty good job, until the day the guy came to fix my plumbing. He discovered a rather large colony under the sink and he looked pretty green when he came out of the kitchen. He suggested I find a new place to live as soon as possible.

I did move. My apartment above a store front on the main east-west drag was spacious and bug-free when I got there. However, I did think it was a little strange that the landlord asked me if I had a cat, and was disappointed when I didn’t. The no cockroach status lasted about a year, until a Chinese restaurant set up business next door. At that point, I gave up and bought a house.

Rodents: Some are big and some are small

The reason for the cat question became apparent shortly after moving in. I could swear I smelled cat pee, but there was definitely no cat living with me. Turns out mouse pee is a pretty close approximation. The mice were using the gap between the fridge and the wall as their indoor plumbing. A trapline worked pretty well, except mice appear to be nocturnal and the loud snap of a successful catch usually woke me up at 2 or 3 in the morning, giving me a few hours to anticipate the joy of disposing of the carcass. However, about when the cockroaches showed up, the mice population dwindled to nothing. I thought maybe the mice were lured more by the restaurant than what was available to eat in my apartment, so although the cockroach tradeoff was annoying, it did get rid of the mouse pee smell.

The years in my first house were both roach and mouse free. My second house was a little further downtown in what real estate agents like to call a ‘transitioning’ neighbourhood. This means the renovators are moving in, but the homeless shelters aren’t going anywhere fast. It was a great house, although it reminded me of the scene in Being There where Chance the gardener walks out of the sequestered mansion where he worked and finds himself smack dab in the middle of a burned out urban ghetto.

Once we got the local entrepreneurial activity in our backyard under some control, we enjoyed sitting on our back deck. In the winter, we had a bird feeder outside to amuse the cats. One night in early spring, I noticed some rather large shapes hovering around the bottom of the feeder. I turned on the light and only marginally startled the rats taking advantage of the seeds that had spilled from the feeder with my scream. That was the end of the feeder. But not the end of the rats. One morning a few days later I opened the door to retrieve the newspaper, and found that one of the cats had managed to snag a rat and had thoughtfully left it for me. The good news is they never got into the house.

Reptiles: They Don’t Always Obey the Law of the Jungle

Back to the disappearing mice. When I moved out of the apartment above the store, I was diligent in cleaning out all of the cupboards, closets etc. but it took a few trips to complete the move so it was a bit hectic. A week or so later I got a call from my landlord asking me if I had left anything behind. I replied that I had done my best to make sure everything was gone, but if there was anything he needed me to pick up I’d be glad to come over. “Well,” he said, “there is a six foot long boa constrictor relaxing on the baseboard heater in the sunroom.” The case of the missing mice was solved, but mystery of the reptile roommate remains.