Mistress of the Mix: BEWARE

I can’t even remember the last time I had a decent night’s sleep.

It all started back in April, when Olive jumped out of bed in the middle of the night, ran out into the back yard, and let the entire neighborhood know that things were not okay, and she was not happy about it.

Olive is four years old, and while she may be in the habit of throwing toddler sized temper tantrums, she should know better by now. After all, in dog years Olive – one of our twoWest Highland White Terriers, is almost thirty.

This is Olive.

I humored her (and tried to shut her up at the same time), by opening up the gate to see if there was anything lurking in the dog run. I didn’t see anything but weeds and concrete, and another tall fence with a sign facing the street beyond that says Beware Of Dog.That night, back in April, Olive was absolutely positive that something was prowling around outside our house. She leaped off the bed (scratching my leg in the process), scrambled into the dining room, out through the doggie door onto the patio, up the stairs to the upper deck, and that’s where I found her, barking at the back fence.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing there to be raising such a ruckus about. But there was, I found out later. They were lurking in the dark all along, and I didn’t even realize it until it was much too late. I should’ve listened to the dog. She knew. But that night I just picked her up, took her back inside, and slammed the insert down into the doggie door before carting her back to the bedroom and shutting the door behind me, insuring some peace for the neighbors. Inside the bedroom, it wasn’t as peaceful, because Olive, with her superhero doggie senses working overtime, continued to whine and pace in the bedroom, sniffing at the door, wanting out in the worst way.

She kept it up, this annoying behavior, every couple of nights, every couple of hours, until the pinnacle moment a few weeks later. That was the day Olive started barking in the backyard and would. not. stop. I remember, it was a Saturday, so I was home all damn day with my obnoxious, barky dog, and I can testify that she ran out into the back yard at least once every half hour to express her extreme dissatisfaction with something in the vicinity of the back fence. Well, to be more specific, the garden shed.

The shed is so small that a human wouldn’t be able to fit inside. It’s large enough for a rake, a couple of 5 gallon buckets, an old oscillating sprinkler, a box of rat poison, and a whole lotta rat poop. Because I live in an old neighborhood, and there’s rats in them thar plum trees that overhang my yard.

I was pretty convinced that Olive was pretty convinced that there was a rat in our shed, somehow impervious to D-Con. So finally, late in the afternoon, I pulled out the big guns, our super weapon. The one that no rat has ever escaped from alive. The Tom Cat. Its a bargain at 5.99, and is so effective that I have used the same teaspoon of peanut butter to catch 7 or 8 rats in a row before rebaiting, because no rat has lived long enough to take more than one quick swipe at the bait.

The Tom Cat.

Well, that changed things.I took the trap out to the yard, and opened the door of the shed, expecting to come face to face with a beady eyed rodent with a scaly tail. But instead of that I saw a flash of gray and white fur and a fluffy tail dart out through an opening in the side of the shed where a board had broken years ago. It rapidly clawed up the plum tree and disappeared over the back fence. I barely got a glimpse of the unmistakable backside of an adult sized cat.

I had no problem setting out a jagged tooth contraption of death for rats, but a cat? I couldn’t do that. I set the trap aside, and asked my stepson Jesse to help move a heavy rock in front of the loose board so that something the size of a rat might still be able to access the little shed, but not something the size of a cat, and latched the door.

When I walked back inside that afternoon, I remember thinking to myself that I had probably seen the last of that cat, that Olive wouldn’t be raising the entire neighborhood with her barking, and maybe now I could finally get a good night’s sleep without having to get up in the middle of the night to calm her down.

If only.

That very night, just a few hours later, I found myself back in the yard again, as Olive began her barking ritual in the vicinity of the shed. But this time it was different. Dog owners will understand the difference between the bark of a dog alerting its owner to a perceived threat and an actual threat. The bark was sharper. More urgent. It was the difference between “I know there’s gotta be a monster under my bed!” and “I just looked under the bed and there it is!!!”

So I grabbed my flashlight that also doubles as a taser, and headed out to the shed, where Olive was posted, still loudly informing me that a monster was lurking in the dark. Without pausing I ripped open the shed door, but nothing seemed to be stirring inside, not even a mouse. And then I heard it. Over to my left, in the bamboo. It was the plaintiff, urgent wailing of something in trouble. A very little something.

I pointed my flashlight in the direction of the cries for help, and there it was. Dangling a few inches off the ground. A teeny, tiny kitten, caught by its neck between two cris-crossed stalks of bamboo, unable to get free.

Suddenly everything came into focus.

The source of all the commotion that had been stealing away my sleep was a feral mother cat who had given birth in my garden shed, and although my human ears were oblivious, Olive had been trying to let me know for weeks that we had squatters in the yard.

I dashed into the bamboo, pried the stalks apart, and gently removed the kitten, which was old enough that its eyes were wide open in fear, and small enough that I could cup it in my hands.  It stopped mewing immediately, and I ran back inside the house, holding it tight to my chest. I called for Jesse, and opened my hands to show him that I’d finally found the source of Olive’s consternation for the past month, and put the kitten on his chest.

It was love at first sight. He’s such a sucker for kittens. Jesse’s eyes lit up and he said, “Ohhhhh! It’s so little! How old is it? Is it a him or a her?” I told him I figured it was about 3 to 4 weeks old. Then I picked it up by the scruff of the neck and pulled its tucked tail aside to check, and determined that it was most likely female. It was then that I discovered that my squatter had squatters.

Hundreds of them, crawling across her belly, out of her ears, and across her tiny nose. My worst nightmare.

Fleas.

I’ve been through a bad flea outbreak before. Back in Alaska, when we bought our first house. The previous residents had a sheep dog, which enjoyed seeking refuge in a crawl space under the house, which was heated by the warm, damp air from the vent of the clothes dryer. My three cats inherited the crawl space and all the fleas that came with it, and the following outbreak was almost impossible to eradicate. We finally achieved success with a combination of efforts that included boarding up the crawl space, laundering everything launderable, bathing all three cats twice in one week (always a miserable and painful task), flea bombing the house inside and underneath, and giving the cats a newly developed edible flea treatment that was mixed into their food. It was exhausting, but worth the dedication.

When I saw the copious fleas crawling through the fur of that kitten, I’ll be honest with you, I freaked out just a little bit. The memory of that past experience, over 25 years ago, is just as fresh today as the piles and piles of clothes and linens I washed in 1992. I did not want to go through that again. So I immediately turned towards the kitchen and started running, yelling for Jesse to follow me. I turned on the sink faucet with my elbow and plunged the kitten, still cupped in my hands, underneath the flow. I minced no words as I started quickly giving orders to Jesse to grab the baby shampoo from under the sink, and squeeze some directly onto the kitten. The kitten, traumatized by the whole experience of being left in a shed with no nourishment for a whole day, getting trapped by its neck, getting stolen away by huge peach colored monsters who walked on two legs and then being plunged underneath a waterfall, was strangely docile and compliant. We lathered her up as quickly as possible, the combination of soap and water slowing their movements down so I could locate them. I got a grotesque thrill each time I crushed another flea between my thumbnails.

Nami that first night.

It took two hours before I was confident that I’d killed every last invader. I ran to the store to buy evaporated milk, eggs and Caro syrup to make emergency kitten formula while Jesse held her close to his chest, wrapped in a towel. By the time I returned, he’d named her Nami, after one of his favorite book characters. We fed her, first dipping a finger in the formula and letting her lick it off, then using an oral syringe to push it into her mouth, and finally teaching her how to lap up the formula on her own out of a shallow dish.

Nami a week later. Look at those paws!

Olive & Nami, nose to nose.

Within a few days she was scarfing down canned kitty pâté.  Jesse and I spent every waking moment caring for our sweet, new baby, although we had a lot of help from Olive, who was at times curious of this new creature and jealous of all the attention it was getting. But she also seemed to have strong mothering instincts, and would constantly crawl into Nami’s bed (which was, to be fair, Olive’s at one time) and get right up in the kitty’s business. She’d whine until we let her get up close enough to nudge Nami with her nose. It was kind of adorable.

While we enjoyed our time with Nami, Jesse ultimately realized he wasn’t really ready to be a father, and reluctantly told me that he was willing to let the kitty go to a home that relished the idea of nurturing a new life. And so, after another week at our house, when Nami had mastered the litter box, we packed up the kitty and all her toys. She now resides just a few blocks up the hill with my friend Kathleen Saxer and her daughter Dani.

The brick patio. The tiki torches. The peace.

If only, mom.For one brief, sweet moment, there was peace. It was May. The weather was perfect. I had fresh citronella oil in my tiki torches. I had brand new french doors out onto the patio. I made a point out of sitting out on the bricks every night after work, sipping on a gin & tonic, and getting a little wistful without the kitty. This is the point in the story (as I was reading the rough draft to my parents) where my mom says, “Is that the end?”

No, that’s not the end. Because that brief, sweet moment of peace erupted into full blown war shortly thereafter, when I discovered the real threat to my peaceful nights was still lurking in the back yard, hungry for blood, waiting to attack.

They’d probably shown up in early April, concealed within the fur of a Trojan Cat. They took up residence in the general vicinity of my garden shed, and it was there that they multiplied, amassing an army several million strong. When their food source disappeared, they marched hopped forward and attacked. That’s when my sleepless nights really began.

The problem wasn’t that they attacked me. Fleas aren’t particularly interested in me (I blame it on my slow metabolism and lower body temperature). But they are super interested in my dogs. Within a few days the dogs were furiously scratching at incurable itches, waking me up every 15 minutes with their thump-thump-thumps on the floor, shaking the entire bed, whether they were on it or underneath it. If I put them outside the room, they scratched at the door to get in.

So I launched my own exhausting battle. My weapons included a 10 pound bag of diatomaceous earth, monthly flea treatments every two weeks, multiple flea baths in between, vacuuming, laundering, spraying, building a blockade that restricted the dogs to the brick patio directly outside of the doggie door, and finally barring the dogs from the backyard altogether. I’d come home from work every few hours to let them out into the front yard to do their business. Still, every evening I would find a handful of soldiers that had made it past the perimeter and onto my dogs.

The Battle of the Zombie Attack Fleas lasted for almost a month before I formed an alliance with a pest control company. I signed the contract the day I stepped out onto the brick patio and felt something on my foot. I looked down to find little black dots covering my legs, from shin to toe. About 30 of them.

I couldn’t understand how this was possible until later that day – coincidentally at the same time the pest guy showed up to spray the yard with some high caliber weapons – when a neighbor dropped by to let me know that Nami wasn’t the only survivor from the litter. Her kids had seen the mother and three more kittens prowling around in the dog run the day before. So with that barky dog out of the way, the feral cats had joined forces with the fleas to take over the yard.

That was the last straw. I dropped a couple of F-bombs, then authorized the pest guy to pulled a Harry S. Truman, and gave the go ahead to the pest guy to drop his own bomb. But not before I strategically set up a sprinkler in the dog run, gave the dogs one more bath, put them in the car and left town for 17 days.

It was worth it, just be able to get a full night’s sleep, after what seemed like two full months of fifteen minute long cat naps. That might’ve worked for Leonardo Da Vinci and Napoleon, but not this gal. I need my sleep.

I’ve been back for a couple of days now, and so far, the only thing keeping me awake at night is the heat. So wish me luck that the threat has been eliminated, because I’m not sure what else I can do that wouldn’t get me in trouble with PETA (kidding, sort of).

As you check out today’s streaming Spotify Sleepless Nights Playlist, please feel free to awaken me to any good tunes along this theme that I should have included, and if you’ve been through a similar experience, let me know how you won the battle against an army of invaders that destroyed your peaceful slumber.

One last thing: treasure every good night’s sleep you can get.

Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    “Walking the Floor Over You” comes to mind.

  2. First, welcome back. We’ve missed you.
    Second, I can so relate to this column. At first you had me on the edge of my seat over the potential rats in the shed. I won’t even go there.

    But then, the fleas, oh I’ve been down that road. They are tenacious little creatures.

    Although I didn’t have pets, one former home’s courtyard had an annual flea infestation lasting from spring through fall. (I’m not a fan of chemical bombs.) If I wanted to water plants, I would wear knee socks, boots and long pants before I ventured outside to that courtyard or I would be eaten alive by fleas. I think the fleas came from nocturnal animals, like opossums and skunks, that used my yard as a freeway in the evening.
    I hope every last flea is gone. (I’d still keep that trap in the shed, for good measure.)
    Thanks for another delightful column.

    • Mistress of the Mix Mistress of the Mix says:

      Oh, did I forget to mention that the pest guy also put a rat trap of his own in my backyard? And while I was gone the kids told me a horrible, horrible smell invaded the house when one of those awful roof rats took the bait, found its way into the wall, and died. The smell was gone by the time I returned home, but I felt sorry for the kids who had to just live with the smell until it faded. The way I feel about this whole situation is that the invaders got their licks in, but we eventually won the war when we finally resorted to drastic measures.

  3. Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

    I googled FLEA and found out he is a member of The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

  4. Avatar Vicki Robertson says:

    Gawd – I hate fleas!

  5. Avatar Candace says:

    I was eyeing my dogs watching for any telltale scratching motions the entire time I was reading your column. Yikes! Also, the no sleep thing is definitely no fun. I’m thinking by the time I’d gone through all you did I’d have opted for a fleabotomy ( sorry, residual from Doni’s joke column yesterday ?). BTW, I love your columns.

  6. Avatar Alex says:

    Lisa Hannigan can get a little twee, but “O Sleep” is a beautiful lullaby that I could listen to again and again.

  7. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Late to the party. I like the version of “Sleepless Nights” by Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard, but my favorite version remains that of The Flying Burrito Brothers (Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris).

    Years ago chronic Insomnia once put me in the hospital for three days with life-threatening elevated blood pressure. For years I had not filled prescriptions of opioids after dental and ACL surgeries because I didn’t even want a little taste, paranoid that I’d get hooked. (This was well before America proved me right.) First thing they did in the ER after taking my blood pressure was give me a big dose of morphine. I HATED it.

    Here’s my short list inspired by that experience.

    “Overkill” — Men at Work

    “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” — Warren Zevon

    “Cure for Pain” — Morphine

  8. AJ AJ says:

    Good ol’ jazz classic: “Black Coffee.” Then there’s the old chestnut, “Two Sleepy People.”
    Love your sense of humor and Irony, Val!