Groundhogs and raccoons and deer, oh my! It’s a jungle out there

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Yeah, I know, going to the zoo in the winter doesn’t really seem like a fun time, but it was actually pretty special.

First, the weather (sunny, yet cold) meant there weren’t any long lines. Second, the quiet, tranquil winter day really made you feel in tune with the animals, like you were in their natural habitat instead of in the middle of a big city. Third, they have a spectacular indoor Rainforest where it’s always hot, humid and filled with monkeys. And fourth, it’s a perfect romantic setting. Feel free to reenact the Rocky-and-Adrian-at-the-zoo scene from “Rocky II.” Snuggle up to someone and enjoy the smell of wet bears. And, oh yeah, fifth, sloths.

Yes, I would rather the animals be in the wild, too; but I learned from the keepers that some of the animals at the zoo are rescues. The playful grizzly bear cubs who wrestled happily with one another were orphaned and later taken in by the zoo. Thanks to their efforts, they will be ripping the guts out of some fish someday.

All of the gorillas and rhinos and sloths and tree lemurs made me think about the wildlife in the woods just outside the zoo, the kind we see every day in northeast Ohio. Every area has its own unique creatures. The deer or raccoons we see every day may be intriguing to someone who lives in a big city, or a desert. This area is never short of creatures, great and small, who exist around us.

First off, the Valley is always flush with deer. Lean and beautiful bucks with majestic antlers, and does with their young. You can see them in Mill Creek Park, a family eating in a clearing. I see many at my parents’ house by Mosquito Lake, crossing the yard to the salt lick my dad keeps in hope that his nearby motion-sensor camera strapped to a tree will snap a picture of some fawns. They even get bears out there once in awhile.

Driving late at night, one always have to be on deer patrol, or you end up with a front grill full of fur. I remember when my dad hit a deer when I was a kid; his car was all smashed up. I have yet to hit a deer, but I imagine it must be traumatic. So if I ever do, then deer, I apologize in advance, and I will honor you by salvaging what I can and making you into chili.

When I kayak, I get a peek at the many fish our Valley’s rivers and lakes have to offer. Some are gross, some are yummy. All are neat, and part of our ecosystem. When I row near the treeline, these huge carp always go snapping at anything that hits the water, and they almost jump right into my boat. They’re big and slimy and could probably take off one of my fingers, but it’s really neat to see them up close.

There’s also a variety of birds to be seen. Red-tail hawks spin circles in the sky, scanning for bunnies or whatever for dinner. I see this certain hawk every day sitting on a light pole along the 711 connector; he’s keeping an eye out for me, I’d like to think. Herons are common in the park and at Lake Milton, and I’ve seen a few bald eagles around Mosquito Lake, where there is apparently a nest. Of course, the Canada goose is plenty around here, and so is their poop. When we would go to Girard Lake (a.k.a. the “toilet bowl”) as teens, the geese would leave millions of land mines in the grass. You had to be careful when you would go up there at night to read Shakespeare. Yeah.

Monster groundhogs are common where I live. They can be as big as a dog sometimes. They sit out in the yard, grunting and gobbling; just toss them some leftovers out the window, and you won’t get hurt.

Raccoons are another common critter. I once was sleeping and woke up and outside the window staring directly at me inches away was a raccoon, its eyes glowing. It did not dive through the glass, rough me up or take off with my TV, but merely scuttled away into the night. They’re kind of cute in the daylight.

And turtles and squirrels and ducks and lightning bugs and garter snakes and foxes and owls and bats and chipmunks oh my. You don’t need a zoo; our Valley has so many animals to discover, and to be protected and preserved. Just watch out where you step.

Got a favorite Ohio animal? Share a wild tale with me at ssepanek@tribtoday. com, or comment on this story at www.tribtoday. com.