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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 23: Wildlife

Jan 28, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

In the years before we opened Mildred Pierce, I had little experience in dealing with wildlife in and around the restaurants where I worked.  There might be occasional sightings of a mouse in the fall, or insects that arrived with a delivery, but the pest control company made short work of them.

With the railway corridor running behind the restaurant, we had to deal with a whole range of new fauna. In the early days, squirrels slipped in the open door to frolic among the decorative saplings that arched over the dining room, sending down showers of dried leaves. The foxes and coyotes that patrolled the railway tracks hunting for rabbits gave us a wide berth, but skunks seemed to take a perverse pleasure in strolling by the front doors. On one occasion, we had to usher guests out the back door while one sat meticulously grooming himself outside the front.

Our most persistent pests were mice, rats and pigeons. Fortunately the latter two never made it inside the restaurant but proved to be an ongoing nuisance outside. 

The pigeons roosted on the trellis about the front door and constantly fouled the windows, and the rats raided our garbage bins from their nests out along the railroad tracks. 

I hadn’t had a lot of experience with rats and was surprised to encounter them. Late one afternoon, Rajah and I were breaking down a mountain of cardboard that had accumulated outside the back door to send to recycling. Noticing that some of them near the bottom had been shredded in places, Rajah shrugged and said, “Rats.”

I shook my head and said no as if such a thing was impossible in this country. He laughed and pulling aside a box, thrust a stick down a hole underneath it. A fat rat ran out, between my legs and off down the railroad tracks.

Our battle with the rats began with varying degrees of success  – poison, traps, secure garbage cans with lids, we used them all. And they learned quickly. You might trap one or two, but the others then would avoid the traps. They seemed to learn to sniff our poison. They had established burrows out along the tracks, beyond our reach, so the problem continued for months.

Neither were the pigeons easily discouraged. They perched unconcerned beside the artificial owls, and managed to avoid stepping the sticky goo we spread along the  bars of the trellis. So we washed the windows a lot and shook our broom at the pigeons.

The presence of mice inside was a problem of greater concern. Reluctant to use poison inside the restaurant, we set up live traps throughout the kitchen, kept all food in tightly sealed containers and scrubbed counters before and after service. It would seem that we just had the problem under control and cool weather would bring them in again. There were many crevices in the old warehouse building that housed us for them to squeeze in through.

A black cat began to make regular appearances in the evening. We christened him Monty after Mildred’s sleazy, second husband in the story. I had high hopes that he might help with the mouse problem but he seemed more interested in seeking out friendly diners to feed him tidbits from their plates. He was certainly aware of the mice though. There were two planters filled with grain stalks and dried fruit on pediments along the north wall. The staff had labeled them condo one and condo two because the mice loved to hide out in them, running back and forth along the wainscoting between them. Having Monty, sit poised and attentive on the back of a banquette probably discouraged them from climbing the stalks of wheat to nibble at the grains or running back and forth but it also served to draw customers to the spot. Perhaps he played his part in discouraging the mouse infestation because we managed to clear them out, but mainly through plugging holes and aggressive live trapping. 

The Board of Health absolutely forbids allowing animals other than service animals in a restaurant, so we were constantly putting Monty out the door, but he would slip in again and you might find him full and purring, nestled between a couple of  people on a banquette. 

Monty belonged to a young artist, who had one of the work-live spaces in the warehouse across the street. She confronted me one afternoon about what we were feeding her cat, whatever it was wasn’t good for him.  I wasn’t sure who she was at first – she quite understandably had her own name for him. As she crossed and uncrossed her arms nervously and tossed her lime green and pink dreadlocks, she spoke of him as if he were a charming renegade, coming in late at night, disturbing her other cats and disrupting the household. She was no longer going to allow him to come out at night. I was left wondering if she thought she was doing us a favour by letting her cat come to the restaurant and how a young white woman managed to get dreadlocks like that.

Still, not long after, I came in one morning to find a note that there had been a cat trapped on the roof, meowing piteously, during dinner service the night before. Concerned diners on the patio were tossing little pieces of salmon and lamb up to it. There was no sign of a cat on the roof that day, but again the following night the cat was back. One of the servers insisted on calling the Humane Society to check on the cat.  When the inspector had walked around the building he said,

“I counted seventeen ways that a cat could easily get up and down from that roof. You say the cat meows and people throw food to it? Who’s zoomin’ who?”

(Zooming had a different meaning then.)

I was at the restaurant the next night and sure enough, it was Monty making his appeal from the roof. He was back.

The issue of the outside pests was solved with the help of new allies. I noticed pigeon feathers, some of them quite large, on the ground outside the door of the restaurant one day. 

“Do pigeons molt?” I wondered. I had the answer a couple of days later. One foggy morning, I was unlocking the front door of the restaurant when I looked up to see a massive red-tailed hawk sitting on the trellis. Our problem with the pigeons was soon solved.

The hawk we discovered favoured a high railroad signal tower as a vantage point and from there he could not only target pigeons but the rats that had to run across open ground to reach our garbage shed. I have to admit it was a thrill to see it swoop down on a scurrying rat.

We discovered a feral cat living in a burrow along the tracks was also helping to eradicate the rats. She was relentless in her pursuit, bagging and eating them one after another. The staff loved her, named her Via because she lived by the rail line and dropped scraps of meat and fish for her by the back door. 

In short order, pigeons and rats were history, the hawk moved on and Via appeared with a litter of four kittens. The staff, concerned for the wellbeing of the cats, was determined to catch them and have them inoculated and adopted. The kittens playful and trusting were easily captured, treated and adopted by members of the staff. Via herself was more difficult. It took some coaxing to get her, but she was finally trapped and delivered to the vet. 

We expected that, being a feral cat she would not be able to become anyone’s pet and set about constructing an insulated winter house but as it turned out she didn’t need it. During her stay at the cat hospital she developed a placid nature and an attachment to one of the receptionists. She never came back to us. 

But neither did the rats.