Adventures in the Garden Shed

“Cleaning out the garden shed” and “exciting day” aren’t usually phrases I would put together. Today, though…

Early in the pandemic we bought a new treadmill, and I had stored its styrofoam packaging in our shed so I could dispose of it responsibly later. It stayed out there through the fall and winter, because I wanted to be vaccinated before I went to the recycling center.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to start dealing with it. As I moved the styrofoam, I noticed what looked like rodent droppings around the floor of the shed. Quite a lot of them. Ew.

We’re in an old neighborhood with lots of established trees, so it’s not unusual to see some animal life. We get plenty of chipmunks and squirrels, but also the occasional rabbit and deer. None of those were likely culprits.

We’ve even had hawks perch in our dogwood right by the house. A barred owl has been living in the area for most of the last year, too. Smaller rodents aren’t unknown (those raptors are eating something, after all).

Side note, owls are not only nocturnal, as the stereotype might have you believe. This thing hoots at all hours. Maybe because we’re in a college town.

My guess was a rat or two had found a cozy spot to spend the winter, and as I cleaned I eventually found a hole that something had chewed in the back wall of the shed. There was no sign that rodents were still present, so I assume they decided that while the shed was a warm home for the winter, there wasn’t enough food nearby to stick around during warmer times.

I put off dealing with cleaning the rest of the shed because I knew it would take time and I wanted to move some things to our off-site storage unit at the same time. Today the combination of being vaccinated, having spare time, and some unseasonably cool weather meant there were no more excuses for avoiding the necessary task. I donned latex gloves, leather gloves, a mask, and old clothes then went to work.

After discarding a bunch of stuff that wasn’t worth cleaning, like chewed paint rollers and plastic bags, I started finding larger droppings. Much larger. My first thought was maybe a cat had found its way in, but I couldn’t come up with a plausible scenario for how that could have happened. And really, these were too small for a cat.

We had a couple of armadillos in the yard last summer, and I dreaded the thought of them wintering in our shed. But since we hadn’t seen any other signs of them lately I decided that it was unlikely they had stuck around.

After I finished sweeping the worst off of the floor I started going through the shelves. I had a couple of old canvas drop cloths from when we did some interior painting a few years back, and I figured that if those hadn’t been chewed they were still likely to be moldy, so out they went. When I turned back to the shelves where they had been to see what was next, I noticed a tail dangling down the back.

It looked two-tone, dark near the base and lighter toward the tip, although that could have been the dim interior of the shed. It was thicker than a rat’s, so at least I had that going for me. But it was hanging straight down and not moving, which seemed like a bad sign. At least for the thing on the other end of the tail.

The shelves are open front and back and sit flush to the wall of the shed. The tail disappeared behind them, up at the very top where they get close to the underside of the roof. The light was bad, so I went back to the house to ask Theresa for a flashlight (I didn’t want to go inside myself, since I’d been sweeping up animal droppings). Flashlight in hand, I returned to the shed for the carcass tongs.

We have two indoor cats now, but our previous cat was indoor/outdoor. After he retired Jack enjoyed a nice sofa cushion, but when he was in his prime he preferred being outside except under the absolutely worst weather conditions. Even in heavy rain sometimes he would sit outside under the car or nap in the rafters of the neighbor’s detached garage, rather than watch me stare at a computer screen all day.

Of course, part of the attraction of being outside was all of those chipmunks and squirrels, along with the occasional bird. Not long after we started looking after Jack, I picked up a cheap pair of grill tongs and used a permanent pen to write “Carcass Only” on them. They worked much better than a shovel or broom & dustpan for cleaning up the remnants of one of his snacks, either in our yard or the neighbor’s garage. Jack has been gone about 10 years, but I hadn’t discarded the tongs, and they were the perfect tool for this job.

The top of the shelves were just high enough, and the roof of the shed just low enough, that I couldn’t easily see what was up there while standing flat footed. So, flashlight in one hand and tongs nearby, I mounted a stepladder to evaluate my situation.

Based on the style of tail, I anticipated a smell or other sign of decay from a dead opossum. I can be squeamish, and maggots would have been bad, but Jack trained me well and I would manage. There was none of that though, which in retrospect should have been a giveaway.

I swept the flashlight across the top of the shelf. And then again, to verify what I had seen. Not one dead opossum, but three. They appeared to be stretched straight out, as though sleeping. I assumed they had gotten into something in the shed that killed them — there are a couple of insecticides and some plant fertilizer and something had been chewing foam paint rollers, after all. Poor little guys.

To handle one opossum I could improvise and put it into the bag with all of the rest of the rubbish from the shed. For three, I decided I needed a better strategy, and went back to the house for more garbage bags. I planned to put all of them into one set of double bags, and then put that into the garbage can.

After some fumbling around with the plastic garbage bags while wearing leather gloves, I arranged things so I wouldn’t have to go up and down the ladder between applications of the tongs. Then, I headed back up the ladder to inspect again with the light. Boy, am I glad I didn’t start in with the tongs immediately.

This time, there were three erect heads turned my way, with their eyes directed back at me. The first one, the one with the dangling tail, twitched its ears and whiskers as it stared looked me in the eyes. So, not three dead opossums. Three live opossums.

Apparently while I had been banging around in the shed doing the initial cleaning, they had gone limp. “Playing opossum.” But the pause when I picked up and fumbled around with those extra garbage bags lasted just long enough for them to perk up and start checking their surroundings again. Right in time for me to return.

I’ve seen bigger opossums. Jack used to share his outdoor bowl with one. These appeared young. Not babies, maybe adolescents. There was no indication that any of them was a female either pregnant or with very young babies (the main sign of which, other than actual babies, would have been defensive aggression). Aside from watching me, and the occasional whisker or ear twitch, they didn’t move. I climbed down off of the ladder and went outside to consider my options.

In the end, I quietly placed everything I didn’t want to leave out in the rain back into the shed, propped a ladder up against their shelves, left the door open, and called it a day.

I’ll give them some time to move out on their own before looking for repellents. We don’t mind having them in the neighborhood, but this isn’t why we built the shed.