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Critters in Cars

We humans have intruded immeasurably on the world of animals, so I guess it’s fair enough that they intrude on ours. I’ll tell you a few stories about what happens when animals get into our cars.

In our area, mice are probably the worst offenders. I don’t know how they do it, but they can find their way through the tiniest openings. They can make nests anywhere in a car, using insulation under the hood, seat upholstery, headlining, or anything they can shred. One of their favorite nesting places is in the heating system.

In the fall of 1981, when I was dating Karen, I had been doing a lot of work on a little Opel station wagon that had been sitting outdoors for quite a while. One evening I picked her up in this car to take her out. The air began to get chilly, so I turned on the heater. Big mistake. Mice had built a nest on top of the heater core. Mice, in case you didn’t know, use their nests as bathrooms. The Opel filled with a warm eye-watering, throat-constricting stench. We rolled the windows down, but the damage was done: our hair, our clothes – everything – reeked. The amazing thing is that she married me anyway.

Mice have peculiar tastes. They like the plastic insulation on wiring, and will occasionally chew right through wires, causing mysterious electrical malfunctions. One of our customers lost the use of his speedometer and antilock brakes because mice chewed through a module ground wire. We found and fixed it, and he now puts mothballs and dryer anti-static sheets under his hood: so far, so good. Nylon fuel lines are another of their favorite treats. It wakes you up in a hurry when you start your car in the morning, or try to, suddenly smell gasoline, and see it spewing out from underneath.

Mice aren’t the only critters who crawl into cars. I used to employ a city boy and a country boy. The city boy was Cary Gleason, who now owns a successful car service shop in Arizona; the country boy was Dan Stringfellow, from up around Boyertown somewhere. One day we needed a part for an old Saab 99, so I sent Cary out into the parts-car department to harvest the part. He came rushing in, white-faced, saying, “There’s a snake behind the heater box!” “Let me see,” said Dan. Sure enough, there was a skinny tapered something sticking out. “That’s no snake,” Dan said, and he grabbed it and pulled out a frightened little opossum by the tail. It was showing its teeth and trying to look ferocious, but it wasn’t very impressive hanging by its tail. We let it go in the weeds.

Another time I had a 1956 Buick rusting away out there, and one of my customers said he wanted to restore it. “Jim,” I told him, “there’s not a whole lot left of that Buick. It’s pretty rusty.” Well, he wanted to look at it anyway, so out we went. I lifted the hood, and there on top of the air cleaner, like a grim leftover banquet on a serving platter, was a possum that had been dead for a good long while, grinning at us. So much for that restoration idea.

Wasps are another hazard. In the summer, paper wasps build nests where you least expect them: behind the glass in outside mirrors, under the gas cap lid, under the hood, between the doors – all sorts of nooks and crannies that you never thought about. You’d better have a can of wasp spray and approach with caution.

The last story I’ll tell is about the kittens abandoned by an irresponsible mother in a windowless parts car. The first one was so young its eyes hadn’t opened; I found it mewing piteously. Karen brought it home, fed it with an eyedropper, and nursed it to health. Two weeks later, two more came marching jauntily out from under a van. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. We lost the first one to a neighbor’s Rottweiler, but the other two lived with us for over fifteen years.

Generally, cars that are in steady use stay free of unwanted guests, although mice can invade overnight. Cars that sit around are the ones that become critter hotels. We’ve seen a lot of strange things, but there’s always something new around the corner. Happy springtime!
Cliff Story

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