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Animal Intuition

Newspaper columnist Joan Morris has the answers to all your pet and wildlife questions.


Joan Morris and her Chihuahua, Bailey, in a community garden in Walnut Creek.

Mitch Tobias

After five years of writing the highly popular “Animal Life” column for the Home Times and the Mercury News, Joan Morris reflects on what has turned out to be a dream job for her. “It’s beyond fun,” says the soft-spoken gardening and wildlife enthusiast. “It’s the most legal fun anybody could have.”

In her column, Morris answers the public’s pet and wildlife questions, which can range from the commonplace—the best ways to get rid of pesky rodents, for example—to the bizarre. “I got a letter from a woman who was very upset that she had a [huge, white] rat in her backyard,” says Morris. “I told her that this giant rat was actually an opossum. She said, ‘You’re kidding me. I thought opossums lived in the jungle.’ ”

Reactions like these always amuse Morris—many people know very little about the wildlife around them, she says—but she never pokes fun at her readers’ ignorance. After all, she was once a lot like them. “I’d never seen a live raccoon until I moved to the suburbs,” she explains. “I think it’s fun to educate people about this jungle that’s in their backyards.”

Morris has come a long way from her first days working for a small newspaper in New Mexico called Artesia Daily Press back in 1978. As the only reporter on staff, Morris’ days were a hectic mix of city news, culture, and crime. She even slept with a police scanner next to her bed and trained herself to wake up when the dispatcher called a 10-7—a dead body—or a 187—a homicide. 

Fortunately, her current job is less grisly, but things can get heated at times—especially when the topic shifts to cats. “I’ve been called a cat Nazi,” recounts Morris, who is adamant that cats be kept indoors at all times. Still, she welcomes the passion people bring to discussions about local wildlife. “They get emotional,” she says. “I appreciate that because it means they care. I just try to enlighten them.” , .

3 Pet and Wildlife Myths

Cats are happiest living outdoors. “While some cats are accustomed to living outdoors, they likely aren’t that happy,” says Morris. Plus, they are at risk of injury or death by predators and vehicles. For most cats, a scratching post and a catnip mouse are more than enough to keep them entertained.

It’s OK to feed ducks bread crumbs. “There is nothing in bread that is nutritious for ducks and geese, but they’ll eat it anyway,” says Morris. “Sort of like us and a large order of fries.”

The best way to deal with pests is to kill them. “You know how the definition of a weed is just a plant growing where it isn’t wanted? The same pertains to some creatures,” says Morris. Instead of laying out poison or traps to kill unwanted wildlife—such as mice, ants, and rats—Morris suggests taking action to seal your home and keep the outdoors, well, outdoors. “That way, we can both live in harmony.

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