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A wild life
Naples couple provides habitat for both wild and domestic life
By Melanie Peeples
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Seven forty-five on a weekday morning at the Ardrey household in Naples and it’s hard to tell which animal is more interesting: the three-legged dog rummaging for beer in the fridge or the squirrel bungee-jumping on the front lawn.
The dog emerges from the fridge without a beer and looks over at Sharon Ardrey before belting out a bark.
"I know it’s early in the morning, Sock, but I still want a beer," Sharon says, a tall blonde with the comedic timing and looks of Bonnie Hunt.
Sock, with her head cocked to the side in evident display of the canine equivalent of a raised eyebrow, holds Sharon’s gaze, appearing to consider the social impropriety of beer before 8.
The dog looks back at the fridge before finally (social conventions be damned) she bites the braided rope tied to the refrigerator door and tugs it back open before diving again inside. This time, she grabs hold of a Bud with her mouth — without piercing the can — and shuts the fridge door. Tail wagging, she drops the can to the floor and centers it with her paws.
For a moment it looks like she’s going to open it herself. Then she gives it up to Sharon, who rewards her with a macadamia nut. (For the record, Sharon does not actually open or drink the beer this morning. She’s just showing off Sock’s skills.)
Meanwhile, a cat named Tom lingers on the lanai. It’s not until he stands up that it’s obvious that he, too, only has three legs.
"Yeah, we have a motto around here," Sharon’s husband, Barry, explains. "Lose a limb, we take you in."
It started with the cat. Sharon, an information technology director at a local Naples company, heard someone at work mention that he’d found a kitten in his garage over the weekend. It had managed to get a back leg caught in a bicycle between the handlebar and brake line and had apparently spent several days hanging upside down by one leg. When Sharon asked if the kitten was going to be OK, the coworker said he didn’t know — it was just a stray.
Sharon made the coworker go home and get the kitten and she adopted him on the spot. The leg couldn’t be saved, so it was removed. Since the cat was only 6 weeks old at the time, he healed just fine without any problems getting around.
Much later, when Sharon took Tom in for routine annual vaccinations, the vet said, "Oh, a three-legged cat! You should see the dog we have." Turns out the vet was taking care of a dog that had been hit by a truck and lost a leg. The family who’d brought the dog in didn’t want a dog with only three legs and was planning to euthanize him. Instead, the vet asked if he could have the dog.
Six surgeries later, the Ardreys took Sock home.
And then there’s Buster, a beautiful caramel-colored dog they found Dumpster-diving behind Target. "It was clearly beneath him," Barry says. "He’s such a prissy dog," the Collier County youth relations deputy sheriff says.
Whereas Sock is happy bounding into the Ardrey’s pool or a nearby pond, Buster prefers to keep his fur dry. "He’s a metrosexual," Barry says. Both he and Sharon have a sneaking suspicion that Buster would enjoy few things more than a day at a pet spa, getting a pedicure.
Course, they’d have to pay for four sets of nails since Buster actually has all of his original limbs. "Well, he spends a lot of time chewing on his leg, so we think maybe he’s trying to be like the others," Sharon cracks.
With so much animal life indoors, it’s amazing the Ardreys can tear themselves away. But outside, they provide enough landscaping, food, water and places for animals to raise young that the National Wildlife Federation has declared their land a Backyard Wildlife Habitat site.
Sitting on a bench just outside the front door, Sharon settles in for the morning parade with a "Birds of Florida" book in her lap in case she spots any new visitors. Behind the bench is a fountain and small pond because she heard birds like the sound of water.
First come the grackles, large blackbirds that descend on the Aredrey’s yard and feeders eating until as long as the flock desires. Bits of black with little yellow eyes flit all over the yard while a flock of doves begins gathering on the neighbor’s roof.
Only when the grackles decide to move on do the doves swoop down for their turn. They mostly clean up the fallen seeds the grackles have spilled and things on the lawn get a little quieter. A bluejay shows up and lands in an oak. Sharon spies a mockingbird across the street and begins to tick off the list of other birds she’s seen in her yard: blue-gray gnat catchers, cardinals, hawks, egrets, ducks and bald eagles.
It’s a far cry from what she found just after the house was built eight years ago. "When we moved in here there were no animals," she says. It was a new neighborhood and Sharon knew the wildlife must have moved elsewhere during construction.
"Our plan was to make it lush enough for them to come back," she says. It’s the reason they chose to plant oak trees, because they offer more cover and limbs for birds to nest and raise young. In fact, when Sharon and Barry were choosing which house in this neighborhood to buy, they chose this one because there were two pines in the backyard. They’re the only trees around tall enough for hawks and eagles, who like to light in high places, scoping the ground for snacks.
"When we went to a landscaper we asked what would attract birds and butterflies," Sharon says.
Then, she spies something moving down the street. "Here comes the squirrel!" she says, leaning forward in the bench. There aren’t many squirrels in her neighborhood — certainly not enough to be a nuisance — and Sharon thinks this is the same one sees most days.
"He normally comes from that direction," she says, nodding up the street, as if he’s just making his usual morning rounds.
He heads straight for the oak tree where Sharon has hung a large, tube-shaped clump of corn and sunflower seeds. The corn and seeds are attached to a bungee cord that fastens to a limb.
The squirrel looks around before leaping onto the trunk. He eyes the food, which is hanging just about a foot from the trunk. The squirrel circles the tree trunk and comes back to the spot as if he’s calculating how far he needs to jump. And then he jumps and grabs hold of the corn and sunflower as it dips down toward the ground and bounces back up.
It’s impossible to stifle a laugh and the little guy holds on packing seeds and corn in his mouth before scampering back up the tree to leisurely enjoy his bounty.
On his second trip he hits the corn/sunflower clump at an angle and instead of the bungee cord going down, it spins wildly, like a top. He holds on for around five revolutions before dropping to the ground, where he stands for a just a second to get his bearings before rushing back up the tree.
"It’s a little amusement park for them," Sharon laughs. "How can you not start the day with a smile?"
The amazing thing is, though the squirrel does his performance almost every day, it’s lost on anyone who doesn’t take the time to sit down and wait for it. Sharon learned that from her father, who loved to watch birds. She’d never even had a bird feeder before, but when he died 10 years ago she bought one and just kept going. "I think it passed from him to me," she says.
She added other feeders and then birdbaths. Starting thinking about what kind of ground cover would offer wild animals a place to raise young. Before she knew it she had qualified as a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat site.
Barry mounted the plaque outside and the Ardreys feel like they’re helping educate anyone who sees it, from the neighborhood kids to the Pizza delivery guy.
"More people can do this," Sharon says. "We don’t have to just develop and kick things out," she continues. "Animals live here, too, and we have to take care of them."
Which isn’t that different from her and Barry’s philosophy regarding the creatures back inside the house. The ones with their noses pressed to the windows, silently waiting for the Ardreys to come back inside and turn their attention to bigger critters.
Maybe there’ll be more beer. It is after 8, now.
© 2006 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.