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The animals and us

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It was good to hear the bullfrog again.

In New York City, the natural world intrudes only occasionally—strategic patches of grass and trees, the tweeting of birds before the days gets too noisy and squirrels that scurry about with "you-talkin'-to-me?" urban bravura. Last year, when I moved to Chapel Hill with my wife and twin 4-year-old boys after two decades in the city, I had no illusions that I was relocating to some sort of nature preserve. But I never expected to meet so many animals.

Early last spring, I came upon a copperhead snake languishing in the early morning sunshine next to a dented Coke can, a few feet from the space beneath our house's deck, where we store lawn equipment. Knowing little about snakes, I did what any Northerner completely out of his element would do: I whipped out my iPhone, took a few snaps, then went inside and Googled "copperhead." Suspicions confirmed, I went out on the deck, established that the serpent had not moved (nor even blinked, from the looks of it), hoisted a large, empty ceramic planting pot over my head and dropped it so it landed squarely on top of the creature. It simply rolled away. A concentrated tube of unmitigated muscle, the snake waited a beat, as though to register its abject annoyance at my feeble attempt on its life, and slid off back under the house. I imagine it still lives there, plotting its revenge.

As months passed, the cast of characters in the yard came to include the bunny we saw every day in the same spot, nibbling away at something as he watched us, not at all skittish. The boys named him Bunny Bun Bun. The large box turtle, who acquired the name Turtle Bun Bun despite its thick, sturdy back legs, strode haughtily across our front walk and disappeared underneath the shrubbery. A family of five deer traipsed through the yard at dusk. I realize that they're a nuisance to many, but for these recent refugees from the Lower East Side, they're majestic, almost otherworldly beings. Cardinals, I learned, are the state bird. These regal fliers nest in the trees that surround our house, and as they zoom and flit about in their impossibly red and iridescent plumage, they do seem to support the notion of intelligent design.

And then there are the chickens. A recent piece in the Sunday New York Times confirmed what I had already discovered: The next wave of the locavore movement is the advent of suburban poultry. These days, I can look out my window and see my neighbors' dozen or so egg-laying chickens freely ranging across our yard in a twitchy parade of whites and browns.

At night, the rich baritone of the local bullfrog tells me to relax. The day is done, he seems to say. Prepare the morning's coffee and do your nightly ablutions. Try not to worry about the poisonous snake under your house.

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