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June 12, 1988|WILLIAM JORDAN

SHE CAME HOME as usual that evening and walked up the steep, rustic steps to her home in the canyon, carefully avoiding Oscar, a five-inch European garden slug ( Limax maximus ) on the seventh step from the gate.

He (actually he/she because slugs are hermaphroditic, each possessing male and female gonads; the woman, a biologist by training, thought of him as Oscar/Oscarina, but that is another story) seemed to feel that the seventh step was part of his territory. He could usually be found in the slow, laborious process of oozing across the step to the other side of the hillside garden when the woman returned from work.

Reaching the house, she was greeted by Betty, her little dachshund. Instead of taking Betty for a walk as she normally did, she let the dachshund out into the garden while she prepared supper. Chopping onions and peppers, she drifted off into her thoughts. Vaguely she heard Betty barking somewhere in the garden.

Sometime later, she realized Betty was no longer barking. She opened the window and called. Silence . . . or possibly a faint noise that sounded like "mrph." Suddenly frightened, the woman ran out to the steps and saw Betty in the dim light down near the seventh step. The little dog was prancing about but strangely silent. The woman rushed to the site. Horrified, she found herself staring at a weird apparition: Betty with a muzzle ending in a huge, bristling ball of grass and leaves.

Looking down, the woman saw Oscar, or what had once looked like Oscar. The magnificent 8-inch masterpiece of muscle and mucus was now a meager three inches of atrophied insignificance. He lay--barely twitching--in a pool of goo.

In a sudden revelation, the woman realized what had happened. Betty had made the mistake of attacking Oscar, mainly to play, and Oscar had defended himself the only way a slug can--by emitting mucus. The mucous then hardened.

One large box of tissue later, the woman had managed to peel most of Oscar's solidified essence off Betty's muzzle. And when Betty was again able to open her mouth and bark, both woman and dog realized that there is nothing sluggardly about living in a world with slugs.

European garden slugs, discovered in 1890 in San Diego, live in well-watered gardens and have a voracious appetite for tender green shoots and garden vegetables.

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