Thursday, March 14, 2013

In The Company of Critters


Photo from Microsoft Clip Art
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, we had our share of wildlife sightings. Squirrels scolding us from tree branches were plentiful as were the rabbits hopping through the yard. Cute chipmunks, which my father was forever trying to exterminate, ran freely in the wood piles. Occasionally in the woods that used to be at the top of the street, we’d see graceful deer. There were probably other animals around--skunk, woodchucks--but I don’t remember seeing them very often in our domesticated neighborhood.

I always wanted to live in the mountains, so when the opportunity came up for my husband and I to move to western Colorado, we were thrilled. Being a citified gal, it never occurred to me to think about what beasts might be lurking in our less tamed wilderness. We were fortunate just shortly after moving, to rent the quintessential mountain home. It was log with thick beamed ceilings, hand made stained glass windows and a rustic balcony. A gurgling stream with a quaint covered bridge ran behind the house, followed by acres of fields dotted with grazing cattle, all against a backdrop of mountains. How serene. How bucolic. And yet…

One of the first warnings our landlords gave us was to watch for our dog with the coyotes. I didn’t understand. “Well, he explained, they like to call your dogs out in the evening, tricking them into thinking they are part of the pack, just playing. Then, when they have ‘em in the field, they’ll surround your dog and attack him.” I gulped. Evidently the Wile E. Coyote name was well-deserved but not near as cute.

Keeping his cautions in mind, I began to watch for the canine-like animals. In the early morning hours, they wandered to the creek behind the house for a morning drink. In spring, the high-pitched yips of pups learning to imitate their elders would wake us up. If we were lucky, we'd catch a glimpse of their scrawny, still adolescent bodies. How did a critter start out so cute and end up so menacing? 

Eventually, we were able to identify a few of the coyotes. One was easily recognized by his three-legged appearance. He’d lost a leg at some point in his life-journey. Maybe he'd got caught in a trap. It wasn’t unusual for the ranchers to set them. I hated to think about it—the spring-loaded claws seemed so cruel, but I knew it was a reality in many ranching communities. We nicknamed this hearty fellow, Tripod. Many mornings we’d stare out the window until we saw him. “Here comes Tripod,” one of us would call out.

My first encounter with a coyote in the wild happened while hiking with my husband. We had moved from the log house and into our new home. It backs up against undeveloped acreage managed by the Bureau of Land Management providing open wilderness as far as you can see. On this particular hike, we trekked along a trail following a creek with our newly acquired Weimaraner, Blue. We ventured out as far as the trail would take us, enjoying the water and marveling at the rock formations. Being able to go no farther without bushwhacking our way through low brush, we decided to head back home. We crossed through an open area and heard the familiar yip and howl of a coyote. Quickly glancing up, we scanned the landscape until we recognized the tawny and lean dog-like animal halfway up the hillside watching us. 

We made sure Blue stayed near us and kept a wary eye on the critter. Not only did the coyote keep up its howls, he began to follow us, slowly easing down the hill as he traveled, getting nearer and nearer. My husband urged the dog and I ahead of him and grabbed a couple big rocks, muttering that next time he’d be sure to bring his gun along. I picked up a couple large rocks too. Blue looked up curiously from time-to-time to see what was making all that unnecessary noise, but he didn’t seem too eager to join the coyote or too disturbed by him either. We kept walking, nervously eyeing the bold animal. We must have finally reached a point where he lost interest or felt we were no longer encroaching on his territory. To our relief, he quit trailing us and turned back around.

When I think about mountain life and the people I know in this small community, I don’t usually stop to think about the critters who also live among us. But when I do--when I meet a bear or fox or coyote along a trail--I try to keep in mind and respectfully remember, this is their home too.




21 comments:

  1. Absolutely. They are all to be respected, and there is nothing wrong with caution in these matters. We too have coyotes. Our neighbor has seen the pack, around 15 animals, and we sometimes hear them at night as they howl and yip. Our dog always barks his warnings. We are grateful that he doesn't confront them. I've only seen a coyote once. When we first moved here almost 2 years ago, I watched as one loped across the road, stopped in a cornfield, and stared back at me. It was quite an experience.

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    1. I actually did an article for "Dog World" a couple months ago about hiking in the wilderness with your dog. I was able to interview a wildlife ranger and received very good advice from him about safety. One thing he mentioned was about how common-place coyote sightings are getting even in urban and suburban areas. He claims the real issue is how people try to accommodate the animals-- avoiding them, or watching in awe, sometimes even foolishly feeding them. He says they've learned boldness and if everyone who encounters a coyote would yell or throw rocks, they would learn to avoid people instead of feeling emboldened to approach them, resulting too often in killed domestic dogs and the coyotes having to be destroyed.

      On another note, I want to thank you for always stopping by, reading and commenting-- I really appreciate it.

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  2. Did you take that last picture? it's beautiful. I wish all people would be as considerate as you and remember to be respectful with wildlife.

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    1. I did take it-- from my back deck. I messed with it a bit to bring out the natural images on the moon-- darkened the top part a bit. I feel fortunate to have so many different species of animals in my "back yard" and have learned to both respect their right to exist in our wilderness and also their wildness. Bears and mountain lions are not to be engaged with! How are you feeling, Al?

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    2. Well congratulations! That's one magic looking moon. Good thing you don't mess with bears and lions (dragons are not to be messed with either, hahaha). Feeling better today, thanks for asking. Although dragon rear is a bit sore with all those shots, you know. Considering wearing armor next time doctor visits.

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  3. I think I would have been more than moderately frightened. It's easy to forget yourself while enjoying the wilderness, but that forgetfulness can be harmful. Caution amongst the critters is always key...

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    1. Agreed-- and being wise. My critter encounters make for interesting posts and a learning experience for me. All part of living in this area.

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  4. Sounds like a terrific place to live. We'll be visiting Colorado this summer. I can't wait to see it.

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    1. Susan-- where will you be visiting?

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  5. Happy to hear you are cautious yet able to enjoy nature. Most "city" folk don't understand these aren't zoo animals, or domesticated, and that we, as humans, are not the top of the food chain. It was an encounter with nature at a young age that put me on the path to studying biology :)

    Wonderful blog, as usual :)

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    1. I've definitely had a lot to learn, especially when I go with the pooch. Of course, I've also felt threatened by domesticated cows grazing open range-- they're not to be messed with either!

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  6. When I lived in Alaska we had the same problem with the wolves and a neighbor lost her Yorkie that way. City folk can be pretty naive -- I wasn't afraid of the grizzlies, because I'd never seen one, and then I did -- amazing animals, but most wise to be fearful and cautious.

    Really enjoyed your tale!

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    1. Hi Yolanda-- Losing animals in the suburbs in Denver is becoming an issue. I just read how a coyote was put down in Boulder Co because it was going after people. Obviously, that's not OK, but there is a boldness with these animals that comes from both human tolerance and human encroachment on their territory. Fortunately, where I live we mostly still have enough room to share with them all. I've seen bear and mountain lion too-- but that's for another post ;)

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  7. Beautiful post! I always love hearing about other's interaction with local wild life, especially when they respect that wildlife.
    Thanks for painting such a wonderful picture for me this morning!

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    1. Hi Chris-- appreciate you taking time to come by. :)

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  8. Yikes! Hi, Julie. *waves* I live in a small town, but feel as if I'm a city slicker - one who likes his trees surrounded by cement. :) Having all that room sounds wonderful, but I don't do very well with critters. I think I'll stay where I'm at.
    Have a great week.

    -Jimmy
    http://jamesgarciajr.blogspot.com/

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    1. Hi James,

      I live in a neighborhood where each house sits on a half to three acre lots surrounded by open, protected land as far as the eye can see. I'm amazed by how little wildlife actually makes its way into the neighborhood. My guess would be too many dogs to make it comfortable for them. Although I wish someone would tell the deer who munched down my garden last year this news.... ;)

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. What a great story! Coming from a big metropolis like Mexico city, I live in constant wonderment of the beauty that my Ct neighborhood allows me. I live in a wooded area and deer and other cute critters are common. We still haven't gotten used to them and we get very excited by their sights. I simply can't imagine being followed by a coyote. though I can think of no better place to raise a family than the country, I don't think I could sleep with coyotes howling outside my window. You're quite brave!

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    1. Fortunately, they howl from afar now and the encounters are rare. After the article and interview I did with the Wildlife Rangers (see comments above) I now hike with pepper spray designed for wildlife. It's very effective. ;)

      And I agree, raising kids where I live is so very wonderful. Thanks for stopping by, commenting and hanging around Georgina!

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  10. Brings back memories of living out there and hearing the howling off in the distance. I love experiencing nature from a safe distance!! Enjoyed being taken back in time... Great story!

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    1. I don't hear the howling as much these days-- except the sled dogs. But I know they're still out there! The coyote that followed us was along Antelope Creek, Deb.

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