PROWLERS IN THE FOOTHILLS

 

Copyright 1998, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)

 

The late-night scream startled me bolt upright. It was outdoors, a long screech with strangled howling. Some animal eaten alive by a coyote, I thought. Coyotes are everywhere in these foothills.

I pulled on shoes, grabbed my cudgel of a flashlight, and stumbled out for a look-see. Across the street I found the culprits up a neighbor's front-yard tree. Raccoons. Two of them, eyes shining in my light, staring, sniffing the air. Slowly they spiraled down the trunk and waddled off into the night. Had they been fighting? No, Jim, think again. Raccoons must make babies, too.

Until I removed their ladder - a Chinese elm near the chimney - raccoons nested on my roof. They're not too shy to beg and will walk right up to the back door seeking entry. I'm told they're quite destructive, so I keep things locked up.

For a metropolis, Southern California has a lot of critters scurrying about in the suburbs. With brushy hills as my backdrop, I've seen just about all of them.

Skunks forage nearby at night; driving home I might catch a whiff of them. They don't use crosswalks, so sometimes the odor issues from their squished bodies on the road. A friend's dog - and dogs never learn - chased one late one night, and we spent 45 minutes cleaning her squirted face with tomato juice and water. On evening walks I've crossed their paths, and I give them a wide berth as they shuffle away, their proud little black-and-white tails jutting up like ensigns.

Possums live in crawl spaces under houses, but they're fairly well-behaved. Deer wander down to dine on the flowers, which leads to shrub nets and deer repellant and a lot of angry cursing about denuded rose bushes. Still, catching them in the headlights - bounding along, leaping off into the bushes - thrills the heart, and the lost petals seem a small price.

Coyotes roam these hills, and - no matter how often you've heard them - their midnight howls raise the hairs on your neck. Three can crank up a barking, yipping, yowling chorus that sounds like twenty. They're daring: at night they cruise the streets - hidden behind our casual inference that they're some sort of mutt - and search for garbage cans and pussy cats. A lot of felines have been snatched away by them, dogs have been carved up, and now and then a mom must chase them away when they ogle her toddler. They're hard to track, smart, and resourceful, so no matter what we do there are always plenty of them.


Next door once lived a Doberman whose owner found it snarling and barking at a coyote just outside the cyclone fence. The coyote - sure of itself - stood pat, as if baiting the dog. The owner noticed, in the distance, an entire pack of coyotes patiently waiting. Apparently they wanted to lure the dog over the fence, then overwhelm it.

Some pets have fought back. Coyotes flirt with dogs, coyly leading them away, sometimes to their doom. My dog once followed a coyote as it casually loped off. Panicked, I shouted for him to return, but they both disappeared into the hills. Hours later my dog showed up at the front door, tail wagging, covered with prickers but otherwise okay. He was famous for fighting dogs twice his size; perhaps that explained his survival that day. Down the street lived a German shepherd who would sit at the end of its driveway, watching the nearby meadow. I walked past one day and greeted him, but he ignored me. Hmph! Then I saw he was staring intently past me at a coyote that had shown itself at the edge of the trees. The shepherd rose and barked once. The coyote bolted into the brush. I mentioned the incident to the owner, and she said, "Oh, he was raised on Catalina Island. Hunted coyotes there. Caught a coyote in our backyard recently, killed it, left it on the back porch." Oh. It seems word gets around in the coyote world.

One night, walking, I spied a pair of coyotes in a field. I stopped and watched; one fled, the other lay down and stared at me. I called softly to it, baby-talk, and it rolled over, looked at me, scratched - calm, almost playful. Was it friendly, or merely waiting for me to chase it back to its pack, where I'd end up a big, juicy dinner? It's almost unheard of for a grown human to be attacked by coyotes. Still...

Now and then a rattlesnake slithers into the yard. If it decides to stay, we call the animal-control department, and they come out and remove it. One summer we found such a squatter. It had just bitten a young squirrel and was slowly circling the stunned prey on the brick stair landing out front. While waiting for the city truck to arrive, I watched quietly as the snake slowly devoured the squirrel. It took twenty minutes, one yawning gulp at a time, to swallow all six inches of the helpless mammal, until all that remained was a large lump in the snake. Just then the guy with the special snake-catching pole arrived. Quickly he looped the snake's neck with the pole's noose and lifted. The snake buzzed angrily as the officer dumped it into a bucket with a hinged lid and carried it back to the truck. I asked him what would become of the snake. "The chloroform in the bucket will kill it." What about returning it to the wild? "It'd wander back, and maybe we get sued. Besides, there are plenty of snakes." That's true; I've seen my share. Still, it seemed a waste of a squirrel.

Bears are encroaching from the north, their numbers swelling in recent years. I've not seen one around here yet. A mountain lion was reported about a mile from here, on the other side of the hills. (I've decided to bring a golf club from now on when I hike there.) Once, out the breakfast window, I saw some sort of bobcat walk past along the little cliff above the backyard. Fugitive from a zoo? Someone's stray pet? It didn't quite fit the pictures in the Field Guide to the Mammals, but it was feline, and different.

Ours is a strange neighborhood: fancy cars, beautiful houses, automated trash collection, burglar alarms - and bobcats. I wouldn't trade it for the world. In a way it is the world, the ancient, ever-present natural world we forget when we live in the cities.

Los Angeles lies between a vast ocean and a huge expanse of wilderness. Animals have, for eons, dwelt in those hills and mountains and deserts. They haven't gone away just because we built our homes in their land. They're still there, foraging, hunting. For all our pretentions to civilization, many of us urbanites live closer than we know to wildness.

 

(And don't forget the birds: check out GREAT BLUE HORNED RED-TAILED RUBY-THROATED RARE WHITE SKY SHOW by Jim Hull)


 

If you find any part of this work quoted without credit to the author, please let him know! Thank you. jimhull@jimhull.com

 

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And Readers Reply:

"I enjoyed it. Here [Park City, UT] you can add moose . . and a bobcat was just seen in the meadow next to our houses . . animal control had never seen one here before. We have elk on the [nearby] farm property, too. Mother Nature is still in control." George Hull, airline pilot

 

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