Author Archives: Jennifer Molidor

Conservation Disaster: Coyote Killing Contests in Wolf Country

This weekend, a coyote killing contest — that is, a contest to see which human can kill the most coyotes — will be held on public lands in Lake County, Oregon — wilderness areas (national forest and BLM land) that the public pays for, including those people who happen to love wilderness and wildlife. Over a bloodbath of a weekend, hunters compete to kill as many coyotes as they can. Raise your hand if that sounds like sensible conservation. But wait, it gets better.

Why?

1). Biology. Let’s pretend for a moment that coyote populations are a problem. Killing mass amounts of coyotes in one fell swoop results in female coyotes naturally, biologically, producing more pups and more frequently. It is a proven fact that our current methods of killing coyotes in contests and using Wildlife Services results in, wait for it.. MORE COYOTES. Furthermore, coyotes – as a keystone species – are fundamental to their ecosystems (as are wolves). Coyotes control overpopulation of other wildlife like rodents, rabbits, deer and geese. These songdogs (as traditionally known by natives) also have benefit bird populations by preying on small mammals who prey on birds or eggs.

2). Populations. Again, let’s pretend for a moment that coyote populations are a problem. Slaughtering a region’s worth of coyotes has proven to result in one thing, MORE COYOTESAnd not just because they reproduce more, but because new coyotes move in from neighboring territories.

3). Wolves. Again, allowing ourselves to pretend that coyote populations are a problem, let’s understand that wolves — who are endangered — are in this same wild territory. Hunters have historically used the “I thought it was a coyote” excuse to illegally poach wolves. Hunters have used this excuse even though 35lb dog-sized coyotes are distinguishable from 120lb wolves, from a distance. A loophole known as the McKittrick policy has allowed poachers to get off scot-free from violating the federal Endangered Species Act when they slaughter wolves. As if the responsibility for knowing which animal is which doesn’t reside with the human pointing a gun at it. This disastrous loophole is being challenged and will continue to be in courts of law by brave conservationists. And that brings us to:

4). The Law.

“This contest is unethical, cruel and risks violating federal law,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Wolves are fully federally protected throughout the entirety of Lake County, so federal wildlife- and land-management officials have a duty to do everything in their power to protect them.”

How can it be legal to allow irresponsible killers to recklessly slaughter animals who appear very similar to federally protected animals who live in that region, and to kill them in a manner that is proven, over and over not to work at controlling their population?

5). Effective, Efficient, Ecological, Humane Predator Control Exists Already. Okay, finally we’ve made it to this point.Let’s stop pretending for a moment that coyote populations are a problem. Let’s admit that human populations are the problem. Humans have moved into coyote territory and built communities, ranches, and other forms of urban development. As we eradicated the humans living on the land (natives) in the past, we still continue to think that exterminating any form of wildlife that we perceive as impacting our development is our right, is effective, is moral, is sound practice.

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But nonlethal predator control – that is protecting human populations, livestock, and communities from wildlife – is best done by coexisting with wildlife. It has proven to be more effective at controlling population size (for the reasons stated above, coyote populations only reproduce exponentially when their individual members are killed), more economically efficient (particularly in the reduction of public funds allocated to ineffective wildlife ‘management’), more ethical (by coexisting – and ethical hunting  by the way is hunting that is subsistence hunting, that is cautious, careful, humane, takes only what will be eaten and respects and values the integrity of the animal: coyote killing contests as a race to kill as many animals as possible is clearly inhumane and reprehensible for its careless treatment of wildlife) and clearly safer for other wildlife (and humans).

Nonlethal predator control works. Using at least two methods: fences, cleaning up bone sites, concentrating livestock into certain areas, and using deterrents like guard dogs, guard llamas, riders, sound monitors, and visual deterrents like flashing lights and flagry, has proven to be more effective, ethical, and cost efficient than any other method of predator control.

So why wouldn’t these methods be used? Some ranchers don’t know about them. That’s why it is important to spread the word and share resources as much as possible. But other situations are not because of a lack of knowledge, but something else… including seedy corrupt ol’ boy links between the livestock industry, local politicians and Wildlife Services.

But what about killing contests? Last year, California banned killing contests for prizes, leading the way as that state often does in wildlife protections. Here’s the thing about coyote killing contests — I think the people who participate in them don’t really care if it works. They just like killing. Think about that.

They just like killing.

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Many hunters, who enjoy the sport of hunting and their traditions, rituals, and accomplishments (like feeding their families, being outdoors, the mental and physical challenge, reawakening their instincts) find killing contests totally reprehensible.

So this isn’t about people who enjoy hunting, who may respect the animals they hunt. This is about people who enjoy the act of killing – not for food and subsistence. They just like killing. I know people who participate in these contests, and they aren’t hunters, they’re psychotic. They hate coyotes for being coyotes. They like killing.

And they really like killing coyotes, who are unfairly demonized with a voracity that is hard to understand. In states like Oregon and California, coyotes can be killed with almost no legal limit. No bag limit, no hunting/killing season, no concern with the method of killing, and no concern with the effect on ecosystems of the local populations of coyotes OR the habitats and ecosystems who literally depend on coyotes to thrive.

We need predators. Nature needs predators – and we need nature, not just aesthetically, but for our very survival. The real conflict is threefold a) some people don’t understand that killing contests don’t work b) some people don’t care and just like killing c) some people believe they have a greater right to their pleasure than others do to life and to enjoying wildlife: that is to say, some people feel that they should kill the animals (like coyotes and wolves) who are killing the animals (like deer) that the hunters want to kill or the animals (like cattle and sheep) that ranchers want to sell us as food. This system is broken.

When did we stop valuing the ability of the wild to regulate itself?

I was so proud of one of my best friends last year when she used the legal system to shut down a killing contest in Harney County, Oregon. And I’m proud of the work we do at the Center for Biological Diversity to take on Wildlife Services, a whole other can of worms when it comes to killing coyotes and endangering wolves (ask your Board of Supervisors if your public dollars are going to employ this rogue agency — whose motto is “shoot, shovel and shut up” — and you’ll likely be horrified to find out that you are paying for inhumane slaughter of wildlife when better methods exist). But we need to do more.

We need:

  • greater protections for coyotes – (read, any protections for coyotes)
  • a federal or state by state ban on predator killing contests.
  • federal agencies to truly protect animals entrusted to their care, as it is these agencies who are allowing killing contests on federal/public lands.
  • an information campaign, like the work Project Coyote and so many others are doing, to cross the aisle and talk to ranchers who want to do the right thing by implementing nonlethal methods and finding community support to help them.
  • to close the McKittrick loophole down, once and for all.

Most of all, we need to learn to coexist with the wild.

The Heart of Freedom – Cecil the Lion

All around the world, people are outraged by the trophy killing of Cecil the lion, and not simply because he suffered needlessly for days, or because lions are charismatic animals, or even because a rich white American killed a much-loved member of a national park halfway around the world in the African nation of Zimbabwe. Why has Cecil reached our hearts when so many other animals are poached (and, animal advocates remind us, so many other animals suffer every day)? Why is everyone – from animal advocates to hunters to talk show hosts to the New York Times and the Guardian – so horrified by this brutal killing? The answer lies in freedom.

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Cecil’s right to life and his right to be undisturbed were violated. But we were also violated in a key way. Cecil, a 13-year old lion, lived safe in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe under legal protection. But he was unfairly lured out of his refuge, tricked by poachers who tied a dead animal carcass to the back of a truck. Father to many cubs (who will likely now die), Cecil was an easy target while eating. Minnesota dentist and trophy-hunter Walter James Palmer then shot Cecil with an arrow. But Cecil suffered for 40 hours before he was tracked down, killed with a rifle, beheaded, and skinned. His body was left to rot in the sun.

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Cecil’s head—with its distinctive (and incriminating for the trophy-killer) black mane is missing, as is the now notorious Walter Palmer. Cecil wore a GPS tracking collar, as part of an Oxford University research project. Ironically, Oxford’s study challenges the ridiculous notion that killing animals incentivizes the public to conserve them (and conserve them for more killing, i.e. “hunting”). So it is simply beyond reason to believe Palmer didn’t notice that collar when he shot Cecil, twice, once using a crossbow scope and 40 hours later using a rifle scope, or when Palmer later skinned and decapitated the lion. Palmer is a marksman with at least 43 large game animals on his killing resume (according to the Safari Club International, who has now revoked Palmer’s membership), including a rhino, a lion previous to Cecil, a cougar, a leopard, a polar bear, and an illegally killed black bear (for which he Palmer was convicted). Damage to Cecil’s collar suggests someone tried to destroy and hide the evidence of yet another of his crimes.

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And so, lions lost a key individual of a highly threatened species (only 20,000 wild lions remain). Members of the nation of Zimbabwe lost a natural tourist attraction, and frankly an animal much loved by locals. And Oxford University lost a key subject in its long-standing research of lions. But that still doesn’t explain why the rest of us feel such grief and betrayal at this treacherous act. Every time someone kills an animal for fun, every time someone breaks poaching and national park laws, every time a human betrays and undercuts our wildlife and wilderness laws, we all lose a bit more of our freedom.

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Our right to freedom, and to a place in the world where legally protected wilderness and wildlife remain safe, was also desecrated by Palmer’s cruel greed. There is no consent—the consent characteristic of a democratic society—in the violation of anti-poaching laws, and it is not just Cecil’s lack of consent, but ours too. We are disgraced by transgression of moral law, by the loss of sanctuary, and by the bloodlust of leaving a privileged human community with the sole purpose of entering a wild community around the world to needlessly slaughter its magnificent alpha male. (This video shows Cecil with his cubs at the national park).

In doing so, this sport-killing dentist has left a morally repugnant graffiti upon a wild canvas. Like the graffiti left in Joshua Tree National Park by André Saraiva or the myriad defacements of an attention seeker who foolishly shared her vandalism at more than ten national parks on her social media accounts. The selfishness of killing, of vandalism, of littering are at the heart of our disgust. As much as littering in the forest is a trespass of a right to a wilderness free of human influence, so too is trophy hunting, and poaching of a lion in a sanctuary, a trespass of our right to biodiversity, to an asylum of wild that is free from human debauchery and brutality.

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Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

So our horror at this tragedy is that there are places and animals who should be left alone – and the majority of us have made that moral contract through international laws and cross-cultural understandings. That is our consent – we will not kill endangered animals for fun, and we will leave that which is wild alone, for all our sakes.

In violating those explicit and implicit agreements to leave wildlife alone, we destroy ecosystems and biodiversity that will not be there for future generations. This trophy-hunter dentist has deprived us of real freedom, and left a tainted tyranny from which we cannot escape. In many ways, these wild places we hold sacred, these safe havens for wildlife, are fundamental to a truly free world and a human right to have them. And that is what he transgressed by taking Cecil’s life in such a callous, and torturous way.

And in many ways this dentist is symptomatic of the worst excesses and tyrannies of our American culture – and the ways our democracy is thwarted by those who disrespect the freedom of others. Palmer is symptomatic of a culture that celebrates unmitigated human power and dominance, qualities that are inherently problematic to a free democratic society.

Palmer with a lion he killed before Cecil.

Palmer with a lion he killed before Cecil.

There are those who believe all land, animals, and humans are for “use,” and that laws which limit the destruction of wildlife prohibit their own personal “freedom.” But what they really mean by freedom is “power.” This dentist simply wanted to kill whatever he wanted to kill, and that isn’t freedom. It’s doing what he wants to do, regardless of the impact it has on others. Palmer, the trophy-hunting lion killer, already had a felony conviction for illegally killing a black bear, another charge for fishing without a license, and a $120,000+ settlement to a woman who accused him of repeated sexual harassment. Palmer exhibits no sense of moral duty to follow the laws that are our social contract with each other, or respect the freedoms of others that he violates when he chooses to do whatever he wants to do, no matter what.

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And that’s why we – and animals like Cecil – need serious wildlife protection laws if we want a truly free society. By protecting the sanctity of places that are free from human domination, we protect our own ability to be free. So what legal repercussions does Palmer face when he finds to courage to come out of hiding, lured out by the law? (nearly one million people have signed a petition demanding justice for Cecil, and more than 120,000 have asked Delta to stop allowing trophy-hunters to bring back their spoils on American flights). Animal Legal Defense Fund experts tell us:

  • He could possibly be extradited to Zimbabwe and face charges under their laws. The U.S. has an extradition treaty with Zimbabwe, and 150,000 people have signed a petition asking the U.S. to extradite the trophy hunter.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could hold Palmer accountable for importing wildlife taken in violation of foreign law. Palmer claims he didn’t realize he was breaking laws (unlikely given his expertise and the circumstances of the lion’s collar and being lured out of the park). But it doesn’t matter, because Palmer should have known, and can be liable for a fine of $10,000 minimum under the Lacey Act.
  • Racketeering charges, under the “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).” If Palmer, who has already been convicted in the U.S. of felony poaching, in any way convinced his hunting guides to lure Cecil out of the park and destroy the collar, Palmer could be charged with racketeering.

Read here for more legal background from ALDF experts on the charges Palmer could face.

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One thing is clear: it is time for U.S. Fish and Wildlife to fast-track the listing of lions as an endangered species (100,000 people have signed a petition asking for that) and prohibit the import of lions, and lion parts, which would squash the boastful urges of people like Palmer, who enjoy killing wild and rare animals in other countries and bringing their body parts back to the U.S. as showpieces of deep-seeded disregard for freedom.

As the Center for Biological Diversity’s new report shows, The Politics of Extinction, Republicans have increased their attacks on Endangered Species laws in the last five years by 600%.

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By killing an animal who belonged to all of us by not belonging to any of us, this power-hungry trophy hunter put each of us in a cage, where no matter what far ends of the earth, an American can pay to kill the wildest of animals even in a place designated as safe refuge. Is there nowhere for nonhuman animals to simply be left alone?

So as we mourn Cecil, we mourn all the animals cruelly harmed, and the wild places torn asunder by greed. Cecil represents a wounded, crowded planet violated by a greed that sees freedom as power, not consent. Without spaces free from the influence of those who would kill endangered animals – itself a violation of our right to a diverse and profound wild – none of us are free. We recognize that intuitively and we are outraged. We know that killing threatened and endangered animals (or imprisoning them in zoos) isn’t conservation. It’s just killing and exploitation.

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In part because of poaching like this (and in part because of animal agriculture and enormous human population growth) lions will likely be extinct in the wild in our lifetimes. Future generations will not know a Cecil, or any other of his kin. Here, in this moment, we recognize Cecil was not an individual’s to kill but rather ours to value. His refuge was our refuge, and his ability to be left alone a measure of our ability to be left alone. People are outraged because he represented real freedom, now and for the future.

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As our human population continues to expand exponentially, far beyond the resources the planet provides us, large mammals like lions will become even more vulnerable. Already, lions are reproducing more slowly than the rate at which they will be poached (despite Ted Nugent’s idiotic claims to the contrary). Because of population growth, climate change, industrial agriculture, and aggressive poaching like this, future generations will probably never have the privilege of living in a free world with wild lions.

Who are the people we want to make up our society? Are they greedy, bloodthirsty, power-driven trophy-hunting killers (like Palmer and Nugent) with an unquenchable desire to deprive the rest of us (including future generations) of the freedom of the wild? If we value freedom we must value wilderness and wildness, and our wildlife trafficking, poaching, and trophy-hunting laws must reflect that.

When Mountain Lions Live Under the House

When we take away wild places for wild animals, those animals find ways of showing up in our backyard. Because it was their backyard first … When that animal is a predator, all hell breaks loose, suburban-wild style.

The anti-predator myth is exemplified by this week’s hysterical reaction to a mountain lion under a house that borders Griffith Park. It illustrates a cultural paranoia we must conquer if we are going to coexist with wild animals. We don’t have wolves to demonize here in California (other than OR-7, vacationing with his family in Southwest Oregon). We have mountain lions.

In the past 30 years, three people out of more than 30 million have been fatally injured by a mountain lion; less than a dozen fatalities in 125 years (a handful more if you add Canada and Mexico). California Fish & Wildlife estimates a person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. So why are we so afraid?

Very few people ever see a mountain lion. Coming “eyeball to eyeball” with the lion known as “P-22” in a crawlspace, a worker installing a security system had the surprise of a lifetime this week. But journalists exploited this drama. With apparent glee, they treated this wildcat nap like a car chase or a hostage crisis. Reporters were licking their lips waiting for the armed cult leader to finally drive off the road or open fire on children. Or crawl out from under the house.

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Department of Fish & Wildlife photo

Wildlife officials poked that dang varmint with a stick, they shot beanbags at him, hell they even shot tennis balls at him. But that sucker was resistant. In a safe,dark place, he stayed put, while firefighters, wildlife officials, and reporters went nuts. CA Fish & Wildlife finally realized that (as any owner of a cat can tell you) the best way to get him to come out is to leave him alone.

And when they did, he left. So the news that obsessed media for a day was that a wild animal crawled under a house that borders a 4,300 acre park (5x larger than Central Park) where the animal lives. Why is this news? Because of the myth and the lore that surrounds apex predators.

Suburban sprawl into wild areas guarantees some overlap with wild animals. That’s why we must talk about protecting native animals by protecting their land and leaving them alone. Instead, there was only panic about the dangers of wild animals and a demonizing of predators.

Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. Even seeing one is unusual. Mountain lions—aka cougars, pumas, or panthers—are shy, solitary, and stealthy apex predators. They are the ninjas of the California animal world—and they want to be left alone. Lions are not often seen skipping down the mountainside, being goofy, like dogs and coyotes. Mountain lions are, after all, cats. Only in exceptional cases do they allow humans to see them. Mostly, mountain lions are there only when you have no idea they’re there.

As apex predators they are vital to our environment. Destroying mountain lions, by usurping their habitat, destroys entire ecosystems. And that’s just what we’re doing. There are only 4-5,000 mountain lions in California.

Culturally, we love identifying with predators, becoming them, temporarily as mascots and embodying them in tattoos: wildcats, lions, tigers, wolverines, bears. Unfortunately, people also like shooting them too—the combination of desire and fear is the attraction we feel when we don their likeness in symbolic ways to harness their mythological power. Yet we are terrified of coexisting with predators. That is the suburban mystique: we long for the wild within, yet massacre the wild without.

This cougar is ready for his closeup – famous photo of P-22 captured by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter (Hollywood sign in background)

We need to stop mythologizing animals and instead respect them by leaving them alone, and protecting their legal rights, lands, and lives. Coexisting—as anyone with roommates and teenage family members knows—is usually about leaving each other alone. We must make our decisions as a balance between science, ecology, and the highest common good, which includes the interests of animals and the Earth.

What’s the Law?

On June 5, 1990, Californian voters approved Proposition 117 – the Mountain Lion Initiative – (called the “People’s Initiative” after Mountain Lion Foundation volunteers gathered more than 680,000 signatures to put it on the ballot). Prop 117 did two important things: it banned trophy hunting and it helped save land for mountain lions to stay wild.

Prop 117 created a Habitat Conservation Fund of $1 million a year until 2020 to “acquire, enhance, restore” wild lands for wildlife. That Proposition also changed mountain lions from “game” hunted for “sport” to “specially protected mammals” who aren’t allowed to be killed for fun.

A property owner can kill a mountain lion who threatens humans or animals only with a depredation permit. This permit is required by law and even with this permit a person is prohibited from the use of “poison, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps and snares.” Breaking this law can lead to criminal charges.

What is usually shared when discussing predators is what to do when you encounter one; people are given a tip sheet for resolving confrontation at an individual level. What is not discussed is how to prevent and avoid confrontation at a socio-cultural level, because that would involve doing things we don’t want to do, like not treating the Earth like a parking lot, not acting on all opportunities for suburban development, and not thinking only of our own immediate interests.

That being said, for the benefit of animals, wild and domestic, here are some precautions to avoid the conflict with native animals like mountain lions in the first place:

Facts for Staying Safe and Protecting Mountain Lions

  • Mountain lions try very hard to avoid people, but often coexist around us, unseen and unheard.
  • Mountain lions are found where deer are found; deer are their primary food.
  • Mountain lions are especially found in the foothills and mountains.
  • Mountain lions who reveal themselves to humans may suffer rabies or be desperately starving.
  • Mountain lions who threaten humans are immediately killed – about 100 are killed every year: they can’t be moved (due to conflicts with other lions and revisiting issues).

Use Nonlethal Control

  • Don’t feed or attract deer – it attracts mountain lions and it’s against the law.
  • Don’t feed raccoons and other mountain lion prey: don’t leave pet food outside.
  • Not attracting deer means avoiding plants deer like to eat.
  • Not attracting a lion means trimming hedges that offer hiding places.
  • Don’t leave children and pets outdoors, especially at dawn, twilight, and night.
  • Don’t leave yourself outdoors alone on a borderland jogging or hiking path, at dawn, twilight, and night.
  • Make sure animals are protected with covered shelters.
  • Protect your perimeters with motion-sensor lights outside your home.

What if you’ve done all this and still see a mountain lion?

  • Do not, under any circumstances, get closer.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, run.
  • Do not pop a squat, crouch, or lose eye contact.
  • Do pick up small children.
  • Do make yourself look bigger and noisier.

Coexisting with Coyotes

 

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Coyotes roam the Northern California landscape as naturally as the curving arms of oak trees and shimmering light of golden grasses. Animals are the environment, the land is our home, and no matter where I rest my head, I dream of this homeland. Its skin, scattered with abandoned Quonset huts, fading into fields with salted, rusting farm equipment baring aquamarine metallic undersides from fog long come and gone. Pines and redwoods sighing through picnics and lovers’ quarrels, soaring bi-planes overhead rising and falling like the Cooper’s hawks who cross the valley floor, searching among the mustard meadows as the earthy smells of dairy pastures carry the work of day into dusk, and the awakening of streetlights flicker among the song of the crickets. Night falls and a coyote cries.

It is the intersection of the nonhuman and human world where that dream is disturbed. My colleague argues that the primary right, the inherent right to be free of society—to unshackle oneself from the company and governance of others—codifies a moral duty for humans to preserve wild places. Without these spaces, consent is manufactured, not given. Simply put, freedom is the ability to be free from people. But with the human population exploding, where can wild animals go to be free?

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What relief to unburden oneself from human society. You wake up, alone but in a new place. You figure it out, alone. You survive by yourself. You thrive with yourself. Creativity must be alone, because of alone. Traveling alone far surpasses traveling with human companions, most of the time. Those spiritual journeys, when our senses are most alive, when the silences of solitude allow our hearts to feel what we hide in dialogue, those adventures are the most memorable and the most wild within. And yet we are not alone. The nonhuman world is always there, and that is why freedom means coexisting.

Solitude quiets everything else, a reminder to feel only this thing, live only in this story. In my story, I have a good dog who shares my life and heals my heart. She accompanies me everywhere—in travels, walks, work days, and wanderings. And when a coyote runs by, she stays by my side. She is shy, loyal, smart, goofy, gentle, and athletic. We share a preference of being alone, napping in the sun by an old oak tree. She chose me and I chose her—kindred spirits, or so I choose to believe.

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Posy in the creek, Santa Rosa laguna (photo: Ian Elwood)

Her work friend is a big, loafing red-haired Burmese Mountain/Lab mix who obeys the laws of nothing. He sleeps most of the day, whereas Posy will run all day long. But they love each other. Posy has scraped the paint off the door to his office, trying to get in. If he could barrel through it to get to her, he would. We call them buddy cops, these oddly-matched friends. Posy is the energetic, naïve new graduate of the academy, ready to clean up the streets; Chester, the aging, cynical, lazier cop, loathe to make an effort after all these years. But together, he calms her and she ignites him, and they run in our parking lot and along the creek bed, as if the bad guys are getting away.

Last week, a suburban coyote sparked the apex of their buddy-cop drama. Chester went into the creek after her, finding the coyote cousin and the stagnant water irresistibly appealing. She was perhaps the largest coyote I’ve ever seen, darting behind a fence on the side of the creek bed. Having found herself fenced in, caged essentially by a house fence, and with a gigantic domesticated dog splashing toward her, she searched intensely for her getaway. Yet Posy stood by my side, neither alarmed nor intrigued.  I was moved by her ability to stay distant, and just quite simply leave this wild animal alone.

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Photo: David Cruz, special to the San Francisco Chronicle

Coyotes deserve to be left alone. Our office is headquartered on a busy main street in a semi-rural town. Collisions are a weekly occurrence. In fact, it’s the same street on which my mother was run over by a delivery truck as she was crossing on foot. Yesterday, a wild turkey lay scattered on its asphalt, the victim of speeding driver. A short walk down the road from our office, one will encounter wild turkeys and ducks, ring neck snakes and foxes, and farmed goats, pigs, chickens, and cows, guard llamas, and domesticated dogs and cats, in addition to urban squirrels, feral cats, and various rodents.

Whizzing along at this pace, people may see only cars and apartments and shops, but I see the other animals living among us, in our shadows. Amid suburban and semi-rural chaos, they are not shadows to themselves. Their world is just as important to them as ours is to us. How glorious it might have been for other animals, before humans encroached upon the sun.

Unfortunately for wildlife, our countryside and wetlands are being drained for agriculture or developed for industry. What was once a mix of pools, lakes, marshes, woods, and plains is now tract houses, strip malls, vineyards, and urban sprawl; as a result, biodiversity is diminishing and species compete for smaller waterways. The Santa Rosa Laguna watershed, running northwest from Cotati and entering the Russian River north of Forestville, drawing in smaller watersheds, cleans the water headed toward the river, and provides runoff for floods and habitat for wildlife. Its recent restoration has included the re-planting of hundreds of native plants, grasses, sedges, and rushes.

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Santa Rosa Laguna

For a timespan hard to fathom, the Sonoma Valley was home to only nonhuman animals. Then, it was shared with Coastal Miwoks, in the village of Kota’ti. Next, like the rest of the U.S. in the early 19th century, it was industrialized for agrictulture—a fellow named John Thomas Reed built a cabin on Crane Creek and started farming, until the Kota’ti burned it down. At that time, the valley belonged to Mexico, which leased thousands of acres of “Rancho Cotate.” By mid-century, Mexico’s hold over the territory was displaced. Thomas Page, an absentee landlord, then held title to the valley and introduced sheep and cattle ranching to the area.

When the train came to town, the railroad stopped at Page’s Station—a wood and water stop. Page ranch butted up against Washoe House (built in 1839, now a famous, though quirky watering hole), and subdivided land parcels as the Cotati Land Company. Echoing history, a light-rail super-speed train will once again connect San Francisco with the North Bay, via Cotati. Good for commuters and the overdeveloped wine industry. What will that mean for our already diminishing wild spaces?

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Photo: David Assman

Cotati—like so many other places—celebrates coyotes. Businesses with “Coyote” in their name abound, because coyotes dance upon the landscape of our imaginations. But does that mythos allow us to usurp their land and overlook their needs, guilt-free? If only we could get out of their way.

Legally, coyotes can be killed with few limits. Unprotected beyond cruelty statutes, they are “vermin” under the law. There are no “bag limits,” no hunting “seasons,” and for years, the abuse of legal loopholes has allowed groups to hold bloodbath killing sprees known as “killing contests,” which award large prizes for whoever slaughters the most, and the biggest, of our native songdogs. A few months ago, California became the first state to ban prizes for those killing contests. But that didn’t stop the contests.

A few years ago, I was flying to a leading animal rights conference and reading a magazine by Defenders of Wildlife—a conservation group who supported the reintroduction of wolves by financially offsetting wolf depredation for ranchers. A woman next to me was reading about sheep ranching. She insisted lethal predator control was the only way to protect livestock. She was misinformed. And it is important for all who value wild places to value nonlethal predator control. It works.

But in Cotati and so many places beyond, coyotes present a living reminder of our overhaul of the wild, not just in rural areas, but across the U.S. Just this month, National Geographic wrote a piece about a coyote on the roof of a building in New York City, and the Natural History of the Urban Coyote notes that coyotes are survivors, living among us despite the odds. In Chicago, they walk the streets, stopping at lights to let the buzzing traffic rush by. In San Francisco, they have been rumored to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Coyotes seem far more able to coexist than people.

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Photo: Urban Coyote Project

But coyotes should not have to survive in cities and the onus for coexistence is on us, not them. Like all wild animals, they have the right to wild places. When wild animals and humans reside in close quarters, the results can be catastrophic for the animals. Only a few months ago, a 6lb coyote pup was found, tortured, in Santa Maria. Too many people are happy to hurt coyotes, to defend livestock, their dog, their backyard, or just for sport. Coexistence is possible, as the North Bay in particular has shown, thanks to groups like Project Coyote and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. That moral right to be free of human society—(a legal right indicated by the Wilderness Act, and wilderness is an animal rights issue notes Kathleen Stachowski)—means a fundamental shift in population growth, eating and hunting habits, development, and attitude about the nonhuman world.

In the last 50 years, our planet has lost nearly 50% of its wild animals. Meanwhile, the human population has exploded. What will the planet look like 50 years from now? Will there be any wild places for nonhuman animals to be autonomous? Without that, without the ability to be free of human society, without space for real solitude, whether as a human or a nonhuman animal, are any of us really free?

At night, Posy and I fall asleep to the yips of these beautiful, native songdogs. We coexist like easy peas. They are there in the dark, listening to each other, as I listen to their song, and Posy listens to me. With a little care—attending to the unwritten rules of the night by respecting nocturnal creatures, keeping her by my side, letting her roam in the day–I protect her and our resident coyotes, as they protect and inherently vitalize our local lands, and I marvel in the gift of their presence, shared with mine. We coexist in a land that is rural, urban, and wild all at the same time.

 

 

What Does the Fox Say?

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In the past weeks, Yosemite biologists had the wild fortune to see the rare Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) in the northern alpine wilderness of the park. California’s Sierra Nevada red fox is a rare critter. There may be less than 50 such foxes remaining in the wild and they haven’t been seen in nearly a century. How much are we encroaching on wild spaces–how has our landscape changed–that the species is endangered? What can we learn?

Capture

Foxes have been congregating in the creek alongside my property. The wails of a native gray vixen (or a nonnative red), are not the beautiful yips and huffy songs of canis latrans, her coyote cousin, or canis lupus, her more distant cousin, the wolf. Hearing a fox for the first time—especially a red fox—can be a disturbing experience. Hearing a fox in my creek, a friend’s eyes widened as she asked, “what is that?!” Where the cry of a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) sounds like a haunted whisper: “help!” the scream of a nonnative red fox (Vulpes vulpes) sounds like a banshee (from the Irish: bean sí, a spirit woman who rides the outskirts of twilight, warning of coming danger, and death).

Like coyotes, foxes are hunted as “pests.” My friend’s response to hearing a fox was concern: is a child being strangled in the bushes? Or is perhaps a wounded animal crying for help? Unfortunately, others respond by wanting to shoot foxes, even though nonlethal methods of coexisting abound, and shooting them usually increases, rather than decreases, their reproduction rates. They are also killed for their fur (on fur farms they are kept in horrific confinement, then electrocuted and skinned alive—very few if any laws protect them).

And if that’s not bad enough, foxes are “cool” and “cute,” so they are becoming the “new” trendy hipster accessory. People are trying to raise (or import) foxes as pets. They are so playful (the foxes, not the hipsters), even goofy like dogs. But why must we “tame” the wild? Why must we put our human paw prints on everything? Owning wildlife is a terrible idea—international trafficking in exotic animals is a multi-billion dollar, cruel industry.

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Smug hipster fox was cool before hipsters were cool

But it also points toward a desired disruption of the border between wild without and wild within. We want wildness within so much we will wear it without, or cage it in our backyard. As is the case with “puppy mills,” where dogs are bred like machines and kept in small boxes for people who want to buy, rather than adopt, an animal, wanting a pet fox means condemning thousands of other foxes to life in a cage as it becomes a pet industry.

We want to touch, and yet fear so much, beings that are wild. Even with my injured leg, I’ve limped through the darkness, standing still with a darkened flashlight in hand, hoping to catch sight of my nocturnal neighbor. But, foxes upset birders by hunting small mammals and birds, some endangered. And they madden farmers, who raise chickens and lambs for slaughter. I live in a borderland of crisis between farmed animals and wild animals; between humans and wilderness.

My country lane is lined with farms, surrounded by vineyards, on the border of a shrinking wilderness. At dawn, I hear cows, chickens, horses, pigs—and there are donkeys, llamas, and goats. In the daytime, I see jackrabbits, quail, hawks, vultures, crows, and other birds. In the dead of night, I hear owls, coyotes, foxes, and I know there are  many more creatures in that mysterious wild.

This winter, I’ve had a mouse under my bed, a tarantula in my windowsill, a bird in the garage, a bat in the attic, a snake in the grass, a lizard in the pantry, a quail in the driveway, a bunny in the backyard, raccoons on my doorstep, vultures devouring a chicken by my well, feral cats in my creek, and coyotes, foxes, hawks, other birds, squirrels, and the wild turkeys who conjugate down the road. I welcome the presence of the ones outside the house, as long as they are outside the house. I haven’t quite resolved myself to accept their presence inside. Yet all of us are shaded by the slopes of the Mayacamas, dreaming of a space where once we were more wild and perhaps more free.

Foxes, like coyotes, have adapted—and thrived—in urban spaces (like the coyotes who’ve set up shop in downtown Chicago). But do we really want them to? What Does the Fox Say?(by a Norwegian comedy duo) has nearly 500 million views online. A better question may be — what do we say about foxes? We call women vixens, foxes; we say we were outfoxed; we say, with some admiration and irritation that someone is as sly as a fox. Culturally, our language coexists. So why can’t we?

On Being Left Alone, Outdoors

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When I don’t get enough solitude, I grit my teeth over simple things. My creativity becomes a stagnant, shallow creek. Real solitude, the kind I need, is quiet, alone with my dog in nature. People ask me if I get lonely—but the truth is, loneliness is seeking solitude and not finding it.

This morning, a friend suggested I get “out” of the house by going to the office—on a holiday… on my day off. That got me thinking.  Have I wrongly assumed everyone shares a longing to touch the wildness within by being outside?

When my well has run dry inside, I go outside. That’s my office. That’s how I replenish. I find the alone and unknown. My mind grows quiet thankfully, as my soul speaks like water. Alone with trees and leaves and animals and earth, I find my own inner world, and my outer “self” vanishes. What a relief, to be so free of the human world and its demands, its anguish, and to be quenched in solitude. I long for closeness to the few remaining wild spaces people haven’t yet plundered. I seek total autonomy.

These winter months—and a leg injury—have kept me from being outdoors and from being creative: my cup runneth nowhere. Just today, I ventured out and could not escape people, whether on land or water, high ground or lowlands. People, noises, and the “junk” of human existence; it’s inescapable.

Our modern search for satisfaction gets us lost, quick. Deep down, I don’t want the convenience of stores, and gadgets, although I share reliance upon them. And people who like being indoors perplex me. For them, the outdoors is something in between the car and the house and the store. They enjoy the outdoors by focusing on equipment to survive it, as if they can conquer the environment. This isn’t our animal self. If I can’t get lost in the porous natural world, I might as well be made of gortex.

And that’s why I haven’t traveled the world in search of the highest peak, or climbed the sheerest cliff. I prefer the humility of looking up at the mountains in awe and reverence and sleeping outside in a meadow, sheltered by their granite boulders. I don’t seek thrill. I just know there is more to this world in the mystery of the wild. I’d like to move through it quietly, gently, with a soft footstep.

Without this, with only pavement beneath my toes, I thirst, and dry up. For some camping means taking a pop-up trailer to a parking lot by a man-made lake, grilling on a Weber, and throwing aluminum beer cans at each other. This is not what it’s about. And I can’t seem to escape this world.

Are creature comforts, the urban landscape of convenience, the obsession with coffee and artifice, the addiction to being online, to cranking up the heater in mild weather, suffocating the wild within?

I mourn that I cannot truly be left undisturbed. Thoreau said, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” But how does one find true solitude—autonomy—these days? How do you do it without being able to own the Earth beneath your feet? How can I howl at the moon if I can’t find a long life, alone and truly free? I’m frightened at the idea that my path might continue this way, and the urge to be untrammeled by humans is one of imperative, not philosophy. I must find a way.

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November Song Dogs

November reminds me of my final autumn days as a resident of Yosemite National Park. I had come to the park at the age of eighteen, looking for something I had not yet found within myself. Many stragglers had come to work in the forest for that very reason—lost, fallen, or beginning, we were all at a crossroads somehow, and most were far older than me.

I had worked that spring and summer and fall in the Valley, making beds and cleaning shower-houses, so that every night I would go to sleep in the place that I loved, and every day I would wake with awe and wonder in the place that I loved. We carried ourselves with the air of belonging to the woods, and park visitors could detect us immediately as we quietly walked among them. Park rangers could spot us among the crowd also, but as long as we didn’t speed around the bends, burn the forest with bonfires, or hurt the tourists, they too left us alone. Mostly, we were all there waiting to get off work. Days off meant hiking, swimming, rafting, campfires, moonlight walks, and lake-edge drum circles.

http://yosemiteexplorer.com/nature/mammals/coyote

But when the summer’s over the tourists go home, the river floods, sand bags come out, roads freeze and become unpassable—and most park employees scatter like fallen leaves, returning to the world from which they came. After sleeping in an army-issue tent in the snow that spring, and remembering how the night frost seeps into your bones, I was ready to head for warmer climates, though I held out as long as I could and was one of only a few still remaining. No more baking on sunny granite boulders with friends and—showering with others, eating with others, sleeping among others, complaining about the overcrowded valley floor, playing pranks on campers, day in and day out—the silence seemed sudden, and lonely. Even though I had faltered unnoticed through the crowds but for the jangling keys at my waist and the familiar knowing where I was going among the meadows and alpine crevasses, now I felt invisible.

When the first snows covered the crimson, lemon, and amber leaves, and a hollow white sky blanched the evergreen Merced River, I walked to keep myself company. The roads out of the mountains were blocked. The campgrounds were empty. The services closed up for the winter. It was just me, walking. Softly padding amid a spectrum of a November colorwheel.

And I walked on, the way you walk when you haven’t found what you’re looking for and aren’t in any rush to find it, the way you walk when you’re cold and have Yosemite Valley very nearly to yourself. It was a thing of profound beauty this quiet music of silent snow, like a late afternoon snooze for the forest floor. I stopped in a small clearing and found myself lost, finally far enough from humans that I could say “I am lost,” with a smile and a mild sense of panic. For the fear itself is the thing from which pleasure comes. I would rather have been nowhere else yet could not quite have said just where I was. And as I stood still, unusually still, stiller than I can remember, I realized I was not alone.

A small grey and gold dog looked at me with his head turned, like someone at a four-way stop, waving you to go as you wave back, “no you go right ahead.” I had seen many a shy fellow such as this trotting along meadows and darting in trees on warm days of early dusk. But what I hadn’t seen, and what happened next, is that I realized not only was I not alone, but he wasn’t alone either. Behind him, standing in a circle around me, still, watching, expressionless, was a pack of these shy fellows, not ten feet away. At first, my heart leapt—I was lost and alone and surrounded by a “pack” of something. That’s never the beginning to a happy ending.

But like hunger, grief, and happiness tend to do, that feeling faded. My inner self, the one that loves animals and is both frightened and fascinated by the “wild,” the one enraptured by El Capitan and the legless climbers that brave its front, the one in love with Yosemite and enamored with wonder at those things made not by the touch of man, nearly wept with gratitude. But first I tried not to breathe.

There was something in that moment, private, and sacred that only those who disturbed a natural moment, and yet had been received with grace, can understand. How long had they been watching me? How foolish to think I had been alone, while walking along grooves of earth carved by millennia of those forces that had come before me, and how glorious to peek into a world which would carry on after I was gone.

They looked at me, I leaned against a tree. I grinned, sheepishly, and tried to be still for them. And then, they vanished. And so it is difficult to understand how anyone could, come any November or any other time of year, kill a song dog, a wild trickster, a shy dog of nature, so wise and so haunted. It must be a curse upon those who face those sacred moments, and feel compelled to take, rather than to observe. I felt more kinship with those coyotes than I have with most humans ever since.

Decades later, I carry that moment within me. Only when you quiet the sounds within can you hear well enough to see, and only when you can truly see can you be truly seen.