I love animals, but then, who doesn't? But certain ones have figured in the saga of my life, so I'll tell a few stories about that. With luck I'll find some links in each category as well.
I had driven all morning from Banff and Lake Louise and arrived at my campsite -- a fairly well developed one -- in Jasper about noon. After pitching my tent, wisely choosing the top of a little mound for its location, I zipped it up and headed into the town of Jasper to hang out and look the place over. Before long the heavens opened, and it just poured rain for about an hour. My tent was a new one and I wondered how effective its rain fly would be. Upon returning to the campsite in late afternoon, I was delighted to find it bone-dry inside the tent.
Two 16-year-old girls across the path from me were not so lucky. They had pitched in a low place before also heading into town, and when they came back, their packs and sleeping bags were sopping wet. They looked a bit like drowned rats and were clearly in for a fairly uncomfortable night, because in the early summer it still gets pretty cold at night in the Canadian Rockies. I felt really sorry for them. I had just made fresh coffee and figured they would be ready for something warm about then. As it turned out they had a bag of cookies, about the only thing that wasn't soaked. So we traded and I listened to their story: two teenage restaurant servers taking a weekend away from the resort in Banff where they worked.
As dark came on, I went into my tent, read for a while, wrote in my journal about my adventures on my first long solo camping trip, and turned in for the night. When I had first arrived at the site I noticed that the trash from the previous occupants had not been picked up, but I promptly forgot about it and didn't check again later. It was just a couple cardboard cartons with some empty bottles in them anyway.
I had enough experience to know that in bear habitat you do not keep food in your tent and it's best if you don't have anything at all in there that smells of food, for instance clothes you've worn while cooking or eating. All my food was sealed in plastic in the car, right nearby, but the tent and my person were both pristine as to food odor. So far, so good.
At what turned out to be 3:00 a.m., I heard a bottle clank outside, then I heard that distinctive out-in snorting that is a sure sign of a bear sniffing around. I was about 50 yards through the trees from the toilets, where there was a bare bulb burning. It provided just enough light to see this incredible hulk of a thing, as tall at the shoulder as my tent was high -- five feet or so -- moving about not ten feet from where I was lying, pushing things with its nose and pulling at them with its front paws.
Good god, I thought, it really is a fucking grizzly bear! Mind racing and heart pounding so loudly in my chest that I could hardly hear anything else, I tried to recall everything the bear pamphlets had advised. "Can't he (or she) hear my heart pounding?" I thought. "Let's see, a surprised bear is an angry bear, right, so don't make a sound or move a muscle!" "Ohmygod, I'm gonna be killed!"
In such extreme fear -- I was completely freaked out by how afraid I was -- all sorts of silly thoughts crowd into your brain. "Rip-stop nylon, what a joke," I thought, as the image of nine-inch claws slicing like nothing through the tent walls and into my hapless person danced in my mind. "Gee, I guess it's true that when you get really, really scared, you have to pee. Well, I have to live -- oh let me live! -- in this sleeping bag for two more weeks and I'll be damned if I'm going to wet my pants while I'm in it. But oh lord, I do have to go, that's for sure!" Meanwhile, I was scared witless.
"I know," I thought, "those girls have the cookies in their tent, I'm pretty sure. I'll just wait until the bear finds out about that and they start screaming, then I'll jump in the car -- why in hell did I lock the damn car? -- turn on the lights and blow the horn and maybe scare the bear away!" Meanwhile, the bear is not on their side of the path but on mine, and my heart was continuing to pound at about 150 beats a minute. "I guess that's what adrenalin does for you." I tried to visualize my leg chewed off: "Oh well, I'll use my belt as a tourniquet." Yeah, right.
The strangest part of the whole story is that I didn't pee my pants, the girls didn't scream, the bear did not kill me or even try to. What happened was that after about 30 minutes of abject terror, I simply fell asleep. I have no idea how long the bear was around.
There was an aftermath, however. I woke up a couple hours later, still quite upset and nervous about the whole thing. I had planned to remain in Jasper for a few days at least, and maybe do a short backcountry hike. I dropped all that like a hot potato, broke camp as soon as it was light, climbed in the car and drove over the Continental Divide into British Columbia, thence down the extremely scenic Fraser River Canyon, where I proceeded to get very sick, having picked up the parasite giardia from drinking Jasper's tap water.
But over more than 20 years since, I have had countless dreams
of being chased by bears, trapped in trees by bears, and so
forth, and though I've been in bear country since, I was
extremely nervous about camping there. All in all, it was a
completely traumatizing event.
All that aside, I think (I'm all but positive, because I didn't actually see them) that mountain lions mated one night in North Dakota about 500 yards from my tent. I was on my way back from a camping trip in Grand Teton National Park with a friend, and he wanted to see the Devil's Tower in northeastern Wyoming, made famous by the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That gave me the idea to continue north and camp again at Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota, which we did.
It was a wonderful day there, warm weather and hardly anyone in the park, what I regard as nearly ideal conditions. TRNP is in the breaks of the Little Missouri River, rather dry, wind-swept country, much eroded into wild-shaped landforms. The dominant hilly feature is large mesas, grassy and flat on top, the remnants of the plains before the water got to work carving it up after the last Ice Age.
To pass over many details of the setting, we had stayed up fairly late, telling stories by the campfire and just enjoying the coolness of the night and the incredibly clean, fresh air of the place. It was late May. But finally we were tired and got into our sleeping bags. We were starting to drift off, I guess, when I was aware of some sort of flashing lights outside, not human-made but natural, like distant lightning but of a different character. Still in my bag, I reached up and zipped down the tent's end window and was greeted by the most brilliant display of aurora borealis I've ever seen, and I've been fortunate in seeing quite a few. Well, we had to get up again to go out and watch that for a while, of course.
Once again bedded down, I heard this strange sound. Steve heard it too. "What do you suppose that is?" he asked. "Some sort of bleating creature, a sheep or a goat," I ventured, "but you know, now that I think about that, in the wilderness prey animals that made noise at night would probably get selected out pretty quickly by the things that love to eat them. So my guess is some sort of predator, but I'm not sure what."
We listened a while and soon realized that there were two of them, one rather far away but getting closer. To judge by the direction and intensity of the first one, we were only a few hundred yards from it; perhaps it was by the stream or on the savannah on the far side of the stream at the foot of the mesa we had climbed earlier. That would be a matter of 300-400 yards.
After a while it dawned on us that these were probably cats,
the one calling the other in, probably for mating. It could
have been bobcats, but I associate them more with forests than
with the open plains, and it could have been Canadian lynx, but
they're decidely rare in the northern United States. On that
basis, the most likely candidate was mountain lions, which
though not common are at least found in that region. After
about 45 minutes they must have gotten together, because then
the vocalizations got much louder and more insistent, and we
could hear thrashing out in the grass and scrub. It was
exciting to think that we were so close, yet I didn't have the
slightest sense of jeopardy.
The first time I was ever there, I found a wonderful campsite near a small stream and pitched my tent there. After making some fresh coffee and enjoying the sunset, having a smoke and writing a while in my journal, I decided it had been a long day and crawled into my bag. Just as I was putting my head down they started, up in the mesas to the north of me. The most wonderfully forlorn kind of howling and yipping, like wolves but also quite different from wolves. I was ecstatic, for I knew I was really in a wild place.
The next day I was out hiking around. For a person from the woodsy upper Midwest, the country there is exotic: spare, sculpted by wind and water, rather arid and rocky. I decided to go along a faint trail that led into an arroyo, and as I rounded a turn there stood a coyote, just looking at me, perhaps 50 feet away. I stood rock still, not wanting to breathe lest it bolt. I must have had the wind in my face and been moving very quietly, for it not to know I was coming. We looked at each other maybe 30 seconds, then it hightailed it away into the brush. Pretty interesting and even rarer than running into a fox, I thought.
More recently, coyote populations have burgeoned, and one my
neighbors reports having seen them in the park that's only two
blocks from where we live. A friend in Alabama who have a
5-acre lot has found a den on his property, and one of the
pups, now grown, regularly comes quite near the house.
I hadn't gone very far when the rock stood up. It was a bull bison of very impressive dimensions, about six feet at the shoulder. "Uh-oh," I thought, "this could get tense," because I was entirely too close to this behemoth to feel safe. It just stood there, its immense head lowered, as I started to back up very slowly in the direction of camp. I glanced over my shoulder to see which tree would be the right one for me to get behind in case he charged. Then he started to move, walking very slowly but straight for me. I was now close to camp, and still moving backwards, with about 100 yards separating me from the animal.
All at once from my right there appeared a Standard American Family: mom and dad and boy- and girl-child, walking past me right out onto the savannah and completely oblivious to the buffalo. I called to them "Uh, you do see the buffalo, don't you?" "Where?" the man said. "Right there, 100 yards to your right." "Oh, are they dangerous?" "Yes," I said, "they can be very dangerous. I've picked out my tree and I advise you to do the same, because though he's stopped just now, just a few moments ago he was walking this way. They're not very bright, but they're very strong, very heavy and pretty unpredictable." They retreated.
Steve had meanwhile returned from the john and the bull had resumed walking, headed right for the path leading into our campsite. "Looks like we're having company for dinner, my friend; I think you should decide which tree is best for you, but not this one right here, because it's mine!" We were all a bit breathless at this point. He kept coming, very slowly, very steadily, head down, tiny eyes gleaming, taking his time. Just at the last second before he would have entered the path, he turned to a course paralleling our line of trees and ambled off.
Just the sort of anti-climax one wants to have before dinner, I
would say. That was more than close enough for me.
My little wolf story is only about hearing them, but in a wonderful setting. Camping near the southern end of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton NP one early summer, we were hiking a couple miles into that spectacular mountain range to see a waterfall there. It was getting cold. The sun was long behind the mountains by the time we started back to camp.
As we came out of the hills and onto the plain by the lake it
started to snow (good thing we had warm bags), and at the same
time, thousands of feet above us on the mountain, came that
distinctive howl, long and piercing, and ever so moving. Many
times, but as far as I could tell a single animal. What a
But two horse-related stories won me over to them. One was in Montana. I was returning from a camping trip farther west and had been in Yellowstone the night before. It was fairly early morning, after a breakfast in Cody, that I checked the map and noticed a marking that said "National Wild Horse Range" just over the state line into Montana. Never in a hurry, I headed up that way, but after many miles I did not see a horse. I guess I hadn't really expected to, though. My attention was next drawn to a little road that led up to a sizeable canyon, a couple thousand feet deep, apparently.
Just after heading north on this road, I glanced to my left, and there atop a low rise about half a mile away stood about a dozen wild horses, facing the rising sun, tails and manes flapping in the goodly breeze. There was a fitness, something terribly right about the scene, looking across an expanse of prairie and seeing no evidence of our depredations of the land and those wild things that thrive upon it, but just the animals that somehow belong to that terrain.
I did continue on to see the canyon, but it was nothing like so exciting as seeing the horses.
The other story was really very different. In 1988 I want with friends to the Alameda County Fair near Oakland. It was early July and hotter than the hammers of hell. I was feeling kind of sick, actually, because I don't tolerate heat all that well. My dozen or so pals were running around seeing things, doing fair-stuff, but I wanted to rest and to get out of the sun, which was cooking my brain.
So I went to the horse races. Now I've been to horse races now and then, but what was different about this was that instead of taking a seat in the grandstand, I stood at the rail, where it was shady, right at the finish line.
What I experienced that day for the first time was the
thundering of hooves, shaking the ground beneath me and even
more exciting, the look of the animals themselves as they
frothed and strained across the finish line, veins popping,
lungs heaving, eyes bulged out with the effort and every sinew
of their magnificant musculature on view. I cried. I couldn't
help it. I watched maybe ten races and it happened each time.
It was what thoroughbreds are raised to do, and they are
incomparably beautiful when doing it. I had no idea beforehand.
But the junior male was definitely very interested in the alpha
female, who was completely ignoring him. He would run up to
her, make motions as though he were about to mount, then she
would turn and bare her teeth in a definite threat gesture.
Able to stand it no more, he finally retreated to the lower
corner of the cage and -- here's the story -- while idly eating
some fruit with his hands, quickly masturbated to ejaculation
with one foot. There was quite a crowd at the zoo on hand to
watch this, many of them small kids whose parents were
obviously embarrassed. But I thought it was quite a marvel to
have four hands instead of two hands and two feet.
It very soon became clear why it was a good spot. There's a very wide marsh west of Mt. Scott, then the mountain rises rather steeply, something like 4,000 feet I think it is. Given prevailing westerly breezes, there are constant updrafts on that side of the mountain, while below the wetland affords ideal hunting grounds for raptors.
Almost immediately I found myself looking at a large rough-legged hawk, soaring nearly motionless on the updraft, and rather than far above as they usually are seen in my own region, I was looking down about 500 feet onto its back. A very exciting and different view, believe me. In just a couple seconds, the bird was 500 feet above me, having risen effortlessly with the wind. What a talent to have, combined with such incredible vision. That's why I would like to be one.
Around Madison, peregrine falcons have made a great comeback, nesting on some of the taller buildings on the University campus. One day this past summer I was here in my study, working away, the house wide open, when there was this very unusual noise outside, zooming past the window. I ran out to look, and what it turned out to be was a group of crows, making sounds I'd never heard from crows before, trading blows with a falcon in and around the huge cottonwoods nearby. I don't think either did any serious damage to the other, though there definitely was some contact between them in flight. Both crows and falcons are very agile flyers, of course. But it was always a gang of crows, social creatures as they are, against a single falcon.
I live near a very nice city park, and one day while walking
there I spied a very large red-tailed hawk whirling around in
very close proximity to me and to the ground, which is not a
usual way to see this bird. As I came to the edge of an open
field, I learned why: there was a falconer, and the bird was
his trained animal. So it was quite a thrill to see the hawk
very close-up, hooded and on his arm, an absolutely magnificent
But first the downside. There are so many unwanted and feral cats, animals in precarious health, abandoned and adrift in the mean streets. I don't really see how an owner can be so irresponsible about such a great animal.
My all-time favorite cat, who lived to be a few days shy of 20, was a very small, purebred Abyssinian female. After she died, I went to a cat show, thinking I might get another Abby right away, for they are truly wonderful pets. But cat breeders are for the most part completely insane, in my impression. I was willing to pay the price, but I was not willing to deal with these really weird people.
My Abby (her name was Pushkin) was such a single-minded critter, extremely territorial. She allowed exactly one other creature in her spaces, and that was me. She was actively and aggressively hostile to all other people who visited (she hurt my co-worker's kid once and I was sure he was going to sue me; at any rate he was very angry about it, even though I had warned him about trying to pick the cat up, which is what his daughter did and immediately got badly scratched, basically opening her finger from the knuckle to the tip). That cat was such a terror that when a friend came over to paint the inside of my house and I forgot to lock her in the basement, he would call me at the office and say I had to come home because she was menacing him and he was genuinely afraid. This from a kitty that weighed less than four pounds.
The new guy, just a year old now, is a mixed Abby-tabby and three times that size and a completely opposite personality. He totally loves just about everyone and is a glutton for attention. Maybe he'll be a little more reserved when he's not such a rambunctious kid. He certainly gets wild sometimes now.
I've left this present-tense description of him here, but the
sad fact is that he got sick after I'd had him something over a
year. The vet was unable to cure the infection, and in the end
he had to be put down. It still bothers me. I don't think I'm
going to have any more cats.
Still, I admire smart dogs, like working sheep and cattle dogs,
and I love beautiful dogs, like standard poodles, large
airedales, and huskies. There are probably 50 dogs living
within a two-block radius of my house. Many people own two or
three dogs, and the noise, of summer nights, can be pretty
annoying, more so even than lawn mowers. But the worst is the
few who let their dogs run off the leash, which means droppings
not picked up as the law requires. Usually this happens late at
night, when no one is around to catch the perpetrator. It's not
the dog's fault, of course.