Sounds of the city, electric entertainment, prepackaged food, heating and air conditioning all provide layers of insulation from nature. Even the well-planned city park offers only a sanitized experience with the wild side. Many people enjoy only limited interactions with nature as protected by the modern conveniences of our advanced civilization. I’m not one of those, at least not completely. Given the chance, I will go outdoors. I will go fishing and hunting (even if I never shoot at anything). Occasionally, if invited, I will go spotting, you know, looking for large bucks, bull elk and moose, coyotes, and whatever else someone with a truck is interested in finding.
While I enjoy these slightly more engaged interactions with nature and wildlife, I have a brother-in-law who lives for wildlife. From a young age he has been enthralled by seeking, understanding, and interacting with wildlife. After earning a B.S. in ecology, fisheries and wildlife, he went to work for a number of state agencies in Utah, Idaho, and Colorado. I’m not aware of all of the work he has done, but I know he has worked with several large species to include elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and probably some others. Currently, he’s working on a M.S. in wildlife biology with Utah State University. His research focuses on discovering why mortality rates are high among antelope fawns. Some of his work involves shooting net guns, tranquilizing, and jumping out of helicopters.
As one would expect he has a lot of entertaining and interesting stories to share as he has hunted and conducted hands on research with wildlife. His best story involves a grizzly bear. Now, in all of the times he and I have talked he’s only expressed concern for his safety over two activities—flying in helicopters and field research of grizzly bears. So, I hope I get my description of this research project correct. Wildlife biologists capture the bears by tranquilizing them and then they fit them with a GPS tracking collar. At some point, the GPS collar is pinged utilizing cutting edge technology to determine where the bear is spending its time. In order to determine why the bear was in that location, a team of three goes into that location to look for food sources, water sources, or piles of bear droppings. As a very wise safety precaution, the teams wait two weeks before going into a known location of a grizzly bear. The goal, I think is to determine why the bear had been in that area—food, to poop, food, sleep. (Really, I’m not sure what else a bear does, maybe hold bear parties and other social events.)
On one of these excursions my brother-in-law and two others walked into one of these known locations. They took all of the standard precautions--made noise on the way in, had bells on their shoes, carried bear mace, and kept their heads on a swivel and their ears closely attuned. As it happened they came up on a site where an old female grizzly had hunkered down. For some reason she had decided to stick around, not expecting humans to interfere in her life yet again. Bursting forth from an area of dense brush, the she-bear went straight at my brother-in-law while his two counterparts took off running. Before he could get to his bear mace, the bear was on him, giving him time only to raise his left arm. The bear bit his arm, threw him to the ground, and quickly departed the area. As a blessed man, he was able to walk out and receive medical attention. With excellent medical attention, skilled surgery, and a careful recovery away from bears has made him whole again.
Recently, while sitting in his parents’ house, looking at a few of his trophies and teasing him about being unfit as bear food, I thought to some of my more memorable run ins with wildlife. Of course, they’re not as exciting as being attacked by a bear. (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I made a conscious decision as a young child never to seek out a grizzly bear purposefully.)
I’ll start with the mild experiences in the hopes of building to a crescendo. In doing this, however, I do recognize that for some these mild experiences may be the equivalent of your nightmare. Actually, the first three experiences don’t even involve wildlife, just farm animals. First, once when I was the around the impressionable age of eight or nine I went to help a neighbor herd some of his sheep from one field to another. Things were going well until one of the ewes made a conscious decision to run over me. In an attempt to establish my dominance and manhood, I decided to stand my ground. Recognizing that I had accepted the challenge, the ewe lowered her head and picked up speed. With cunning and alacrity, I sidestepped at the last minute, and put my arm out to shove the ewe back in the correct direction. We made contact, I was pushed back but the young ewe was turned in her path and joined the other sheep. Inwardly I felt a strong sense of satisfaction, satisfaction that I had shown the adults in the field with me of my strength and wisdom. Feeling something wet on my arm I looked down to see it covered in bloody sheep snot. Satisfaction disappeared as pride was replaced by disgust and then by shame as I screamed and started to run around to find something on to which to wipe the snot.
Dairy cows are second on my list. If you’ve ever helped milk, then you know what I mean. Nothing more dramatic that the occasional crap and urine. splatter. Luckily the handful of times I helped I managed to avoid getting kicked in the face, although I did once have a wrestling match in a holding pen that was six inches deep in dark green, wet cow manure.
Third, attack chickens can keep life exciting. The term “laying hens” sounds so pedestrian, calm even, but some of them are wicked evil. We owned some young chicks that liked to peck and attack whenever I would feed them, nothing serious. Growing up we had a neighbor who had a laying hen that was completely evil. I remember holding a rake to hit the hen while my friend, with tears in his eyes, slowly approached the nest with a thick leather glove on his hand.
These aren’t all of my experiences with domesticated farm animals, and it doesn’t even cover the few times I was bitten by a horse or bucked off, but they show some of the excitement that helped make me a little braver in the wilderness and in the city parks.
Onto the wildlife…
Skunks have had a recurring role in my life. Luckily most of my experiences have not resulted in me being covered with a funky scent. My first memorable experience occurred while I was in high school. We had just finished spreading toilet paper all over the yard of a friend up in Bridgeland. While we were doing the deed, someone took our car and hid it from us. (This is a more complex story that may involve another blog post.) Assuming we would have to walk the ten or so miles back to town, the three of us headed off down the dirt road, cursing our circumstances. Suddenly, while one of us was complaining loudly a skunk stepped out from the weeds in the ditch directly into our path. One of us managed to get out the word “Skunk!”, but another didn’t listen and managed to almost kick the skunk as it high-stepped right in front of us. I don’t know why, but that skunk didn’t spray us but took off running instead. Because we saw the skunk we decided to take a different road home which resulted in us finding my car after walking just a half mile or so. What a blessing!
While I was stationed in Oklahoma at Vance AFB, I had driven to the base gym early one morning to work out. Unfortunately, I locked my keys in the car. In order to be able to shower and change and to get the extra set of keys, I decided to run home in the dark. It wasn’t a long run, less than four miles. Right before the last major intersection, on a road between two fields of corn, I heard something moving in the ditch. Through the dark I could just make out a large, empty dog food bag that was moving and shaking, a curious thing as there was no wind. Presently, a hungry skunk backed out of the bag. Feeling that its newly discovered food source was threatened, it ran at me. I increased my speed, assuming that it would give up quickly to go back to its food. I was wrong. It chased me for a hundred yards, then with a final hiss it abandoned the chase.
The last major experience with a skunk was the worst. Our dog started barking at the back sliding glass door early one Saturday morning. Thinking he simply wanted out, I stumbled from my bed and opened the door. The dog bolted out toward his doghouse from whence a skunk suddenly emerged. Realizing what was happening, I called the dog back but not before he grabbed a piece of tail and got a mouthful of spray. All of this occurred only about ten feet from our door. Immediately I tried to shut the door before the dog and the spray gained entry, but I failed. The dog, whining and whimpering, squeezed through along with a healthy dose of skunk spray. I heard my wife offer a mild, yet loud, curse from the bedroom. Over the next couple of days, we learned what works at removing the skunk smell and what doesn’t. (Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda works. My wife has the exact proportions for the mix should you ever need it.)
While I’ve always carried a healthy caution when it comes to skunks, I knew that one couldn’t kill me. The first time I ran head first into a moose, I realized I could meet my end quickly. Again, I was in high school when we met. On a Saturday following a Friday night football game, we decided to drive along a river several miles outside of town to find look for an old laterite or gilsonite mine that we thought we had spotted. Eventually we reached the end of the road and had to walk the last mile or so along the river and up the side of the canyon. We made it to the dark spot on the rock outcropping that looked like the entrance to a mine. It turned out to be just a small recess caused by weather erosion. My friend, who had twisted his ankle in the game the night before, suggested that we climb directly down to the river through all of the tall water plants and walk along the sandy bottom to the car in order to avoid hurting his ankle more.
His suggestion made sense. So, I took the lead pushing my way through the tall plants to make sure he wouldn’t fall into any deep holes or trip and fall. Finally, with some effort, I made it to the edge of the water. As I started to step out I saw the large cow moose standing less than twenty yards away. Her head came up as she heard and smelled me. I stopped, planning to turn and quietly tell my friend that we had to go another way. Impatient as always, my good friend put his hand in my back and shoved me.
“What are you waiting for? Go!”
I landed right in front of the moose, who was now fully alert and fully perturbed. With adrenaline now rushing through my veins I was hyper aware of everything around me, almost like a super hero, a super hero that was about to die. I felt the cool water running past my legs, pulling at my jeans. I felt a breeze rustle the the leaves and branches of the bushes and saw the hair on the side of the moose move with the wind. Almost imperceptibly I heard my friend, having seen the moose, curse under his breath as he started to back into the bushes. The dark brown eyes of the adult cow moose stared down into my blue eyes for what seemed like an eternity. Each breath felt like a gift of life. I lowered my gaze to the water, acknowledging my weakness, and oh so slowly stepped back into the bushes, expecting to be rushed and stampeded at any second. Eventually I made it to safety.
The meeting with the moose, while exciting, wasn’t my most traumatic. In high school I was blessed to be employed by the county to clean up trash around the garbage dumpsters. We drove a beautiful, well-used, orange Ford F-150 all around the county to pick up the trash that fell out of the dumpsters or that was simply thrown next to the full dumpsters. Not an exciting job, but it had its moments and could be quite entertaining. One hot summer day we stopped by a dumpster not far from Myton. Someone had dropped a large, heavy fold out couch next to the dumpster. After picking up the loose pieces of trash we moved onto the couch. Picking it up we moved to the back of the truck. I was positioned by the head of the truck bed by the cab. As we lifted it up high enough to dump it in, something furry fell down my shirt. At the time my shirt was tucked safely into my pants, held tightly by my nylon braided belt. Trapped, the creature began to run and scratch at my belly, running in circles and passing my belly button several times, trying desperately to find a way out.
With a yelp, and perhaps a scream, I used all of my strength to throw my end of the couch into the truck bed. My coworker, unaware of what had happened, immediately began to worry for my sanity as I continued to yell, scream, and slam by body repeatedly into the truck in an attempt to crush the critter. Finally, in a final act of desperation, I ripped my shirt out from my pants and off over my head. The small, gray mouse flew away from my body finally free.
Eventually, my heart rate and breathing returned to normal. I killed the poor mouse. I’m not proud of that fact, but that’s what happened.
Now, I have a few more stories, some involving snakes, owls, and even wild horses in Mongolia, but since nothing compares to being the survivor of a grizzly bear attack, I’ll think I’ll stop here. I am a survivor, a survivor of an unexpected and brutal mouse attack and I’m not even a wildlife biologist.