Illustrations by Kate Hindley
What should you do if you encounter a wild animal?
Some options tendered by SLC alumnae/i:
- Protect the dogs
- Feed it a carrot
- Steal its eggs
Read on for details in these firsthand accounts of alumnae/i getting up close and personal with our four-legged (and flippered and feathery) friends.
Not at Home on the Range
It was bad enough that my new colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation made me buy my first-ever pair of hiking boots—at the age of 38. It was sort of sad that after the first hike, down some nameless hill in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I was so sore I couldn't climb stairs for a week. It was funny, if unnerving, when on my first day as the vice-president for communications, one of my colleagues ordered to close my eyes and hold out my arms, so he could drape his pet snake on the silly lady in her suit and high heels.
What did I expect, the Jewish Philly rowhouse girl, the graduate of the angst-y, creative college, hanging out with the conservationist cowboys?
After years of working with the snarky urbanites at a DC public relations firm, and a dramatic period opening the Holocaust Museum along with an assortment of scholars, curators and survivors, the job at the National Wildlife Federation looked like a welcome change. And it was. I learned about black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs, zebra mollusks and grey wolves. The hunters and anglers, the 40 Native American chiefs with whom I did a satellite news conference, the wonky wildlife biologists—they all had something to teach me.
But the experience I remember best was a drive with a colleague from our Boulder office to a meeting in Wyoming. We stopped in the middle of nowhere so I could see the bison that we were working to restore to Native American lands. From the side of the road they were so big, so shaggy, so … cute. So, while my friend tried to get a cell signal to call the office, I hopped the fence and meandered over. I got within about 20 feet of these gigantic, smelly, sort-of-Disney-by-way-of-National-Geographic-looking-things when my colleague shouted in utter panic, “What are you DOING? STOP! TURN AROUND SLOWLY! COME BACK!”
Meekly I did as I was told, then hopped back over the fence and looked at him quizzically. He was so stunned he could barely speak. “Jesus, Naomi those are wild bison; they weigh a ton; they are dangerous!”
I really did think, God help me, that I could just reach out and pet one.
Peeper and the Bear
While interning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, I was fortunate enough to learn some falconry techniques. The sanctuary possessed three birds of prey that they used to educate visitors about raptor ecology. My favorite of the three was a broad-winged hawk called Peeper. While hawks are supposed by most people to be majestic, wild, savage birds, this one never stopped peeping. Actually juvenile chirping noises, these peeps would increase in frequency and pitch whenever Peeper was stressed or upset. In contrast, when he was calm and comfortable they could become soft and almost pleasant-sounding. In this way, his peeps served as a sort of barometer for his mood.
One evening after a busy day educating visitors at the sanctuary, I was putting Peeper away for the night. Dusk was just beginning to turn to darkness as I carried him down the hill toward his enclosure. I fumbled with the lock and chatted at the ever-peeping bird on my arm, when suddenly he stopped peeping. My eyes instantly flew to Peeper. He was hunched over and intensely focused on something over my shoulder. I slowly turned, marveling about what could possibly have inspired such fascination, when my eyes fell on a large, heavy-set black bear snuffling in a pile of fallen leaves just 15 feet way. And though the bear seemed unaware of my presence, I was alone and totally defenseless, holding this other little life tethered to my arm.
I slowly and silently stepped into Peeper’s enclosure, both of us riveted on the bear. I tried to watch it through the layered slats of the door, but it was getting hard for me to see its dark body against the darkening forest. This was not a problem for Peeper: he was still riveted to what he could see through the slats. I whispered to the still-silent hawk, more to comfort myself than anything else: “Can you still see him?” In response, he peeped softly three or four times. I let him watch, feeling that I could trust his superior senses to act for the welfare of us both. After a minute I ventured, “Is he gone?” A couple of more soft peeps answered.
A few minutes more of this quiet suspense, and then Peeper shook out his feathers as birds do after a stressful moment, looked me blandly in the eye and started peeping loudly. It was as if he was saying, “Well, are you ever going to let me off this stupid tether? Honestly, I don’t know what’s keeping you!” Still feeling pretty shaken myself, I managed to unfasten his jesses and release him.
Although I saw no sign of the bear once I was outside, I forced myself to sing loudly as I hurried down the hill to my apartment just in case it was still somewhere nearby.
Peeper never gave any indication that he remembered our brief closeness. Instead, he continued to be the same nervous, hard-to-handle, peeping bird he’d always been. I, on the other hand, sang very loudly every time I walked alone through those woods, and always paid close attention to the presence and pitch of Peeper’s peeping.
Since my graduation from veterinary school 20 years ago, I had practiced small animal medicine in suburban Philadelphia. But in March 2009 my wife accepted a job in rural Arizona. Shortly after moving, I joined a small animal practice in Camp Verde, a small farming and ranching town on the Verde River.
A few weeks after I started, the practice owner asked if I could come in to help with some emergencies. First I treated two dogs that had been attacked by a band of pig-like javelinas (collared peccaries). Both dogs had been severely injured by a male javelina, which had used its tusks to tear at their skin and muscles.
The owner of the dogs—both large pit-bull mixes—had been walking with his infant daughter by the river when the javelinas attacked. Javelinas are preyed on by coyotes, so they are very wary of any canines and will attack them if threatened. The owner rescued the dogs by shooting the male javelina with a revolver.
Just after I finished working on these dogs, a 4-pound Chihuahua was brought in by his owners. The Chihuahua had backed into a cactus, then turned around and bitten it. The Chihuahua was completely covered in cactus spines and looked more like a cactus than a dog. With some difficulty, I anesthetized the dog and removed all the spines.
When I moved West my first thoughts were about treating dogs for snake bites and valley fever; javelinas attacks and cactus spines have turned out to be more common.
It was June, the beginning of the rainy season in the southeast corner of Costa Rica. I’d arrived in January, having just turned 18. I was standing on a beach in Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, keeping watch for endangered mothers-to-be, in order to take their eggs to a protected hatchery, where they would be less likely to fall victim to poachers, dogs, and other hazards. Inky clouds hung heavy in the sky, threatening to open up again at any moment. The sound of a distant zipper reminded me that I wasn’t alone; other volunteers were posted further up the beach. Then I felt the rush of reward, as I saw a splash and then a quick flash of moonlight reflected off a shell as a turtle emerged from the water.
Adult leatherbacks are massive. They can reach up to eight feet long and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. This one was about five and a half feet, and she grunted and sputtered as she moved her bulk up the beach, stopping after each forward movement to catch her breath. I found myself willing her to keep moving, chanting lines from The Little Engine that Could under my breath. Female leatherbacks are extreme examples of the drive to reproduce. Not only is their biological clock extremely accurate, but they also have an internal sense of direction that rivals any GPS. When females reach sexual maturity (at 18-20 years), they are compelled by instinct to travel extraordinary distances to the beach where they hatched in order to fulfill their maternal destiny.
When the turtle finally made it far enough up the beach to protect her nest from being washed out by the waves, I knelt behind her. The process of collecting eggs for conservation is made much easier by the fact that when a turtle reaches “her” beach, she goes into a kind of trance, becoming a giant laboring zombie whose only drive is laying her eggs. She would have no idea that I was even there, let alone about to purloin her precious eggs in the name of environmental sustainability. She began to dig, sending the sand flying in every direction. After a few moments, she slowed and began using her flippers to smooth out the walls of her boot shaped nest. That was my cue. I pulled the clear plastic bag from my pocket, and when she finally removed her flippers from the hole, I snuck the bag under her backside and held it open.
She let out a loud, long moan and pressed her flippers against my hand. I could feel the coolness of her cold-blooded skin and a slight stinging sensation as coarse granules dug into my hand. She let out another sigh and pressed again with even more force. As her body released from its contraction, five small, white, perfectly round eggs slid out of her body, falling plop-plop-plop-plop-plop into the bag.
As I felt the weight of those tiny lives in my hands, I thought of the turtle’s journey, and how in a few weeks I would be going home to start my own adulthood. I had never felt so female, so connected to The Sisterhood, and to the process and pangs of motherhood that rule our bodies and, many times, determine our lives. It was the first time I really realized that someday I would make that choice: to give into instinct or to stay an observer.
The process repeated itself until my bag was nearly filled with leathery ping-pong balls. As soon as the turtle began to bury her nest, I pulled the bag out of the hole and sealed it with a twist-tie. With the bag held close against my chest, I made my way, quickly and carefully, down the beach towards the hatchery.
“You'll never get close to the Exmoor ponies,” said the voice of experience.
My sister was in England for a veterinary program, and during spring break my family and I went to visit her. We wanted to see the entire country in a week, of course, and after driving the rental car to the limit we awoke to find ourselves out on the western tip of Exmoor National Park, all grassy hills and rolling valleys.
The word was that herds of wild ponies roamed the park, but there was no reason for me to get my hopes up. We needed to move quickly to be in Avesbury the next day, where a ring of stones circled the town. Still, in the middle of all our driving, we did stop to wander in the fields and rest by a stream.
As calm descended on my family, a pony’s head peeked out over the crest of the hill. We pulled out the cameras, and I jogged a little closer. To my surprise, the ponies saw no harm in passing me on their way to the stream, and I found myself running along next to them as they headed straight for my family. Soon we were feeding one a carrot and feeling very proud of ourselves, though my sister scolded me for getting too close to the horses. I argued that they were close to me. The ponies seemed far less dangerous than being stuck in a car with my family for the next six hours.
Last year I told my sister I was headed to Mongolia, where animals abound and horses would watch me on my way to work. She pictured me running past them or even trying to ride one. She sighed.
“You're going to get kicked in the head,” said the voice of experience.
A Brief Friendship
When I was 12 my father presented me with a day-old fawn he had found in the field when he was mowing. Instantly I needed to be trained to care for an innocent and completely dependent creature. Summer vacation had just begun, and my days and nights were now to be divided into feedings every four hours, which is what my father prescribed. I learned how to sterilize the baby bottle and rubber nipples, the right temperature for the milk I would warm on the stove, and how to test it on my wrist.
I named my fawn Flag, after the deer in The Yearling, which I had read that spring, by chance. In the dark of night I would go out at eight and at midnight and at four in the morning and so on through the day. I would take the bottle of freshly warmed cow’s milk down to Flag in his little stall—a small, old cabin my father had remodeled for his pigeons—down away from our house and beyond the horses and peacocks and chickens and all their individual shelters. Flag learned to trust my efforts. I could carry him in my arms when he wasn’t walking along with me.
Flag grew fast. He stuck by me during the day. The dogs were decent to him. I remember his little horn nubbins growing in toward the end of the summer.
In the three months I had him, he learned to come and go. Mostly he would return home for the night. He lost his spots.
I had a horse named Cassidy. If Flag went off for a day or two, I would ride out in the early mornings, sometimes in the dim of dawn, and bleat for him. I remember him coming up to me once out in the wild away from home. I spoke deer, and it helped that I was on a four-legged animal, and I believed the other deer were listening to us too.
The day after I went back to school at the end of the summer, Flag disappeared from my life as surprisingly as he had appeared. My mother told me he had eaten poisoned pears that had been sprayed on the neighbor’s place. I never said goodbye
I can still smell the dried, sweet milk on his soft little muzzle where it spilled all over him as he learned to handle the baby bottle, and how he would stab his muzzle at me in his eagerness to be fed.
Still Life with Moose
I was still a student at Sarah Lawrence when I spent my first winter in Alaska. My boyfriend’s family owned a potato farm tucked into the rolling hills of the Tanana Valley, outside Fairbanks. They cultivated crops among spruce forests from a cabin with no running water or electricity.
They warned me to take moose seriously. “They’re usually harmless. Unless they’re threatened, angry, in heat, protecting their young … or just plain-old ornery.” I laughed, thinking of goofy images like the cartoon Bullwinkle with his Canadian accent. Then I started seeing moose around the farm fields and wandering across town roads. I realized they were closer in size to horses than deer, and moved faster than their knock-kneed legs would suggest.
Their tracks crisscrossed the farm’s snowy trails. They were drawn to the land’s stalky willows and fallow fields. After the warning I was always on the lookout as I skied the three-mile loop through the farm and when I took the dogs mushing. I’d spook at every raven squawk or rustling hare, imagining it to be a moose barreling toward me.
If I did meet a moose on the trail, I’d slowly backtrack, even if it meant skiing miles out of my way. It was the dogs I really worried about. I had my hands full with the learning curve of Alaska, so the notion of keeping other creatures out of danger seemed an impossible responsibility. My heart would race when the dogs picked up the pace, noses quivering as they caught the scent of a moose up the trail. I’d think about Alaska’s most famous female dog musher, Susan Butcher. During the 1985 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race a starving, crazed moose attacked her team. Susan had only an ax to defend her dogs. The moose trampled two of them to death and injured 13 others before another musher came along with a gun. Susan was forced to quit—the only time she didn’t finish the race.
Over time my fear subsided and I learned that moose would usually ignore me if I ignored them. A couple years later I had my closest and most sobering encounter. One of my boyfriend’s brothers shot a bull moose during fall hunting season. I stood in the field late at night holding a flashlight and one of the moose’s legs so the creature could be butchered. I stroked its coarse hair and watched steam rising off the still-warm body, and marveled at its muscle and thick antlers. I didn’t eat that moose when it made its way to the dinner table because I couldn’t get the image of its blank eyes out of my mind.
Now that I’ve left Alaska for a life in Washington, D.C., I miss those moments when the sight of an animal was humbling and held me still. I’m getting used to the city’s marble buildings and honking cabs, but the memory of moose makes me thankful for the woods where I once lived.
At the secluded resort on a Thai island in the Andaman Sea, I planned on solitude, a quiet contemplation of the ocean. Nestled high on a hill, my bungalow afforded sparkling water views. When I wasn’t eating or swimming, my existence centered on balcony-time. At sunset, I watched the clouds float by. This view afforded me peace … until the monkeys arrived.
The first time I heard them, they sounded like a bushel of apples getting dumped on the roof. I leaped out of bed to watch them through the sliding glass doors as they jumped off my roof, swinging from tree to tree.
Later that day, I stood on my balcony, startled to see a monkey on the deck of my neighbor Jane, gnawing on her baby-doll t-shirt like it was a piece of string cheese. Since monkeys carry diseases, I darted inside, only to watch it trot over to my place seconds later and kick a nearly empty water bottle over the edge before going on his merry way.
Jane told me that on a recent morning, a monkey had come up behind her as she walked, jumped on her back, and “gave her a big hug.” She said it with wide, happy eyes, as if this were completely normal, nothing to fear. After explaining how the monkey played with the hair on her arms, she said, “They just come out of nowhere!”
This, however, did not prove to be my experience. Hyper-vigilant, I heard them coming from far away, tipped off by the faint rattling of tree branches. When I swam in the ocean, I often looked up and saw the trees shaking. Monkeys! Before long, that was all I could think about: When were the monkeys coming? And would one succeed in biting me?
Strangely enough, the monkeys bore an uncanny resemblance to the distracting thoughts in my head, like the urgent need to write a grocery list as soon as I would sit down to write. But the monkeys were not metaphysical. These were real, live animals testing my mettle.
One morning I was sitting outside when I heard the familiar rustling of the trees. I looked down, and there he was, staring straight at me. This was no warm, fuzzy Jungle Book monkey: this guy was flat-out ugly, with two large protruding teeth—a sign, Jane said, that he was of the biting variety. One look at his fangs and I bolted inside, locking the door behind me.
Behind the securely locked doors, my heartbeat quickened. First, the fang-monkey arrived. In seconds, two other, less scary-looking friends joined him. They bounced around on my deck furniture, as if they were taking pleasure from having forced a human indoors. One of them knew that the door was tinted, because he put his little hands over his eyes and pressed his face up to the door, looking for me. Before I could react, another jumped from the railing and flew toward the door, landing on the handles, shaking them feverishly. Clearly, he wanted in.
I wish I could say that I had an epiphany—aha! It’s up to me to control the monkeys of my mind!—and that as soon as I did, the real monkeys went away. But no. The monkeys did go away, but the likely reason is that, as I watched them merrily skip away that day, I remembered something: the perfume I wore, which I sprayed on to signal that it was time to write, was heavy on the frankincense and lily notes—and probably smelled like food to my unwelcome visitors.
Sure enough, after I stopped wearing the scent, it was back to dreaming on the balcony—at least until I found an 8- inch centipede crawling in a pair of folded pants, and two hard eggs that a gecko laid in my sneaker.