Because our school contains a hundred plus acres of wilderness land which flows seamlessly into thousands more undeveloped acres of the former Fort Ord military facility, we have the great good fortune of regular wild animal sightings. As we attend our periodic assemblies, we can look out through a wall of glass to a canyon where hawks and buzzards circle on the updrafts, and quail scratch and skitter, their top-knots waggling as they zig-zag in search of juicy morsels. Tiny bunnies venture cautiously from the underbrush to nibble at the grass. During my final approach to school last week, I had to slow the car as a turkey hen and her brood crossed the road in front of me. It gave me a chance to reflect on the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin who recommended the turkey as our national symbol rather than the bald eagle. It is, after all, indigenous to North America. It is also beautiful in a subtle, understated, non-braggy kind of way. As the hurrying group filed in front of me, I tried to get a good look at each of the mid-sized poults. I wanted to help bear witness to their presence in the world, however brief. Humans aren’t the only carnivores that like the taste of turkey meat. Though there were six or seven last week, the hen will be lucky if she raises two to adulthood.
In the last month, our environmental science teacher has started one of the best projects ever at our school. She and the tech team have installed two critter cams in the area we’ve come to call the Outdoor Lab. The very first twenty-four hour period returned gold.
This bobcat apparently regards the Outdoor Lab as his personal territory because we have regular sightings of him, both by day and night. The critter cams have also caught a coyote, multiple deer and a mystery animal which may have been a running mountain lion. The image is too blurry to say for certain, but cougar sightings (the four-legged variety) are not uncommon around Monterey. My personal favorite critter cam catch appeared on the school’s blog under the heading “Some wildlife is more wild than others.”
|Wildlife in the Outdoor Lab|
That shot was taken on a day when Cleo and I were helping the envi sci teacher collect the photo cards from the cameras. Cleo is in her typical outdoor stance: nose aiming towards the ground scenting something while her back leg is held in the characteristic “Ow, there’s something stuck between my pads” position. Whenever we walk in the “wilderness,” by which I mean anywhere that’s not paved, Cleo adopts this stance almost instantly. It’s accompanied by a pathetic little hop that has John and me calling her Chester. That’s a Gunsmoke reference for you under-50 crowd. Um, Gunsmoke was a television show back in the day when we had only three channels to watch. I know. Hard to get your mind around, huh?
Not all the wildlife is over in the Outdoor Lab, though. Years ago, the school adopted two desert tortoises which were first named Fred and Rosie. Now, before I tell you this next part, you need to understand that it can be something of a challenge to determine gender where desert tortoises are concerned. A couple of years ago, certain, shall we say, behaviors on Rosie’s part led us to believe that we’d gotten their names reversed. We decided that to try to remember to call them by each other’s names, perhaps more gender-appropriate, would be so confusing that it just wasn’t worth it. It’s not like they come when they’re called, anyway. Turns out it’s just as well. An art teacher joined us this year who happens to be a desert tortoise specialist. Fred and Rosie, it seems, are brothers. Somewhere in their thirties, they’re about the size of dinner plates. I can confidently tell you, they are not afraid of Bedlington Terriers.
I don’t know how it is that Cleo never noticed them before a couple of weeks ago. Indoors, they live in a kiddie pool in the prep area of the science building. She has walked by that kiddie pool several dozen times in the last two years. On warm days, they move to their outdoor enclosure, a large dog pen on a stretch of dirt between the science building and the parking lot. Cleo and I were on a mission a couple weeks ago when I spotted Fred and Rosie outside and thought she might like to meet them. Not one of my better ideas. From the first sniff, she has been tortoise-obsessed. She is the poster-child for the joke, “What’s the difference between a terrier and a terrorist?” Answer: “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”
The first thing that happened was that Rosie yanked his head into his shell while Fred charged Cleo. It might seem funny to think of a tortoise “charging,” but I’ll tell you, I was glad the wire mesh of the pen was there to keep them apart. I had images of that tortoise beak clamping down on Cleo’s nose and doing some serious damage, especially because Cleo wasn’t daunted at all. She danced around the enclosure, trying to look at Fred and Rosie from every possible angle. I was finally able to drag her away from them, but every chance she gets, she’s back up at that tortoise pen. In fact, the next day, she actually ran out of the library, something she’d never done before, and made a beeline for the tortoises. Over the next few days, I made a point of showing her that the pen was empty every time we went by. I was hoping that she’d come to understand it wasn’t worth running over there because nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t be outside. I know, I know. I give her too much credit for logic.
So last Wednesday, Cleo and I were taking our afternoon leg-stretch, and I saw that Fred and Rosie were, indeed, outside. Okay, I thought, maybe what I need to do is get Cleo so used to seeing them that she doesn’t care anymore. Go ahead, laugh. I’ll wait till you’re done.
Ready? Okay, so over to the pen we go. Fred and Rosie were eating, so chose to ignore Cleo completely. For Cleo, it was like seeing a squirrel scampering around a tree, a possum standing on the backyard fence, and an alien invasion all at once. Barking furiously, she started alternately trying to dig her way under or hop her way over the metal barrier. She pawed at the pen, slammed it with her shoulder, raced from one side to the other. Fred, standing closer to the edge, turned a baleful stare on her and continued chewing. I’m not sure which of us was most startled when Cleo shoved her face through one of the square gaps and closed her teeth on Fred’s shell. She didn’t have enough of a purchase to hold on, but there was an audible clacking noise and a telltale damp semi-circle on one edge of his shell.
At this point, I decided it would be a good move to leash her and attempt to get her to exercise some self-control. For a couple of minutes, she continued to bark, lunge and try to bite through the fence. Eventually, I got her to sit, quivering, and just look at them. But by this time, she was so agitated and over-heated that as she sat staring at them, she started listing to one side. She caught herself, then began to slide the other way, slumping against my leg. Fighting down a little panic of my own, I stepped away from the tortoise enclosure. Cleo readily followed me, but hadn’t gone two steps when she staggered and sat down again. All I knew was that I had to get her out of the sun and away from the tortoises. I scooped her up and all but ran back to my office, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth for much of the way. But even before we were back in the library she was asking to be put down. Once in the office, I set her in front of her water bowl and opened the windows for a good cross breeze. She tanked up, then stood extra-patiently as I picked grass and twigs out of her tassels and paws. By the time I’d finished grooming her, she seemed perfectly fine and was ready to play again.
Cleo was a good reminder: It’s not the life we encounter that challenges us, but how we react to it.