Saturday, 04 October 2014 19:27

Los Alamos Wildlife

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I was up late at my computer with my cat curled in contented bliss at my feet. Although it was October, it was a little warm in the house and I had opened the windows for a slight breeze. Suddenly my cat and I both heard at least two animals screaming. Something was getting killed and it was coming form the patio.

We looked at each other (sometimes I forget he is a cat) and at the same time we both got up to investigate. He always outruns me to the door because I’m slow and because it boosts his little ego.

Once at the door I turn the outside light on and notice my cat is backing up—doing either a moon dance or the first symptom of the eco-plague portrayed in the movie, The Happening.

It was neither.

As I looked out the patio door I saw two skunks having an argument about 20 inches from my feet. They are usually quiet little creatures that find silence is often an advantage to their existence. I don’t know what the argument was about. Both were mature adults so I figured it was something about their relationship. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to hear about it.

“Hey!” I yelled down to them—into the early morning darkness, “Knock it off.”

The two skunks were standing on their hind legs, facing each other, and arguing. The one facing in my direction looked up at me (standing behind his friend), turned, and ran. The one with his back to me continued to scream at the retreating skunk. He was feeling the awesomeness of his own fighting ability and somehow missed my cue.

“You guys . . .” I started to say—not knowing quite how to counsel angry skunks.

With these newly uttered words, the remaining skunk whirled around. All four feet and claws were almost at a ballerina angle and sounded like a small circle was being carved into the concrete. After rapidly turning around almost twice, the skunk flared out his tail and looked at me with “I dare you” eyes—his head low to the ground and his bristling tail held high—in my direction. It was clear he’d already had a bad evening and now he had an unwanted obligation to contend with me.

I slowly realized my peril as I gently reached for the door and softly closed it. Eventually the skunk stomped off—maybe to torment the other skunk some more.

I didn’t get sprayed, but I couldn’t help but wonder . . . what sane person plays referee with two angry skunks in the middle of the night?

My cat was now sitting way off to the side with his nose scrunched up. As he unblinkingly watched me walk back to my chair he almost looked as if his head was nodding sideways. His expression said everything.

“You are so stupid . . .”

High up in the mountains here in Los Alamos—everyone has to contend with nature. One can sit in their yard and be entertained all day (and all night) long by animal life. I am a real snob about pets because I only like one or two Siamese cats living with me at any one time. So when wildlife pays my house a visit, all sorts of freaky things tend to happen.

One afternoon I was watering the flowerbeds when I suddenly noticed my cat (yes—a Siamese) was paying close attention to a small garter snake moving through the mortar channels of the rock wall facade on the house. It was only a harmless garter snake but it was a snake nonetheless. I immediately took the cat inside but left him in his harness and leash. Although I had rescued him, he was the biggest (almost 35 pounds at one time) and most beautiful cat I have ever seen. He never went out unless I went with him but I didn’t want him to tangle with the tiny serpent. I told my sister to come out to look at it. In the meantime, a small crowd of curious pre-teen boys crowded in to see the snake.

The first words out of my sister’s mouth were, “Well, if there’s one, there’s going to be another one around here somewhere.”

“Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that!” I said to myself.

After her profound statement, she went back into the house and began watching TV again with a large glass of iced tea by her side—thoroughly unimpressed.

One of the neighbor boys promised me he wouldn’t hurt the snake if I let him have it, so I let him take it off my hands. Of course I didn’t touch the thing, but felt creepy crawly all over for having seen it.

After everyone scattered off, I then noticed that the peach tree needed a little harvesting and plucked the small amount of ripe fruit from it’s branches—careful not to transport any earwigs along with the treasures. I took everything into the house and stood at the sink carefully washing the fruit and again checking for those nasty, fast-moving little earwigs—at arm’s length.

I was thoroughly engrossed in keeping clear of bugs (and snakes) when something started slithering up my right leg. I screamed and threw the peaches in my hand everywhere. For a brief moment, I was sure the thing that had just crawled up my leg was a mutant snake crossed with a large earwig insect.

At my sudden scream, my cat loudly scrambled away from under my feet. I then realized that he had curled his body and tail around my leg in an affectionate bid for food—and that was the earwig/snake I thought I felt. As the cat left the kitchen he almost crashed into my sister coming in. She walked in and was completely drenched from head to foot, holding an empty glass, and with a look of concern on her face.

“What Happened—Why did you scream?” She was dripping wet.

“The cat curled his tail around my leg and I thought it was that ‘other’ snake you mentioned,” I said. “And and . . . why are you all wet?” I asked.

“I was just about to take a drink of ice tea when I heard you scream and it scared me so much that I managed to throw the entire glass in my face!” She didn’t find any of this funny as she turned around and went upstairs to take another bath.

I started to laugh so hard I didn’t see the drippings from my sister’s liquid mishap on the kitchen tile floor pooling beneath me. I slipped and fell on my backsides, but I couldn’t stop laughing. In a bid to regain my senses, I laid back on the floor. I lay there for a while among the peaches and spilled ice tea, making sure I hadn’t broken anything as I was trying amass enough dignity to stand up again.

My cat had regained his composure and had come back into the kitchen. He walked over and sat down next to my face in an almost loving gesture of concern.

He looked lovingly into my eyes as if to say, “Hi. Got anything to eat?”

After I got up off the floor and fed the cat, I later checked and saw that I had a large, perfect, star-shaped bruise on my derriere. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “It’ll go away in a few days. The next afternoon I was driving through White Rock with my car window down and my elbow slightly extended out the window. Suddenly something big and fuzzy hit my arm. I couldn’t find anything so I had just assumed that it was a rock or an insect that hit my arm and dropped back out—into the landscape. On the way back home and about thirty minutes later, I suddenly felt something stab me in my rear end. I half believed that it was just the star shaped bruise acting up a little. However after I got home, I checked and I clearly had a very large bee sting exactly in the middle of the star bruise. Now why did that bee crawl all the way down, cozy up for 20 minutes next to me, and then sting in exactly in that place? Did he really need a target that badly? Maybe he was drunk on some fermented nectar. Later, when I was telling some friends about the recent assault on my posterior, their 12-year old son listened intently. Knowing something about my occasional brushes with the paranormal, he quickly piped up and spoke in a deadpan voice, “A star? Gee, isn’t that the sign of the Werewolf?”

His parents and I all looked at each other as we all tried to keep from smiling in front of their son. We didn’t want to encourage him.

During the early 1970s I worked at the Los Alamos Inn and often walked from my apartment to work. An open field existed in most of the entire section that we now know from the large Mountain Bank Building is now located down to the Hilltop House Motel. In fact the Hilltop was only a small gas station in those days. The old police station was located approximately where Los Alamos National Bank is now. Various apartments I had lived in where located by this area and I often walked by as herds of elk grazed in this area. Sometimes I could count almost fifty heads. The coyotes were also nosing around but stayed shy of the elk—and me. Something we may not realize (now that we don’t have as much animal contact) is that when elk are in mating season they will run after and sometimes attack people (and even cars). I’ve been told that sometimes they get confused and think you are a female elk and will try to induct you into their harem. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I always walked a little faster past the ones with the really big antlers (and the love besotted faces). I remember once, about three o’clock in the morning I looked up and saw a huge elk with antlers so tall they almost brushed the overhead canopy by the Inn—about nine to ten feet high. I was safely inside the building, but his herd quietly followed him as they walked through the driveway and disappeared down into the canyon. While at the Inn, I have seen raccoons busy washing their hands in the swimming pool, a baby bobcat stuck in a dumpster who had to be sedated before he could be rescued and released back into the wild, and one crazy skunk who seemed to enjoy getting into the guest’s rooms and scaring them into corners.

During one summer, I would answered the phone to hysterical hotel guests and at the same time trying to talk them out of a panic until one of our busboys or maintenance men could get over to the room. While holding the phone, the guest would see an Inn employee come in and wave a large tablecloth or sheet like a matador, coaxing the skunk to leave the room.

Luckily no one ever got sprayed. That particular skunk almost seemed tame after a while. I think the skunk just liked the attention he got and enjoyed watching guests move around in funny little circles and screaming and yelling. He did it to several guests before winter had him hibernating in the canyon again. People would prop the doors to the rooms open and then forget to unhook them so they would close. This must have seemed like an awesome invite to some of the woodland creatures. We finally had to put up signs reminding guests to keep the doors closed because of the wildlife.

When we occasionally found the skunks and raccoons taking midnight tours inside the Inn dining rooms and kitchens, we would create trails of baloney to the outside and then shut the door so they couldn’t get back in. Again doors propped open and hungry critters.

One woman who was a waitress and lived in one of the rooms had a toy-sized daschund dog. She never let it out unless she was standing right there with it. She said not only did she see coyotes hanging around— hungrily eyeing at her dog, she was also concerned about the very large ravens we had in the town at that time.

Of course ravens are big birds, but at that time they were enormous! I remember going to the 7-11 store in Los Alamos early in the morning (was located on the northwest corner near the current Pet Store). I would see the birds around the dumpsters and when they landed it sounded like a small child jumping up and down as the ravens flew in and hopped around for scrapes of food.

“My gosh.” I said to “Rosie” (a gentle giant of a woman who worked in the store at the time). “I have never seen such huge ravens in my life. How in the world did they get so big?” I asked no one in particular as I stood there and admired the powerful physiques and massive wingspans of those black flying machines. Their wingspans could easily have been 12 feet wide. In fact, the size of those creatures was so daunting, I was careful to keep my distance from them. At least five of them were gigantic.

“Well,” said Rosie, offering to answer my question but never taking her eyes off the murder of ravens, “I only feed them two bags of old bread—each day.” She continued to seriously watch the birds like I did—from a careful distance and with respect.

I laughed, knowing she was too kind to see this large waddling bird begin his morning on an empty stomach. I knew you weren’t supposed to feed wild animals, but there was such sweetness to her kindness that I couldn’t say anything. No one else had to know. As soon as the morning became brighter the largest birds rose up to navigate on the thermals for the day. It was like a little secret. Since those times, I have never seen large ravens—like I did then. I suspect that someone who didn’t respect nature must have killed off all the biggest ones.

My backyard has drawn many small strange animals to visit. I once saw a badger skitter quickly across my patio. At first I thought he was an oddly colored skunk or raccoon. It wasn’t until he was out of sight that I realized that the brown chevron stripes along his back and his low carriage to the ground did indeed belong to a badger. Of course other people’s cats show up and visited with my cats. My big beautiful boy was neutered, but I would come home from work and often see him holding court with at least a dozen cats directly outside the screen door. He was a handsome boy— like Fabio of the cat world. I have also had occasional visits from ferrets. Although they had escaped from their owner’s yard (a neighbor—a few houses away) they were still a surprise! Especially when they let me pick them up and hold them. They just sort of snuggled into my arms. I almost didn’t want to return them to the owner, but I did.

I have seen chipmunks (who looked just like the cartoon Chip and Dale) play over a bit of cat food. I have seen other types of squirrels on our trees in the neighborhood. Once at a site location within the Lab, I once saw a huge porcupine lumbering within the nearby trees. I know of one house in Los Alamos that had a few plants along its front door path. Within these plants lurked hundreds of tiny, bright-green green snakes. The feisty little serpents were only two or three inches long. If you walked by the bush in the garden where they hid, they would all quickly rush at you with open mouths as they hissed and displayed little fangs. I know I’m supposed to be afraid of this, but every time I walked by I would get the giggles when they would do that to me. About fifty of them would rush me at a time and they all looked like babies trying to be tough—but too scared to really fight. They would retreat in unison and another garrison would come out. Of course I stayed a respectful distance away. I really don’t know what kind of snakes they were—just very short and extremely fast.

Of course, I have been an audience to the antics of the bears on Alabama Street and I have seen both a crawdad and a large catfish happily living in Ashley Pond—but I think the most unexpected thing I ever saw was a mountain lion. Probably about 25 years ago, at about 2:00 in the afternoon and I was driving my car on Pajarito Road—coming from White Rock and going to Los Alamos. A few miles before I ascended the hill past TA-18, I looked to the right at the grassy area before the cliffs. I thought I saw a large buff colored dog behind a fallen log. But it didn’t move like a dog because it was extremely slinky—like a cat. I looked at it once more, nearly bringing my car to a halt on the almost empty road. From the tip of its nose to the end of its long tail, it probably measured 4.5 to 5 feet. I saw it and then it disappeared somewhere into the field that was almost the same color as it was.

So if you live in Los Alamos, I’m sure you will (eventually) encounter much wildlife on your own—or something else as equally entertaining.

It was about 1973 and I was walking from my car to my apartment at about 3:00 a.m. I had been helping someone at work and did not get out until very late. But that was ok with me since I am more of a night person than a normal day citizen. It was quiet and peaceful and the dawn chorus was about two hours away. I started walking up the path to my apartment when I suddenly heard heavy breathing and the sound of heavy footsteps coming up from behind me. I started walking faster thinking it was a deranged, love-sick elk, a really big coyote, or even a mountain lion. As I walked faster and faster, my heart pulled up into my throat and I began to panic. Stupidly, I stopped and cringed as the thing came up by me.

And it passed me.

It was an out-of-shape jogger running in the dark so no one would see him. We didn’t have as many athletes and joggers at that time. If you ran anywhere, people would often stop you and ask if anything was wrong. The jogger continued on down the street and still said nothing. My knees were starting to work again and I quickly got into my apartment and locked the door.

Adrenaline can be induced from all sorts of species.

Nature is always exciting!


—Raven DeVille


Read 2332 times Last modified on Sunday, 05 October 2014 01:20
Raven Q. DeVille

Raven was born in the extreme SE corner of New Mexico, lived in the 4-corners region for 11 years, and has spent the last 50 years in Española, Santa Fe, and especially in the city of Los Alamos. She writes of her own various first-hand experiences, second-hand tales of friends, and various theories regarding ghost stories, legends and general oddness of Enchanted New Mexico.

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