Thursday, October 27, 2011

Predators, Poaching and Suicide

This is about the dark side of living in the country.  When humans touch land, sometimes bad things happen and this summer three bad things happened at the Dipper Ranch:  predators, poaching and suicide.  I feel partially responsible for one of them.  I'm talking about these bad things together to learn their lessons and then send them away.

Predators.  This is the one for which I feel partially responsible.  Predators by their nature kill things.  Domestic cats when provided the opportunity to hunt are often predators.  This is hard for me to say:  Cat King Cole killed the rock wren.  That's right, the unusual bird that showed up at the barn in August, bewitched my attention, and I wrote about in What Was That?  The same juvenile bird I watched nearly every day for 3 weeks hopping and poking around the pig pen, the barn, and the junk pile of culverts.  The curious bird that would fly out from under the barn door as I passed on my morning walk and bob up and down in greeting.  The bird I listed as an unusual sighting on the Peninsula Bird Yahoo group and got encouraging responses from local birders.  The chipper fellow my friends and I would watch from our lawn chairs as the setting sun cast a glowing light on the barn and brought out the evening flight of insects for his dinner.

My cat killed that bird.  How did that happen?  Ever since a coyote attacked Cole behind the barn on Halloween 2009,  I do not let my cats roam the ranch.  They stay in the house with one exception.  Every few days I carry Cole and sometimes lazy Mango the four steps from the kitchen door to the garage where I close them up for exploration and mouse patrol.

One day in late August as I was going in and out of the house frequently, Cole gave his "I want" meow so I slipped him into the closed garage and went about my outside chores.  Later, I heard him give his bugle call, the one that means "Pay attention."  That's an unusual call for him to use in the garage, but I figured since I had been out of earshot for an hour or so, he must have been calling for awhile to go back in the house, so I went to fetch him.  When I opened the garage door, Cole was standing beside the car with a brown bird in his mouth.  I screamed and dashed for him.  As I chased Cole around the car, I prayed that the bird was "just a house finch" and not the rock wren.  Finally, Cole dropped his prize and made a dash for the open door.  I reached under the car, and sadly, the bird was the rock wren.  It was limp and still warm.  Chastened, I set the little body in the sun in the garden.  Several hours later with evening coming on, I solemnly carried the dead rock wren to the corral for the coyotes to find and recycle his energy back into the land.

It never occurred to me that the rock wren would investigate the garage.  Although all the doors of the garage were closed while Cole was in there, the old building has lots of cracks.  Once when I was coming out of the kitchen at dusk, I even saw a small bat fly out of the garage through the vacant hole where the door knob used to be.  Yes, I had watched the rock wren explore the webbed crevices of the pig pen and fly in and out the vacant barn by the gap dug out by the rabbits under the door.  Now it seems so obvious but then, I'd never seen the rock wren near the garage and it just didn't occur to me that it would likewise explore this den of mice and cats.

As a dispersing juvenile, perhaps this bird was more exploratory and less cautious than an experienced adult, still it makes you wonder how these birds survive with all the other predators out there.  Sometimes, the obvious has to slam me in the face for me to notice.  The Halloween coyote attack happened so fast, I chased the coyote away just in time and Cole was not physically hurt.  I was so scared then but I got a second chance and to protect them, I don't allow the cats to wander loose in pursuit of their predatory instincts.  But I didn't get a second chance with the rock wren.  In the end, I understand that I need to be even more careful about where and when I let the cats hunt because small prey don't usually get a second chance.

Poachers.  This is the bad thing that puzzles me.  I am not a hunter but I am also not anti-hunting.  I've seen how hunting teaches people knowledge and respect for land, nature, safety and gives them a brotherhood of hardiness.  I would rather face a young hunter with a gun in his hands, one who has been taught about watchfulness and responsibility and who has witnessed a deer die from his own actions than I would want to face a bored kid cranked up on drugs.

While sitting in the backyard reading Richard Nelson in his book Heart and Blood:  Living with Deer in America, "For thousands of years, Native American people relied on the deer as a vital part of their cultural, spiritual, and economic lives," I visualized thousands of years of people hunting and deer getting born again and again right here, not only as a romantic notion in a James Fenimore Cooper novel, but also on the very land in front of my eyes.

In the most recent century and a half, the hills of the Dipper Ranch were in private hands, and owners and friends hunted the deer here.  Now that the Dipper Ranch is public land, hunting is no longer allowed.  I can understand how that would be upsetting to people who have lived and hunted in this region for generations.

But there is another long standing tradition and that is doing a good job at your chosen profession.  I did not make up the rules for this public land and I am not the family that decided to sell it.  I live on a preserve and it is my job to help manage the land and report any irregularities.  Mr. Poacher and Mr. Poacher Junior and Mr. Poacher Junior Junior (who can curse with the best of them) and Mr. Poacher Senior: what do you expect?  If I hear gunshots, dogs baying or see fences cut, ATV tracks, and flashes of light at night on public land closed to hunting, do you think I am going to pretend it is just not happening?  No, I am going to report it and let the law enforcement folks take it from there.  And whatever happened to good old-fashioned manners about not cursing in public especially in front of a lady?

Suicide.  Someone committed suicide on the Dipper Ranch this summer.  A stranger picking a miscellaneous spot and not something I witnessed first hand.  It is very sad.  To protect the family, I won't be sharing details.  I was only incidentally involved.  I noticed a car parked in an odd place and reported it.  Later that night, Brother John called me and told me the owner of the car had committed suicide nearby.  I was shocked and started cursing on the phone.  Brother John recognized that as a biologist, I was not used to dealing with suicides as are the rangers, so he waited and calmed me down.

Later, the rangers explained to me that suicides occur one or two times a year on our local preserves.  I asked them why do people chose to kill themselves in the beautiful outdoors.  They suggested that perhaps it is a safe place where no-one will stop them.  Or perhaps they gain some measure of comfort by being in a quiet and beautiful place as they end their lives.  I was upset to realize that cleaning up afterwards becomes the job of rangers and law enforcement.  They said they learn to deal with it and perhaps it is better that they take on this duty rather than the family.  It puts a different spin on the phrase "tragedy of the commons."

I've had a suicidal person in my life and seen the debilitating effect of depression, the inability to reason or find a way out of the darkness.  Once when I was worried about a friend, I made a confused phone call to a suicide hotline.  They asked a few questions, got the friend's name and address and hung up on me.  Turns out they knew something was wrong by my description and immediately got an ambulance out to the site that saved the friend's life.  Now, many years later, I hear that this person lives on and still enjoys hiking outdoors.

Since it is near my gate, I go by the location where this sad event took place on the Dipper Ranch almost every day.  A few days after the incident, I couldn't stand it anymore and I stopped and cleaned up the bits of trash that were left behind from the ambulance and coroner vehicles.  I found a mountain lion scat there, probably a few weeks old.  It's strange to think that through this hidden hollow passed a large predator probably looking for deer to sustain its life, and a person choosing death.  These events are not related but they share a spot on this earth and will stay that way in my mind forever.  I hum a little song when I go by that curve to keep it gentle.

I am not overtly religious and I don't think much about what happens in the great hereafter.  I figure that will be an adventure in another time.  Something about the ying-yang of living leaves me wanting to make sense of this suicide.  How could the natural world that so inspires my life be the same place that another person chooses to end their own?   One night while pondering the sadness, I found myself wishing that these two souls, the rock wren and the suicide victim, will find each other in another beautiful place and one that is more peaceful for them.
Little bird - I am sorry.


  1. Ahhh, tears to my eyes. Interesting that both defining events in KCC's trajectory occurred around All Hallow's. Kisses to the rock wren, and hugs to you.

  2. PS - advice from your cat-mama friend. Bell them both - it will be noise but you all will get used to it. My little Leopard used to regularly wrench my heart when she would bring home tiny broken bright-feathered songbirds. The bell on her collar helped, at least a bit. Also, you probably already have, but given the large land you live on, I'd microchip them for sure. It's cheap and not painful, and could come in handy if, G-d forbid, one of them wanders off.

  3. Cindy, you have such heart and soul. Goodness what an amazing entry. Real life to the core!

  4. The cats are chipped. They used to have tagged collars but I've never been able to find collars that stay on during their daily wrestling matches. I did put a bell on Cole once but he managed to lose it in 5 minutes. I found it a year later in a corner of the barn. I shudder to think what he was doing in there (=snakes).

  5. This is an incredibly sad and profound post. It took me a few days to reread and digest, and I wondered if/how I should comment. I was curious to know what happened regarding the human death after reading a couple drafts you inadvertently posted this past summer (they showed up in my google reader, and you'll be glad to know they're no longer there). Thank you for sharing, Cindy. I hope writing about these events helped you to let them go.

  6. Thanks for the story Cindy. When I started down this career path (land management) I had no idea how profound my life would become. You have eloquently provided the description with your stories.
    Lori and learned some very hard lessons with our cats, birds and how important it is to keep them safe when you live in rural areas. DT


Comments let me know to keep on sharing what's happening at the Dipper Ranch. You can either use an existing account or choose "Anonymous" by clicking the arrow after the "Comment As" box. Your comment will appear after a delay to allow screening of spam.