The urban wild
In the beginning was the bat. Roger, Isolde,* and I sipped margaritas on a warm August evening in their Boulder condo. Suddenly, Roger slammed down his drink, pointed to the ceiling and screamed, “Look out!” As a black, papery blur fluttered around the living room, I dived to the floor and slithered under the table. Roger, more experienced in such matters**, whacked the bat to the floor with his flip flop, trapped it in a bowl and relocated to the out of doors. After we determined that the house was clear, I crawled out from under the table and noticed a scratch on my arm that wasn’t there before. “Rabies is 100 percent fatal,” Roger said. Then he mixed another round.
The bat incident, which occurred just a few days after I moved to Boulder, was my initiation into the urban wild. I’ve spent most of my life in rural areas, and many days and nights exploring the depths of so-called wilderness. Yet my encounters with wildlife, especially potentially hazardous ones, have been fairly scantº. That is, until I moved here, to Colorado’s sprawling and heavily populated Front Range metropolitan area.
I knew Boulder was fraught with hazards, from yoga instructors, clad in curve-and-crevice-revealing spandex pants striking poses in upscale coffee shops, to guys in short shorts yammering on about body mass index, to the high-priced frozen yogurt treats that, only after you get through the checkout line, you realize are made for dogs. But wild animals? Yes. It turns out that whether I’m on a trail run or my daily commute, I’ve become a sort of suburban Craig Childs, with every bike path and cul de sac offering the neck-prickling danger of some animal encounter.
I no longer feel safe having drinks with friends. I can’t ride my bike too fast down Flagstaff Mountain (dozens of too-tame, CWD-deer constantly forage by the road, just one stepping out in front of me at 40+ mph... Ouch). Even the bike paths and quiet streets can be treacherous: I’ve narrowly avoided chicken-playing squirrels and an incomprehensibly large bear poop; had I collided with it on my bike, the consequences would have been dire.
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Boulder, I was riding down a path when I turned a corner and the path appeared to be covered by a beige, many-headed, writhing monster, forcing me to lock up my brakes. The monster turned out to be a pack of prairie dogs that had taken up residence on either side of path. Later, when I mentioned the incident to acquaintance, she asked: “Are you for the prairie dogs? Or against them?” Wildlife politics in Boulder are often much more dangerous than the wildlife itself. Boulder prohibits the killing of the prevalent prairie dogs sans permit, yet some of them have been known to carry the plague (a serious downer for a Boulder fitness regime). So, some folks want them relocated; others say no. It's a heated, sometimes just weird, (even weirder) debate. I don't think the fact that Boulder's prairie dogs will be the subject of a climate change study will ease the tension.
On that very same day, I drove past Anthem, the “new home community” that sprawls north from Broomfield. Pulte Homes, which manufactured the community, says living here is “... like living on a giant cruise ship on land.” Except for the coyotes, I guess. Three children have been attacked by coyotes in Anthem this summer. Ten coyotes were killed in retaliation (If you can find the logic in that math, please let me know). Broomfield will now join a Denver-metro-wide study of coyote/human interactions and behavior, and implement a “coyote watch program” -- a takeoff from the neighborhood watch programs -- that will include “making noise and performing other activities designed to scare off coyotes.” Which, in turn, would make a really great video for YouTube, I imagine.
Boulder, meanwhile, might think of instituting a raccoon watch. Near the end of September I was visiting the recycling bin, and down at the bottom of the dumpster, huddled up among the bottles and cans, was a raccoon. Not dangerous? Consider this: Just one night earlier, a guy was eating dinner on the patio of a local hotel when he saw a raccoon “acting strangely.” The animal then jumped up and bit the guy. While the dumpster raccoon was rescued (not recycled), the hotel ‘coon wasn’t so lucky.
Of course, the animals that get most of the attention around here are the two biggies: bears and mountain lions. In fact, the City of Boulder just completed its mountain lion and bear plan to go along with its prairie dog ordinance (why no bat or squirrel plan?)†. And a young male lion wandered onto the University of Colorado campus yesterday, and had to be tranquilized and removed.
I have my own bear plan: Run away. And I had a chance to test it just recently, when I was running on a trail on the edge of town. Though I had seen a lot of people on my run, I finally found myself alone as I entered a sunny meadow. And then I saw the bear. It stood on its hind legs, not fifty feet away from me, staring me down. I froze. It moved towards me. I waved my arms, yelling obscenities. It walked away, and I sprinted toward home. But my retreat was cut short when I came across a woman reading a book next to the trail. “Not to alarm you,” I said, “but there’s a bear right up the trail. You might wanna...” “A bear!?” she said, her eyes getting big. “Ooooh, I wanna see.” She promptly jumped up and ran up the trail toward the bruin††. I used the opportunity to save myself.
That was about a week ago. Yesterday, I reticently went back onto the same trail, avoiding that particular meadow. As I trudged through a thickly wooded area, it occurred to me that I’ve seen pretty much every hazardous animal except for one. I’m due. I did my best to rationally suppress the fear that then washed over me: These trails are swarming with other runners, making it statistically less likely that I’d be the victim of an attack. But then I started thinking about how the average Boulder runner might look to a mountain lion: Quick, resembling a skinny deer without hair, gristly, salad-fed, tough and gamey. Then I thought about how I must look: Slow, marbled with that pint of salted caramel gelato I ate last night, seasoned with many a Larkburger, garlic and homegrown tomato, and marinated generously in white wine ...
I think it's time I took up yoga classes. The indoor kind.
*Names changed for privacy reasons.
** “Roger” should know. This was his second encounter with bats in his own home in Boulder, the first amounting to a frenzied battle in a dark bedroom. He ended up with a dead bat, and a scratch on his arm, which prompted the attending wildlife official to insist that he go through the painful (great big needles) round of rabies shots because, once symptoms appear, you’re already dead.
º With the exception of the time when, in the pre-dawn a.m., I awoke in our strawbale home out in the sagebrush to a strange sound emanating from just outside. I turned on the light to see a giant bull, with testicles the size of softballs, licking our plate glass bedroom window.
†† I’m pretty sure this incident somehow fits into what I call the Volvo/Bear theory, which says that there is a directly proportionate relationship between how liberal/affluent a town is, and how many bear/human conflicts it has. Aspen, Boulder, Vail and Durango are classic examples of this theory in action.
† The danger posed by Boulder squirrels has been intentionally downplayed, I believe. I have personally witnessed them throwing chestnuts at people, driving dogs into self-injuring frenzies, and running in front of me as I zip along on my bike in hopes of diverting me into a parked Audi. I strongly suspect the little power-line-scampering twerps to be of the steal-your-wife, hook-your-kids-on-heroin, chew-a-hole-in-your-brakeline variety, though this has not been confirmed. Did I mention that I also saw a fox sticking its head out of a rain drain in a curb? No danger here, though I suspect it was a distraction-causing foot soldier in the squirrels’ plan for world domination. It’s telling that Boulder has a mountain lion/bear plan, a prairie dog ordinance, and yet no mention of squirrels. Conspiracy?
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News.
All photos courtesy the author.