I was innocently working away in my office (living room) when the barking began. We live in a medium-sized town in southwestern Colorado, where owning a dog seems to be a prerequisite, and every canine in the neighborhood was going off about something, resulting in a cacophonous symphony. Our dog, Princess (no, we didn’t give her that name), joined the chorus with her incessant yapping. The barking had an urgent pitch to it -- the bear tone. December would arrive in just three days, so it would be pretty remarkable if we still had bears roaming around. It might even be some kind of record -- related to the drought and the wacky warm weather, no doubt -- and so worth noting.
A bear in our midst, for better or worse, has become a somewhat mundane occurrence. We live at the edge of the neighborhood, and our backyard is the wildland-urban dividing line. Not that creatures from either side of the line abide by it. Humans around these parts, often clad in spandex, swarm the hillsides like ants. Bears, raccoons, deer and coyotes roam the alleys like surly teenagers looking for some nutmeg to smoke. A mama bear and her cub spent a good portion of the summer lounging in our neighbor’s backyard, and the alley down the street has a permanent set of greasy bear tracks leading from the fast-food joint’s grease bin to trash can to wild plum to trash can.
When we first moved into our house this summer, I noticed a couple of old bags of garbage that had been strewn about in the scrub oak behind our house. I cursed the slovenliness of our previous tenant, then cleaned up the mess. A few weeks later, I noticed a similar pile of garbage in the front yard. It was as if a bear had gotten into our trash, but that was impossible since we keep our garbage in the garage. I inspected the neighbors’ curbs for evidence that their trash had been raided. Nothing. Cursing, I cleaned up the garbage, stumbling across an envelope with an address as I went. The trash had come from over a block away, down a hill and through a fenced yard. I was enraged: First, at the people for tempting, and endangering, a bear with their unsecured garbage (a veritable feast, with leftover takeout and organic grapefruit rinds!); and also at the bear, for dragging it so far just to eat it in my yard.
A week later, another pile of trash appeared in our yard. A few days later, another. It became clear that the bears were ordering takeout from all over the neighborhood, dragging it up the hill, and devouring it in our yard as if it were their living room. And we don’t even have television! I asked my sister, a wildlife biologist, what the hell was going on. “Ooooh,” she said. “That’s bad. It thinks your yard is its territory. That can be dangerous.”
Prior to this, when the bears showed up, I’d bring the dog -- who has no fear of bear or pit bull or mean cat -- inside, so she didn’t terrorize them. Afterward, I let the dog chase them away, or at least try. After all, I know that the bears probably know that each time they bring a bag of trash to my yard, I’m out there soon afterward, crouching down and cleaning up the mess. And I know the bears know that I might be a bit chewy, but -- marinated as I am in years of red wine, coffee, garlic and Cherry Garcia ice cream -- I’m probably a lot tastier than plastic-encased garbage and styrofoam-cartoned leftovers from the crappy joint down the street. This whole territory thing had to go.
So, a few days ago, when Princess was yapping her bear yap, I went out to help her tell those bruins who’s boss. I chuckled with some relief when I got outside and found that it was just a deer causing all the commotion. “Awww, c’mon, Princess,” I said. “Stop barking at the deer. Geez. It’s a nice deer.” It was a buck, a young one, I think, with a smooth, shiny coat and a mid-sized rack. It moved through the scrub oak with a certain grace, on long delicate legs that reminded me of a dancer’s. Princess kept barking, but the deer wasn’t fazed. Instead, it circled around, walking onto the lawn, it’s big black eyes unblinking.
I was shocked, but also delighted by its lack of fear. Ahh, to see nature up close! To commune with the wild! To practically be able to reach out and touch this kindred spirit of the woods!
A friend of mine, after reading a book called Teen Psychic, adopted a bear as her spirit guardian -- this sort of thing is considered normal around here. The psychic ursine stands quietly at her side until her boss throws a temper tantrum, at which point the bear bares its claws and tears the boss a new one, psychically, of course. Given Princess’ chutzpah and her obstinance, I’m pretty sure her psychic guardian is that short, stout German woman who yelled at us on the U-Bahn for speaking English, but that’s another story. As for me, I understood at that moment that the buck -- the noble stag -- would be my spirit’s protector.
I looked meaningfully into its shiny eyes, and tried to let it know that I wouldn’t harm it, and that far from enemies, we were allies in this chaotic and crazy world. Apparently, Princess’ yapping distorted our mind-meld, because the deer didn’t return my warm and fuzzy feelings. It just looked at me like it was deciding who to kill first, me or Princess.
I backed up, putting an iron table between the buck and me, then I started screaming at the dog to shut the heck up and run. She didn’t listen (aforementioned German Frau/psychic guardian merely gave me a stern look). I changed tack and yelled at the buck, instead, waving my arms and jumping up and down and lunging in its general direction to scare it away. He didn’t listen, either. Instead, he calmly took a few steps back, put his head down in full on battering ram position, and battered Princess, pummeling her into the dirt and rolling her along with skull and antlers as though she were no more than a furry sausage. Miraculously, the antlers did not penetrate, and Princess, covered with dust and shaken, was able to jump up and run onto the porch with me (by now I was cowering underneath the table, trying to summon my mountain lion psychic guardian without success).
The deer departed. Princess and I ran inside, alive and mostly unharmed. This time
According to the Intertubes, such attacks are not at all uncommon. Deer have been known to pummel dogs, people and sometimes even skateboarders (less of an attack, than a collision, methinks, but still pretty darned gnarly).
(Warning -- there are expletives towards the end of this clip)
In this crazy -- and kind of brutal -- video, a cat tries to play with a fawn, then the fawn’s mom beats the crap out of a dumbfounded dog. During the 2005-06 fawning seasons, Southern Illinois University was terrorized by a rash of doe attacks on students.
As for me, I now have to worry not only about the bears trashing my yard, but also about the deer stomping me or the dog down. For her part, Princess was scared to even go outside, for about five minutes. Then she seemed to get over it -- or forget -- and now appears set on revenge. Her bearing tells me she’d like a name change, too: To “Deerslayer.” Next time I hear that barking with the “bear tone,” I think I’ll just stay inside.
Photos of wildlife in the author's backyard all courtesy of the author.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colo., and his Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.