For six months of the year I live in the Sonoran Desert, a place where the wild animals are very different from those commonly encountered in my native Midwest. For example, it is not unusual in Arizona to see a skinny coyote loping across the back roads or even a black bear racing across the golf course in the distance. Mule deer, the homely cousins of the whitetails, calmly munch the grass on the driving range unperturbed by the dozens of golf balls thudding around them.
In addition to bears and coyotes, lots of these desert animals are dangerous. Take a hike in one of the national parks and you will be instructed in detail what to do if you encounter a mountain lion along the trail. My pet loving neighbors have to be especially vigilant to keep their small animals indoors lest they become “coyote popcorn.”
Despite the inherent danger or damage caused by our undomesticated neighbors, folks in the neighborhood get excited when they spot a wild animal. I remember once on an early morning walk, I encountered a woman in bathrobe and hair curlers rushing down the street to alert her neighbors that a mama wild cat and her kits had been spotted in the wash behind the human homes.
I, too, feel elated in the rare moments when I find myself in such close encounters with the wild side. Here are some moments I treasure:
I was sharing the afternoon sun in the back yard with a lazy lizard when suddenly the peace was shattered by a fierce roadrunner. Instantly no more lizard and the large winged carnivore disappeared almost as quickly.
Once I saw a strange creature climbing the live oak in our back yard. ‘Bob,” I called, “there’s an animal climbing our tree. It looks like a fox.” Neither of us humans knew that a fox could scramble up a tree as quickly as a cat, but sure enough the critter was a fox. Bob went outside to investigate and while he craned his neck to peer into the upper branches of the live oak, his presence was enough to convince out bushy-tailed visitor to exit the tree, but not enough to truly spook it. The fox scampered down the trunk and across the patio’s expanse and seemed to leap up onto the wall between our yard and the one next door. But then, having reached a perch of relative safety, the fox paused to have the last unspoken work. He turned around, surveyed the area, and then appeared to grin at us, making clear that this visit might be over but that there would certainly be others in the days and nights to come.
Perhaps the strangest creature I have encountered in the Sonora is the javelina. These peccaries look like wild pigs but are really huge rodents. They travel in family packs, typically at night and feed on the roots of potted plants. It is as if the humans have prepared them a smorgasbord. Usually gentle, albeit if smelly creatures, they can turn fierce if a person accidentally gets between a parent and its little one. The javelinas like to invade our front yard to eat the acorns that fall from our great oak tree. I don’t mind sharing the acorns with them, but their rooting habits damage our irrigation system and expose the black landscape mesh that keeps the weeds from poking up through the xeriscape stones. We’ve had overnight guests awakened in the night by javelina thumping against the front wall of the house in their quest for one more tasty morsel.
One morning just as we were getting ready to leave our villa for the season, a whole family of javelina visited our backyard. There were four babies and about seven adults. We were surprised to see them since the villa neighborhood is surrounded by high block walls. They must have trotted down the street and cut through our yard looking for an exit to more open spaces. At that time our lot abutted the golf course and had only a low wall along the back to afford us a view of the fairways. The adult javelinas, despite their not insignificant bulk, had no trouble climbing over the knee wall. But for the babies it was an insurmountable obstacle. Time and again an adult would go over the wall, demonstrating the technique. And time and again the little ones would fail. The parents exhibited seemingly inexhaustible patience, repeating the lesson over and over. Eventually, it was time for us to leave for the airport so we missed the final act. I don’t know whether the babies mastered the skill that morning or whether the entire tribe reversed its course and exited down the street. All I know for certain is that there were no hungry javelinas in our back yard when we returned the following winter.