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panther

I don’t believe in them, though if you travel up the roads in most of West Virginia and ask around, you will find people who believe. More than believe, they know.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t think there are any wild felines in the whole state but bobcats. I don’t think there are any cougars lurking about. Cougars were here, and one might wander in from the West.

But I don’t think there are any native “Eastern cougars” left.

And now, I don’t need to say that I don’t believe in black panthers roam the forests of the Appalachians.

But if you did a poll in West Virginia, I am dead certain that you’d get a majority believing they exist here.

It’s an odd thing, for the only large cat that routinely comes in black in the Americas is the jaguar. North American jaguars are very, very rarely black, and although one can talk of the old stories of wandering jaguars popping up well into the United States, the truth of the matter is the species has a very limited range in this country. The ones that live in this country all are male, and all live along the border with Mexico.

Black leopards might have been turned out here, but no one has found a breeding population of these cats. Black leopards come almost entirely from the tropical subspecies, and although there are jaguars that live in coldness of Korea and the Russia Far East, those subspecies have no melanistic individuals and are not well-represented in the captive leopard population.

If one were to poll people in West Virginia about the existence of bigfoot, only a tiny percentage of people would say they exist. Bigfoot is a ridiculous idea.

But black panthers are not.

I don’t know why the belief in these beasts is so persistent, but it may have something to do with the mystery of blackness.  Blackness on cats has a strong connotation for people of Northwestern European heritage.  Depending upon the region:  Black cats are good luck. Black cats are bad luck. Black cats accompany witches.

So adding a black pelt to a massive cat gives it some sort of mysterious power.

Mystery is good. Romance is better.

And I’ve found once people believe something for those two reasons, good luck dissuading them of the moonshine (and I mean this under both definitions of the word!)

West Virginia is full of coonhounds, bobcat hounds, and bear dogs.  One would think that if there were a population of big cats in this state, they would have been treed by now.

It hasn’t happened, but I know that one day, maybe not soon, but someday, a cougar from the West will wander into this state. It will be known, either from the trail camera photos or from a hound treeing, and half the state will lose its mind.

The DNR will say that cougars are protected species, and the guns will rage against the felines. Feral cats will be shot, and everyone who can will fill a few bobcat tags a year.

That’s because the cougar will be real, and in its reality, it will bring up that old-fashioned hatred of anything predatory in the woods.

But the black panther doesn’t bring that same feeling, and the reason why is that most people know somewhere back in their minds that they don’t exist in these forests.

They might not admit it in an argument at the barber shop. But they know.

Belief in the romance is what it keeps the black panther slinking along forest paths, slipping along until it crosses into the thick cover. It roars up in the imagination, wild and mysterious and untouched by encroachment.

It won’t be molested by the gun or the baying hound. It will slink on into the gray mists of winter, where it will roam as it always has in the magic and mystery of human reverie.

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black bear hunting

“There is no room for a bear and me in these woods,” my Grandpa Westfall always said. He always said that he’d shoot the first bear he came across, and he said that he would defend himself if he got caught with a little quip.

“If that judge asks if I shot that bear in self-defense, I will just say, ‘No, I shot him in the ass and he jumped de fence!'”

He once scoped out an errant emu in his pasture, dead certain that a black bear had foolishly popped its head out of the woods. He was just getting ready to commit a big game law violation, when the shaggy form raised its head and revealed itself as dinosaur and not the great fell beast of the mountains.

My grandpa was not an ignorant man. He was curious about nature and loved almost every animal. He was a hunter, a self-styled conservationist, who kept pet groundhogs and squirrels as a boy.

But he had a blind spot about bears.  He would always point out that some place called Bear Hollow was the place where the last bear in the county was killed. It probably wasn’t true, because there were always a few bears holding out as renegades in the deep woods. Occasionally, they would wander into more civilized areas, and all the papers would make hay about these wanderers.

Today, the bear population is growing steadily. They don’t make so much news now. The bear season is pretty liberal, and I’ve purchased the bear tag on my hunting license. For a West Virginia resident, it’s only $10, but I’ve never been in a good place to hunt bears.  Some day, I hope to be in the right place, and I’ll take a bear.

But I won’t be taking a bear with the same mens rea as my grandpa might have had if the emu had turned out to be truly ursine on that summer day. I would be taking a bear, but not because I think bears don’t belong in the forests. Bears belong in the forest. Absolutely.

But in taking a bear, I’m getting meat. It is the same meat that sustained my ancestor, Jehu Summers, who became a regionally famous frontier bear hunter in central West Virginia.

To them bears were simple things:  Bear hides for coats. Bear meat for sustenance. Bear grease for ersatz butter and cooking oil.

Both native and white used the bears in this way, and the natives likely did so for 13,000 years.before the Europeans arrived.  Hunting was the relationship between our species and theirs, and it made the bear what it is today:  a shy and retiring beast of the thick woods.

If I take a bear, I will be connecting back to my ancestor, communing with him as the flesh crosses my palate and down the maw.

The bears belong here because they sustained us long ago, and we owe to them to find a place where they can roam.

We hunt the bears to re-enact that ancient bond between bruin and hunter, adversaries in the war of existence who grapple across the same mortal plain.

The Alleghenies need their bears, just as they need people to hunt them. Without either, the landscape rings hollow and bland.

And to live next to large predators, it is of utmost importance that these animals know that nothing good can ever come from the hand of man. The black bear bolts for the brush when you wander into him in the forest, but would he think twice if some fool had been letting him eat garbage out of the backyard? If the bullets and arrows didn’t fly at the black hides, would the bears be bolder and more willing to test the gormless bipeds?

I think answer is yes, so in order to have black bears, there must be hunting. Their fear of man makes them manageable.

***

As a result of recent elections, New Jersey has slipped away from that Beachmaster Governor to one a little more rational. At least that’s how this Democrat sees it.

But about one thing this new governor seems to have been lost. I doubt he could have made it through the Democratic Primary had he possessed different views, but the new man in charge in the Garden State has promised to put an end to the bear hunt.

Bears in New Jersey have it pretty easy compared to those in West Virginia. The hunt is much more strictly regulated. An established quota is set. Once that many bears are killed, the hunt is called off that year.

In West Virginia, that $10 tag is sold to anyone who has the main hunting and fishing license.  If it gets filled or not, it is immaterial. That license can be bought next year, and if you’re really bear hungry, the state will even put you in a drawing to get a special tag to hunt your quarry in higher bear density areas that get special seasons.

But in New Jersey, bear hunting is controversial. Every year, protesters show up at hunting areas, cut some monkey shine, and get hauled off to the pokey.

New Jersey’s bear hunt has had some positive results.  Nuisance bear calls are down.  The bear population has been stablized.

With the bear hunt axed, though, it’s likely that the bears are going once again start hanging out near people. Wildlife managers with the state of New Jersey estimate that the bear population could double in four years if the bear hunt is abolished.

In the world of suburbs, the bears will do fine, but they will destroy property.  Some might decide that people are good food, and for those who might be confused, it is not entirely out of the question for a black bear to learn to hunt people. It is not species-typical behavior, but it does happen.

Bears that have learned humans hunt them, though, are going to relate to humanity with utter fear.

It is fear that keeps the peace.

And it is that peace that makes room for bears in the world of man.

It is a lesson that New Jersey is going to have to learn again. Ideology says that bears are like dogs, just bigger and tailless. Ideology ignores their cannibalism, their savagery, and the simple fact that they aren’t dogs at all but wild creatures. Yes, they eat mostly vegetable matter, but they won’t pass up a fawn lying the brush.  They won’t think twice about eating alive a deer mortally wounded by a car.  They don’t think as we do about being humane and kind and sportsmanlike.

They think about living as omnivores. Our world provides them many opportunities, and without the fear of man, they will get in trouble.

The government agencies will try to transplant the problem bears, but they often don’t learn anything. They know we’re overloaded with goodies, and they can’t resist.

And for some bears, the only solution is to die at the hands of a government employee, one whose salary and insurance are paid for by the taxpayer.

Wouldn’t a better solution be to have a regulated hunt and use hunting as way to teach the bears about our own essential savagery?  Then, the bears would know not to come into subdivisions and schoolyards and eat garbage and birdseed. And you wouldn’t have to hire a someone to shoot the incorrigibles.  The hunters would pay license fees, and the state conservation agency could pay more biologists to study bears and protect habitat for other species.

That is how West Virginia has dealt with bears. We now have more 10,000 of them wandering our hills and mountains.

Hunting is part of our management strategy for them. It works well, and it seems that having a hunt worked well for New Jersey.

But we will see what the future holds.

***

Yesterday, I went out with ICOtech predator call.  I go out on the woods with this device in hopes that I might call in a coyote or gray fox and capture it with a camera.

Yes, I am out with a hunting device, but I am hunting only with my camera.

But I have nothing against people who hunt coyotes. I just am not among their number.

Hunting doesn’t really reduce coyote numbers significantly. We’ve been hunting them with the hope of causing extinction for 150 years or so, and all we’ve done is make them increase their range to almost all of North America.

I have a certain amount of admiration of the species. They are survivors, and they are closest thing to wolves we have in this part of the country.

I don’t see them as domestic dogs, but I don’t see them as demons either. I see them as phantoms that lurk in the gray woods and let loose cackling yips and mournful howls in the deadness of night.

They don’t reveal themselves easily. They appear only when they damned well want to.

It’s this challenge that drives me to go into the woods with the call.

I started out with gray squirrel distress for 5 minutes. Nothing responded, so I went to my two gray fox distress calls for 10 minutes. No little gray dog appeared for my camera, which isn’t that much of a surprise. They are much harder to call than coyotes, at least around here.

So I switched to my coyote howls. I have several different iterations that sound like a single one howling, a pair howling, a single one howling with a different pitch, a group cacophony of howling yips, and one that sounds like three coyotes howling a beautiful opera chorus in a language that isn’t Italian or even remotely human.

I switched among these different howl types, and then I would wait five minutes to see if I got a response. I faintly heard what I think may have been a female coyote’s estrus chirp in the woods, but it was a distant chirp nontheless.  This single note of what I thought was an estrus chirp made me stick to my spot, and run through the howls again.

I had gone through five or six different howl sequences, when I heard a gravelly human voice shout from the distant ridge.  This ridge was so thickly forested that I couldn’t see a person there, and what’s more, it was perhaps a quarter mile from where I was sitting.

“You’re gonna get shot!” was what the voice shouted.

I ignored it at first, but then the stupid bastard began mocking my howls.

The land where I was sitting wasn’t his anyway, and I’ve long been allowed to hunt there. The real owners don’t care.

I shouted back at the voice “Shut the fuck up!”

“I’m on my property. I’ll do as I please.”

I shouted several expletives at the voice, which you don’t need to hear, but I flipped the hillside the bird while playing a jay in distress sound at him.

I was so incensed at this man that I went to a different location where the hollow would carry the howls right to his position. I turned it on full blast.

When I told my dad what had happened, he told me to go back out there that you cannot be bullied from doing what you have a right to do.

I didn’t quite feel like going back out there, but my dad took my call and went to woods where I had been calling. He cranked it up full blast for a half hour. No one shouted back at him.

I was so livid at this man for harassing me and ruining my coyote calling session.

But this morning it finally dawned on me why this man had been such an ass:

I scared him.

Rural people in West Virginia are told all sorts of stories about coyotes:

They kill all the deer, even though the deer are still very plentiful, and the poor hunting season in this set of ridges had more to do with a good mast year. Good mast years mean that the does stay up in the most isolated groves oak and beech, and the bucks stay with those does and never once come out into pastures or to big corn piles or feeders.  The only way to get a deer is to use your feet and figure out where they going and where they go when the guns start to crack.

But it’s easy to blame coyotes for the lack of deer at the corn piles. It’s much harder to learn the ways of the deer and get some exercise doing so.

People are also told that coyotes are a mortal threat to humanity– and that they howl just before they attack. I suppose the loudmouth on the hill had heard that story. And that’s why he acted such a fool.

I don’t know who shouted at me, and I honestly don’t care. But as angry at him as I was, I suddenly am returned to my grandpa and his hatred of bears. My grandpa never really knew the full story of black bears, and he didn’t really want to know it.

But he was still the curious naturalist of a hillside turkey hunter that I knew and loved. It’s just he had a black bear-sized blind spot that he didn’t want to fix.

Maybe that loudmouth is the same way, just his is a coyote-sized hole, and one that will cause even more aggravation. Coyotes howl. They announce their presence. Black bears don’t make themselves known at all until you lay eyes upon one.

They are much more mysterious and harder to scapegoat and revile.

But I will not accept his prejudices or let him bully me. I will call coyotes and take photos and you will see them here.

That’s my duty.

***

My views on wildlife put me in an odd position. I am a progressive Democrat, but I think animal rights ideology is woefully misguided.  I am a hunter, but I am more of an Aldo Leopold sort of hunter than a Ted Nugent.

I see coyotes in the way Leopold came to see wolves in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Leopold describes his sudden sorrow at killing a female Mexican wolf, which he watches die before his very eyes. Years later, he came to realize that wolves truly had a place in nature:

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

We’ve gone over a century without true wolves in West Virginia. The only wolves we have are coyotes, and their smaller size makes them almost a poor facsimile. True, they lift fawns and sometimes pack up and run down adult deer, but they are just as at home hunting mice and rabbits as they are grappling with larger prey with flailing hard hooves and strong legs.

But they do take a few deer, and those removed from the population don’t browse the forests down. Human hunters, though, think those deer belong solely for their crosshairs, and don’t want to share.

The “peace” that Leopold derided in that essay is the false peace that sets humanity at the top of all things and demands that all things bow to his whims and petty desires.  If a twelve-point buck doesn’t walk to the corn pile every deer season then it must surely be that coyotes are eating all the deer.

This is the peace I’m sure that the hilltop shouter wants every year. I bet he spent a lot of time hunting deer in the 90s, when the herds festooned every hillside and a hunter might see dozens of whitetails in a single day’s hunt. State wildlife managers tried to fix that problem by liberalizing doe harvest limits, and after a few decades of sound wildlife management, the deer numbers are somewhat lower than they were in those days of deer plagues.

The 90s deer hunter had it easy, and now the numbers are lower. He must put more effort into the hunt.

And this has come at roughly the same time that coyotes have become fully established and quite numerous as well.

These variables are probably stochastic, but to the hunter who goes home without filled tags, they must be linked. In some places, he would be right, but in the deer’s paradise that is West Virginia, he is most likely wrong.

The culprit isn’t coyotes. It’s the state realizing how bad it is to have a deer overpopulation problem.

My view is controversial among the hunting fraternity, but it really isn’t with most  professional wildlife managers.

But as controversial as that idea is, it is nothing compared to how animal rights people view all hunters as scumbags.

The fact that I hunt animals surely must mean that I am a Trump-loving redneck who hates Mexicans, carries and thumps a Bible, and drives a pickup truck with Confederate flag emblem on my vanity plate.

None of those things fit me. I just find myself– at least in this section of much-debated ideas–in an odd little crevice of nuance.

I see a place in this world for predators, both human and four-legged, and this contention is out of place.  You either want to see all non-human predators killed off, or you want to see all humans stop hunting.

Neither of these really fits an ecological view of the world. Humans are a hunting species. We have been hunting since we evolved in Africa. Following herds brought us into Eurasia and then North America.

But now we live in a world in which ideology is driving real wedges between us. In my country, people are at each other’s throats over a whole host of issues. We’ve become warring tribes

To have a more ecological view as it relates to animal issues is to court controversy, because you ultimately be both a bunny-hugger or an NRA-nutjob.

And it’s not fun to debate both sides.

In the end, I want something like the peace that is made between humans and black bears when they are hunted.  It is a peace that recognizes the importance of human hunters in maintaining wildlife on the land that exists now. It is a peace that doesn’t shun hunting because of ideology. Instead, it sees hunting as part of the puzzle that allows us to have human civilization and large numbers of black living in relative proximity to each other.

It is this kind of peace that acknowledges that humans are the peak of creation but also recognizes that human issues matter.

To stand for both human and animal predators in this era is a risky move, but after looking at all the evidence and spending so much time in woods on my own, I have come to believe that it is the correct position.

But I know I’m not alone.

 

Death of Three Cows

dead cows

What is about cattle that makes take this risk? When the storm clouds appear on the horizon on hot summer days, so many of them will high-tail it to the shade of the trees in their pastures. And then, with luck, the lightning bolts don’t come dropping down on the great wooden rods and electrocute some free standing beef. It doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t happen most of the time, but it does happen often enough.

On this hillside farm in rural West Virginia, two crossbred black Angus cattle and their black baldie associate played the wrong game. On this sultry July evening, the thunder bolts filled the sky and rumbled and roared, and all the beef cattle on the pasture came racing for the great red oaks that stand tall and wiry against wind.

For thirty minutes they stood under the trees, nervous a bit of the great roaring but feeling secure in the shade.

Then suddenly it was all lightness and burning.  A bolt had descended near enough the tree to catch its branches, and three cattle were instantly electrocuted there in the oak lot.

The storm had come on a Friday, and it just so happened that the farmer who tends these cattle was at hand. He lives many miles away, working in that part of West Virginia that abuts both the Blue Ridge and the Washington, D.C., Beltway.  He comes back to tend his late father’s holdings in the rugged land of the Allegheny Plateau, visiting the herds once a month or so, usually less often in warmer months of summer.

When he arrived upon the macabre scene, his heart sank. Three dead beef cattle, all “black Angus” in ancestry, all valuable animals, all cows in calf. Thousands of dollars were wiped away in a single thunderbolt.

He didn’t know what to do next. The warm night and rapidly heating morning had made their carcasses fully putrid, and the only thing he could do is find some way to get rid of them.

The best he could was to go out with the tractor and drag their bodies out of the pasture. He knew he had to get on with the job quickly, for it wouldn’t be long before their  paunches began to fill with gas of decay and then exploded green nastiness all over.  He had to move them quickly and gently, a tough task for man dragging great gassy beasts over rocky ground with a rickety old John Deere.

He dragged them to the far end of the pasture, then down a logging road that followed the course of the ridge-line until it dropped off into a steep hollow. It was near that drop-off that the absentee farmer unhitched the deceased and cast them down with a few hard heaves of his shoulders to get them started.

The first cow rolled down the steep wall of the hollow and came to a crashing stop about a hundred feet below. The trunks of two old tulip trees caught her back and sides, and she was left hanging beneath them, paunch sticking up towards the sky. She had not had an explosion of the death gases, but she would continue to rot away and stink until she  did.

The second and third cows made their final descents in much the same manner. The second got caught at the base of a stately beech, and the third, the black baldie, landed in the same stand of tulip trees where the first had fallen. It got caught in much the same way, except that one of the catching trees held up her head at an odd angle. Her final repose was to have her head perched up and facing the hollow, where the gentle breezes from the creek-bed below would come wafting up after a summer rain. If she had been alive, she would have felt these cool breezes, and they would have pushed off the biting flies that would have festooned eyes almost as much with her alive as they did now as she soured in death’s decay.

The farmer wiped the sweat from his head. He’d done a good job this morning. His dad would be proud of him. His hands smelled of putrid death.  In the sky above him, a big flow of turkey vultures coursed the sky. They would be eating well for a few weeks.

If this farmer had been a little more experienced, a little bit more savvy about the natural history of his land, he wouldn’t have cast these carcasses off so near to where he let his brood cows graze.

His father would have easily gotten away with dumping some cattle off that logging road into the hollow, for when his father farmed this land, the only scavengers were turkey vultures, crows, ravens, and red foxes. Crows rob the corn, but they can be shot. And the neighbors ran the red fox with hounds every night in winter, and they feared man above all else. It was very rare for them to raid hen houses. The crack of guns fired from bedroom windows was that terrifying for them.

But now the land had been left alone, and the forest came to fill in the pastures of all the neighbors. Big bands of white-tailed deer came moseying in during the dusk and dawn hours to graze the cattle’s grass. And big flocks of wild turkey would come in and peck at the winter silage.

The farmer hunted all these animals, but his father barely knew them. Both wild turkeys and deer were rare when he ran cattle and sheep on this land, and it was only in his later years that he ever got enough mastery of the deer to be considered a proficient hunter.

His son, by contrast, had dropped many big bucks on this land.  And he was starting to the turkey hunting bug.

Indeed, he wasn’t so much a farmer, but a hunter with a private estate that happened to manage with a small herd of beef cattle. The cattle kept the pastures open, as did their hayfield, and the deer and turkeys relished the open grasslands for their forage.

But in those years in which the turkey and deer numbers grew, something else had happened.

The red foxes rarely whistle-barked on the ridge pastures these days, and it had become rare to see one.

What replaced the whistle-barks was cry of banshees, the barking cacophony of coyote howls.

The coyotes had come into the land and set up shop in the forest. They drove out all the red foxes as poaching interlopers, and those that didn’t get the message often wound up dead.

The coyotes were reviled by every hunter and herdsman from one side of the Alleghenies to the other.

But the farmer never saw them on his land. He didn’t have a coyote problem. He never heard them howl either. He’d heard tales of coyotes around, and he promised that if he’d ever see one during deer season, he’d blast it away. But he’d never seen or heard one. They didn’t exist. If he heard a howl in the evening’s last light, he’d justify it as a yapping dog or an ambulance siren screaming down the distance highway.

Of course, the neighbors up the road had a pear and apple orchard, and already, they had seen packs of coyotes come through and eat the fallen fruit. Early season apples were a delicacy. One afternoon just before the thunderstorm, the neighbor had counted eleven coyotes in his orchard, all munching away at the fallen fruit. He’d wanted to get a gun, but he was so impressed by their multitude that he left them alone.

By mid-July, the packs had settled into their denning sites. Of those eleven in the orchard,  only five laid claim to the lands that included the stinking bovines in the hollow.

One was a pack of three: a big buff-colored dog with a nick out of his left ear, a veteran of many fights with interlopers and even stupid-ass dogs; a black female, his mate; and a dark gray daughter from last year’s litter.

The mother of the dark gray had been taken by a foothold trap left at the edge of a big meadow where voles were thick, dumb, and juicy.  She’d come sniffing along a hole dug in the hillside along main game trail leading out of the meadow, and when she went to inspect it, she was caught.  She tried to free herself, but the whole band moved on. In the night came the running quad-bike, and a rifle shot rang out over the meadow.

The buff male needed a new mate, and when he came across the little black bitch during the winter, he was pleased as punch to have her. His daughter, the dark gray, became her subordinate, and this spring, she had been her nurse-maid to four yelping pups. Three were black like their mother, and the other was reddish brown like his father.

In the July heat, they had pups to feed. The buff male and the black bitch had lifted many fawns from their coverts all through the late spring, but now the fawns were sprightly, and the does were now much more attuned to their game.

This was a time of hunger, of needing meat to sate the little ones, and simply not having any that could be easily procured.

As night fell upon the hollow, the black bitch and the bluff male followed their noses to the stinking beefs on the hillside. The turkey vultures, the crows, and the ravens had torn big holes in the hides. The anus was ripped out of one of the black Anguses, and the black baldie’s stomach had ruptured.

The scent of man was upon the carcasses, and they approached with deliberate caution. A man could be sitting up on that ridge somewhere, pushing forward the safety on his .243 and peering down with a thermal scope to blast them into that great coyote beyond, where all sensible men or, rather, men who believe themselves to be sensible, are certain all coyotes rightly belong.

The buff male came in downwind. He wanted to be sure that no man was nearby. The scent troubled him, troubled him deeply. He didn’t know why.  His kind had come east through the slinging of lead, the setting of traps, and the poisoning of bait. Poison had selected away all the coyotes that didn’t feel tense or nervous as the scent of man on a carcass. It was just one of those things. Man bred the dog to be tame and loyal and docile and to take to his commands and edicts. Man bred the coyote to be paranoid.

The buff male circled the dead cows. Each circle got closer and closer until he finally got himself enough to courage to lick at the open bit of rumen. Within 30 minutes, both the buff male and the black bitch were tucking into the meat.

And there was plenty of meat. So much meat that 30- and 45- pound coyotes can’t eat it all, but they try their best. They filled their stomachs with offal and bits of putrid meat, and then trotted back to the den, where the gray female and the four yelping juveniles dived upon them. The two adults vomited up some fine food for the babies and their babysitter, then they rushed back to the cattle carcasses to fill their bellies again.

And by dawn, they were at the den-site, all full and fat and stupid and lazy, like big dogs lounging the backyard on a fine autumn morning.

The pack slept through the day, and as the night fell, the black bitch and the buff male decided to begin their long mosey over to the carcasses for another gluttonous feed.

But this time, another scent wafted down from the tulip trees: the scent of interloping coyotes.

It was a pair of dark gray ones, the more typical phase for this part of the Appalachians. They were mates. One was a big, husky female whose mate and she had fought many a battles in oak woods and along wild creek-beds over both territory and deer offal. Her right ear was torn and bent at the tip. Her face was scarred with canine tooth tears. She was a war bitch.

Her mate was younger and stupider. He’d was 25 pounds of slight coyote, and if he hadn’t somehow hooked up with that war bitch, he probably wouldn’t have lasted long.

He’d left his parents’ territory in search of a mate. He found her on a dreary December evening. Her original mate had been dead for just a few weeks. An unlucky doe hunter had seen the coyote pair slip beneath his tree stand, and blaming the coyotes for his misfortune, slung some lead in their direction. Four shots rang out, and one made contact.

The war bitch became a widow,  but the little 25-pounder came slinking along to nibble a deer gut pile that the scarred face dog had claimed for herself. When she scented the little fool trying to nibble at her gut pile, she came flying at him with a nasty growl.

He ran from her but stopped to look back at her.  Something about this little stranger appealed to her. Perhaps it was his slightness and gauntness. Perhaps it was her instinct to have a mate.

But she whined and wagged her tail at him.  He came tentatively and with apprehension, but he ate from the gut pile.

And he became her mate.

The pair produced a litter that spring– only three pups. The slight male tried his best to feed his mate at the den, but his hunting skills were still being honed. On many days, the meat never arrived at den site. The gaunt male’s stomach was empty, nothing regurgitated for his family.

It was going to be a tough summer for the family, but the litter met an ignoble end:

When the war bitch slipped down to drink from a little stream, a copperhead slid into the den and envenomated all the pups. It ate one of them and went on its way.

And the whole litter died.

No litter meant that the war bitch and her little man could run the hills together.  They didn’t have much of a pack, but they had each other.

And she would teach him to be a real mate.

For two days, the pair had scented the stinking cattle carcasses, but the war bitch was so wary of the scent of man.

But the buff male and black bitch had broken the ice. Their scent was stronger than the scent of man now, and the war bitch knew the carcasses were safe.

So she dragged her little man along for a good feast of fetid beef.

The buff male stopped hard. He let loose a single coyote bark. Then he allowed a stern growl to rise from his throat.

The war bitch rose from the rib cage she had been eating on. Her face was so bloody that it made her scarred face take on a demonic countenance. She stood over the carcass, tail tuck down between her legs, teeth showing in a coyote gape threat.

The buff male approached the carcass tail down and in a matching gape threat as well. The black bitch did the same.

The war bitch held her ground as the enemy approached.  The buff male and the black bitch circled the carcass. The war bitch stared down with the contempt of a thousand hells.

She had fought enough battles to know that if she just stood her ground, she could win without a scuffle. Most coyotes don’t want a big fight, even if they could potentially win in growling melee. Those kinds of fights run the risk of injury, so they can be bluffed.

She knew the buff male would fight, but his new mate was inexperienced. She wasn’t a total lightweight like the gaunt male, but she wasn’t ready to charge into a fight.

The gaunt male saw what was coming, and he took off. He raced up the hill above the carcasses and stood behind a pin oak, quivering in fear but not wanting to leave his mate, who was also his mentor and main protector.

The war bitch stood in her gape threat, and the two opponents continued their circling. And then, the black bitch in her anger and impudence broke her circling and charged the rib cage.

She decided to take on the war bitch from behind, but the old fighter swirled around to meet her adversary. And the two coyotes became a fighting and snarling blur that soon descended from the exposed rib cage.

The buff male charged the blur, and soon he was upon them. Two minutes of growling, snarling, and whining, and a gray streak shot out from the melee.

The war bitch knew she was over-matched, and now her own blood poured from her right hip and from both shoulders.  She was beaten, and she knew it.

She raced toward her mate behind the pin oak, and both the buff male and black bitch were racing behind her. They stopped after she began her ascent up the steep hill, and stood staring hard to make sure she had truly left the scene.

The buff male and black bitch had defended their carcass, and they licked each other’s wounds and whined in elation. They were a team now.

And in their joy, they lifted their heads to join in a good coyote howling session.

Afterward, they trotted back to the carcasses and ate their meat in big gulps.

***

The black bitch and buff male ate from the carcasses every night for three days. When they came back to the den digest their meat, the gray female would leave her post to wander up on her own to eat some meat for herself.

They could eat the rotting meat until it was gone.

And it was going fast.

During the day, the ravens and crows and vultures flew down to peck around at the bounty. Once, two dogs came into enjoy a bit of meat. One was an English shepherd. The other a bluetick coonhound. The two dogs belonged to a little self-styled homesteader who let them roam over the country.

They were country dogs through and through.  Rugged runners who had ticks and fleas, they weren’t above the proper manners of a dog in civilized society. They were wandering fawn lifters and manure rollers. They were owned and named, but they were still given liberty to be wildish things.

The coyotes all had sense to avoid them. Dogs are the traitors. They are for all intents and purposes the same people as the coyote, but they live in a confederacy with man.

And dogs can mean the end for coyotes. All it takes is one little scrap with a dog to alert man of the existence of coyotes, and they can be wiped out

The dogs were just transients in the world of the wild. They came to roll in the stink and to nibble at the putrid, but they soon were on their way.

The dogs were banal visitors, but the arrival of a bald eagle on the third day was something to behold. Every crow within a two mile radius came to mob the eagle.

So the eagle came and pecked at some meat. The trees around the carcass were now full of turkey vultures. A couple of ravens croaked away, as mob of six black vultures devoured what they could, as the great eagle dined.

These cows in calf were meant to feed the multitudes of men, but now they were feeding the multitudes of beasts.

The carrion beetles were working their way through underside of the cattle. Thousands of them were eating away at the flesh from below.

And opossums were getting their fill too, and several had taken up residence inside the black baldie. They woke from inside the body cavity to chew away at the meat and offal all around them.

And the coyotes came every night.

But on that fourth night, the buff male and black female made their way to the carcasses, a new scent wafted down towards them. It was the pungent aroma of a black bear.

This time they knew they would have to wait their turn, for a bear of any size could easily claim the cattle carcasses.

And this was not a bear of any size. It was a hulking 400-pound boar, who had finally come out off his summer courting, for a little bit of a beef dinner.

He was hulking blackness, full of muscle and power. He ripped through the carcasses. His claws tore them apart. His teeth tore at the flesh.

The coyotes were unable to stop him.

And after that one night of devouring, he soon came every night.

The coyotes were able to eat only when the bear’s ravening was sated, which usually happened when the morning sun began to filter through the darkness.

Coyotes in this part of the world had long learned to stay hidden during the daylight hours. Man’s guns are always out when the sun shines.

Their eating hours were greatly truncated, hemmed in by the bear’s appetite and the sunshine, and so they stopped relying upon the carcasses to feed their growing family.  They returned to long nights of mousing and running rabbits.

After a week of boar’s visit, a sow with three young cubs also made her way to the carcass. The cubs nibbled at scant remains, playing with the bones and ripping up what was left of the hides.

By two weeks, the carcasses were reduced to yellow bones. All that meat and all that money had been carried away into the sky, into the bellies of furred beats, and in the abdomens of carrion beetles.

Profit was lost from the death of those three cattle.  The lightning bolt robbed the farmer and gave to nature– a sort of cosmic Robin Hood that temporarily took man from his vaunted status and dispersed his possession to the lowly and the savage.

300 years ago, the death of a few bison by lightning strike would have yield a similar bounty, and because bison weigh so much more than domestic cattle, the bounty would have gone longer.  The only people robbed would be the hide and meat hunters who sought the bison, and there were plenty of those beasts roaming the hills. Another herd would be just beyond the next ridge.

The ersatz-bison, the debased aurochs that we call cattle, are owned. They don’t roam freely, live freely, or die freely. Their hides and the meat and bones don’t return to the soil without the interference of man.

But sometimes, the lightning strikes, and their elements go to nourish nature once again.

Three dead beef cows in calf got to do this nourishing once again.

It’s a drop in the bucket to be sure, a sort of re-enactment of the drama that once was but never will be again.

 

 

Winter wren*

If one color predominates West Virginia in early winter it would be gray. The tree trunks, now denuded of all leaves, stand row after row, creating smudgy mass of grayness that covers the land. Out of this smudgy mass, deer and squirrels materialize like apparitions, shifting into existence, then fading back into the gray.

I’ve come deep into the woods for a bit of winter squirrel hunting. Hunting squirrels in winter, when the autumn mast has mostly fallen and been buried by nimble paws, is a bit of a challenge.  The bare trees leave them exposed to hawk eyes, so they spend as little time exposed on the ground or in the canopy as possible.

I spot a squirrel flicking its tail as it runs up a tree trunk in the hollow below me. I sneak down to the tree, knowing fully well the squirrel will be aware of my approach. But I also notice that this tree has few limbs sticking out towards other trees. If the squirrel slips onto the other side of the trunk to hide, I know that it will not be able to leave the tree without exposing itself for a few seconds on the ground.

I sit and sit. No squirrel moves upon the tree trunk. I think he’s given me the slip somehow.  But I’m still not convinced that he has escape.

I sit in the gloom that surrounds me. A pair of turkey vultures cast around in the sky above me. Ravens croak from the distant ridge. A diminutive downy woodpecker hammers away at a dead oak.

Over my right shoulder, a bit of movement catches my eye. I turn my head to look in that direction, and my eye notices a russet form on the bark of a little beech tree some 10 feet behind me.

It is the size of a mouse but bird shaped.  At first, I tell myself that it is nothing but a fallen leaf that has somehow become stuck on the tree. But that little delusion is soon cast aside as the form begins to move.

I recognize it as a Carolina wren. The rusty brown color gives it away from all other wren-like birds in this area, and the elegant white stripe above its eye give it almost aristocratic countenance.

But as moved as I am by its beauty, I know what it coming. Carolina wrens are little tattlers. If they spot a human sitting in the forest, they instantly start buzzing out little churring alarms, and if one wren spots you, it won’t be long before other ones in the area will show up and starting buzzing you as well.

I suppose it took this one about two minutes to realize I was human, but when it did, it started its alarm routine.

And then the trees around me came alive with churrs. This one wren had been traveling in a little flock of five or six birds, which is not unusual during the winter months, and when this one spotted me, its flock joined in the mobbing.

So my squirrel stalk ended. My location was being broadcast every bushy-tailed tree dweller in the hollow, and I backed out of the woods and headed off for a different stand.

A piece of me wanted to curse the birds, but a larger part of me marveled at them.  These same wrens nest in my mother’s hanging baskets every summer. They don’t mind the human presence at all then. Only when she takes the basket down to water the flowers does the mother wren go flying out. She makes no alarm calls, and when the basket is restored, she returns to her nest as if nothing happened.

The wrens know that nesting in hanging baskets protects their eggs and chicks from virtually all predators, so they are willing to tolerate the bumbling of humanity all around them.

But in the dead of winter, the mere sight of a human will launch them into mobbing alarm displays.

No one hunts wrens. They are protected by federal law, so they would have no real reason to fear a human wandering the woods.

I suppose they are just so sensitive to predators in those days when the leaves no longer block the sun and occlude the hawk’s vision that they will announce the presence of anything that even remotely looks threatening.

Their tolerance of humanity in summer doesn’t extend to encountering us during their winter foraging.

And I, like any predator busted from his stalking, slink away to try again somewhere else.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

*A winter wren is a distinct species of wren that is not the same as the Carolina wren. I am merely being poetic here.

 

 

106

Coyotes and anything that is called a wolf in North America are as genetically close to each other as we humans are to each other.

This is the most radical thing I’ve ever learned from a scientific paper.

The paper is about whether red wolves and Eastern wolves are hybrids, which is a controversial topic. They probably are hybrids, but what are they hybrids between?

Are they crosses between two really distinct species or are they hybrids between two lineages of what one might rather radically and boldly declare subspecies?

The really radical discovery of these genome-wide studies on wolves and coyotes in North America isn’t that red wolves and Eastern wolves are hybrids.  The really radical discovery is that wolves and coyotes are much closer to each other than we assumed. The initial calculation suggested a divergence that happened only around 50,000 years ago.

Wolves in Yellowstone and Alaska have coyote genes, and coyotes in the Eastern US have wolf genes. That’s not a hybrid zone, which is what you get with bobcats and Canada lynx and with kit and swift foxes, where only a narrow hybrid zone has been identified.

Coyote and wolf genes have traveled across this continent, entering into what we have classically thought of as two distinct species but really aren’t.

My take is that coyote are nothing more than a diminutive wolf. Its ancestor was an archaic form of Eurasian Canis lupus, the Holarctic wolf.  It wandered across the Bering Land Bridge during a warming period that happened roughly 50,000 years ago. It came into a continent that was already dominated by dire wolves, dholes, and archaic jackal-like canids, as well as a whole suite of large cats, including jaguars, American lions, sabertooths, and dirk-toothed cats.

The way to survive was not to be a large pack-hunter. That niche was already occupied by dire wolves and dholes, so they became convergently-evolved jackals.

A jackal evolved out of the wolf-lineage is a pretty durable animal, and it played second fiddle to the modern Holarctic wolves that invaded some 20,000 years ago. The wolves that came across were large wolves that were adapted to hunting larger prey, and as the dire wolf became extinct, the larger Holarctic wolf replaced the endemic North American wolf.

The behaviors of coyotes and wolves generally keeps them from interbreeding. Coyotes are much more strictly monogamous, a trait that would be of great importance for an animal that had to live on smaller prey species and carrion for survival.

Wolves are far less monogamous, and if prey populations are high, it is not impossible for wolf packs to have several females produce litters. These extra litters come from the female wolves that have not yet left their mother’s packs but have bred with wandering males that slip around at the edges of the established pack territories. These matings happen all the time in wolf societies, but generally, these females don’t get to raise their pups. They die of exposure or are killed by the main breeding female.

Western and Northern wolf packs kill interlopers. A coyote is nothing more than interloper and gets killed. The two animals could mate and produce fertile offspring, but they usually don’t.

But the wolves that colonized the Eastern forests developed differently.  These Eastern forests had far more deer per square mile than the West, and greater social tolerance may have been a trait of these wolves, even when they were driven to near extinction. There is evidence that these wolves have mated with coyotes before European contact, but after European contact, they mated with the coyotes that came east.

The coyotes that came into the East were descendants of those little wolves that scrapped around the big predators of old. They could pack up as wolves to hunt deer, or they could remain in mated pairs to hunt only mice and rabbits. They could scavenge at the edges of human civilization, and they could thrive.

Most of North America is now under the reign of the little wolf, a remarkable feat of evolution.

Dr. Ian Malcolm’s most famous line from Jurassic Park is that “Life finds a way.” The context of the line is that he was rejecting the claim that the genetically engineered dinosaurs would never reproduce simply because they had chosen to engineer these creatures as solely female.

In our context, I would argue that “Wolves find a way.” Right now, the most successful wolf lineage in the world is the one that includes domestic dogs and dingoes. They are found on every continent, except Antarctica, and were found there until very recently. This lineage does well because it has become part of humanity. Populations go feral or go stray. Others become so humanized that they almost cease to be an entity separate from our species. It has largely given up hunting big game for survival and thrives on the fat of human civilization.

In North America, the second most successful wolf lineage is this coyote lineage.  It thrives because it can much more easily exploit life in the civilized world than the larger, more specialized wolves. They can scavenge. They can mouse and rabbit. They can run deer. They can eat apples and pears in orchards. But they do not depend upon the large ungulates for survival.

It is a wolf that cane become a jackal, then a fox, and then, should the deer numbers be high enough, return to a more lupine existence as a pack hunter.

Yes, my concept of the coyote and the North American wolf means rejecting some fossils. There are fossils that have been described as “coyotes” that date to 1 million years before present.

But the full-genome comparisons are so compelling that I have to reject these fossils. The full genome comparisons are exactly like the ones that have been used to compare humans to chimps, humans to gorillas, and domestic cats to tigers (and cats). 

The findings of these studies aren’t as controversial as the wolf and coyote genome comparisons have been, but that’s because they haven’t found that certain endangered species are likely hybrids.

The red wolf and Eastern wolf exponents can debate as to whether these animals are hybrids or not, but the real problem is the discovery of recent divergence between the wolf and coyote.

This recent divergence allows for a hybrid origin for the red wolf and Eastern wolf, but it also shows that this hybrid origin is most a debate of semantics. They might be hybrids, but they are hybrids between two different forms of the same species. And the resulting hybrids are much better adapted to living in the new North America.

That’s the best case red wolves and Eastern wolves have in light of the genetic data.

Paleontology is often the study of bones and teeth and comparing bones and teeth. Except for instances in which ancient DNA has been extracted and compared, most of these studies will miss very important parts of an organism’s natural history. Because of recombination, DNA studies can also be flawed, but they are a much more complete record of an organism’s evolution than we might get from measuring bones.

And we know now that canids are particularly prone to parallel evolution. The golden jackal species as classically defined has had to be split into two. African golden jackals are much more closely related to Eurasian wolves, while Eurasian golden jackals are much more distinct lineage. Their similarities are the result of parallel evolution, which was also at work in producing the jackal-like coyote out of the wolf lineage.

Had their bones been found in some ancient layer of sediment, paleontologists using comparative morphology methods would have declared them all one species, an error that is likely been repeated thousands of times with any number of specimens from a variety of lineages.

I like paleontology, but every time I read a paper from that discipline, I wonder if this is the full story.

And pretty sure virtually every paleontologist does too.

If the full-genome comparisons are correct– and I have little reason to think they are wrong–then we are living in the reign of the little wolves. They press on deeper into Alaska and Canada. They push east until they hit every state. They pushed deep into Central America, now running the right at the edge of the Darien Gap. Once they cross that great swamp, they will arrive in Colombia and will be the first wild Canis species to cross into South America since the dire wolf.

It’s just a matter of time. They will make it.

And South America’s guild of unique canid species are in for some disruption.

I hope they can handle our little renegade, for the reign of the little wolf could also displace the fruit-eating wolf with a mane and the short-legged convergent dhole.

Those problems are a way off, but they are worth thinking about, as the coyote completes its conquest of one continent and reaches for another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

jet

Jet.

A few months ago, I wrote about how Sir Everett Millais created the modern basset hound when the inbred strains of Norman basset that were being bred in England were crossed with a bloodhound.

Sir Everett Millais was a dog show person. He was obsessed with developing the basset hound as we know it today, and as a judge, he was adamant about the newly developing English strains of dachshund take more after the hound component of their heritage than the “terrier” component.

Everett was the son of Sir John Everett Millais, a noted painter from a prominent Jersey family, and most “dog people” generally know only about his eldest son. The story of the cross between the Norman basset and the bloodhound well-documented breed lore, and much of our understanding of the dachshund in English-speaking countries comes from his work in founding that breed in England.

But of this particular Millais family, there was another son who had an interest in dogs. The youngest son of Sir John Everett Millais was John Guille Millais, an author, a painter, and naturalist of some note. I once wrote about his account of sheep-killing “Labrador dogs” in Newfoundland.

I paid almost no attention this author, other than I noted he was the younger brother of Sir Everett.  I searched around for more information about John Guille, but I got bored. I made a mental note of his name and then largely forgot about him.

A few years ago I came across a book written by John Guille.  It was called The Wildfowler in Scotland, which was published in 1901.  The book is ostensibly a how-to manual on shooting water and seabirds in Scotland, but it also includes accounts of his favorite retriever. Her name was Jet, and she was nothing like the celebrated show dogs of his brother:

“In my early days of shore shooting I was fortunate enough to procure a dog which eventually turned out to be (so far as my experience goes) the very best that ever stood on four legs. ‘Jet,’ for that was her name, was but a pup of ten months—a smooth-coated retriever of a most gentle and affectionate disposition, and quite unbroken—when I bought her of an innkeeper in Perth. She was the keenest and best nosed dog I have ever seen—too keen, as I found at first, and constantly running-in; but eventually she settled down and became almost human in her intelligence.

Every man becomes sentimental about something, and if I say too much here about dear old ‘Jet,’ who was my constant companion for sixteen years, the reader must forgive me. Many are the tales I could tell of her prowess; but I will confine myself to a few instances of her indomitable perseverance and pluck as a swimmer. One trick I mention as interesting, for she acquired it through her own cunning. Every shooter knows that while directing his eyes to the front or flank, as he naturally does while walking along the coast, birds often come up from behind, and before he can observe them, sheer off out of shot.  ‘Jet,’ however, was quite up to this.  As she trotted along behind me, she constantly glanced back over her shoulder, and if she saw anything coming, she would at once run in front of me, gazing alternatively at myself and the fowl in an inquiring manner,  thereby giving the chance of obtaining something desirable. There was no sea, however thunderous–even the great winter breakers of the North Atlantic– that she would not face, if I asked her to fetch some fallen treasure.

When the seas were unusually heavy, she betrayed a most remarkable instinct in preserving herself from being dashed from the rocks.  Instead of plunging into the mass of water, as a breaker surged towards her, she would allow herself to be carried out on the wash of the receding rush in time to meet the next huge wave and top it just as about to fall with a force that would have knocked her senseless had it broken upon her. More than once in a heavy sea she was not quick enough in this exploit, and paid smartly for her daring.  An instance occurred one day in the winter when I was lying among rocks near the Black Craig, Orkney Isles,  during one of those big westerly gales when Arctic gulls and Eiders come along the shore.  I had been watching them for some days previously, and whilst this gale was it height, a male eider came by, at which I fired.  The bird was hard hit, and made it out to sea, but had not gone 50 yards when it fell dead among the breakers.  As the sea was wild in the extreme, and I knew the bird would soon be blown ashore, I never thought of sending my dog after it; but ‘Jet’ who was pottering about in the rocks at a short distance, unfortunately had her eye also on the eider, and seeing it fall, at once made for it, in spite of all my efforts to stop her, all my shouting drowned by the roar of the ocean.  I could only stand and admire her pluck as she fought through the first two breakers. Now those who have lived much by the sea have noticed that those heavy breakers always travel over the face of the ocean in threes.  The third did for ‘Jet’ as she was trying to raise herself and look about for the bird. It completely broke over her, and I felt a chill go to my heart as, the next moment, I saw her body floating helplessly admidst the rush of seething waters.” (pg 45-47).

Jet eventually washed up on the shore, alive but severely draggled. Millais carried her home two miles, and although modern retriever people would have her much more steady to shot, this tale is a story of her pluck and drive.

In the Tay Estuary,  Millais once shot a brent goose (“brant” goose for North Americans), but left the bird only slightly pinioned. Jet took off after the bird in the water, but the bird was a much faster swimmer than the dog.  The dog pursued the goose a great distance from the shore, and Millais estimated that he ran three miles trying to call her back in:

“I began to lose all hope of ever seeing my dear doggie again. However, by the merest chance, there happened that afternoon to be an old fellow collecting bait in a spot where never before or since have I seen a man so employed. We at once asked his help, but in vain. ‘Na, na,’ he said, ‘A ken fine yon spring tide; a few meenutes to get there and a’ day to get back.’ Bribery and persuasion having alike failed, I told the old chap that as I had no intention of seeing my dog drowned I should take his boat whether he liked it or not. That he did not like it was clear from his reply; but a glance at my beaming friend convinced him that resistance would be useless, so he sullenly assisted us to launch his coble.

It took about ten minutes to run out to ‘Jet’ and her quarry, and when the latter was promptly dispatched the staunch dog fetched it to the boat, obviously proud of her accomplishment. Poor old girl, she little knew how near death she had been! Without the help that only by good luck we were able to render, she would have gone on another mile or two; then, feeling tired, would have tried in vain to make headway back’ to the shore. It took us about four and a half hours to make the coast again in that angry sea.

At all sorts of shooting, whether grouse driving, covert shooting, or wildfowling, ‘Jet’ was equally reliable; and having constant practice throughout the shooting season, she became as good a retriever as the most exacting sportsman could desire. At flight shooting she was simply perfection, and seemed, like her master, to take special delight in sitting at twilight waiting for the black forms and whistling pinions of the approaching duck. On ‘coarse’ nights, when duck flying by are seen almost as soon as they are heard, a dog is seldom quicker than a man in catching sight of them; but on still, fine nights, when the moon rises early, and the birds can be heard approaching from a distance, a good dog will always see them before the shooter, and will indicate by his motions the precise direction from which they are coming. ‘Jet’ was very good at this, almost invariably rising from her sitting posture, stiffening herself in pointer fashion, and whining if she thought I was not paying sufficient attention to her suggestions. Frequently, too, in an evening, when the wind is not too strong, many trips of birds will come down wind, from behind the shooter, and on these occasions ‘Jet’s’ sharp ears have often helped me to a shot that I should otherwise have lost from lack of time to change my position.

And now good-bye, old ‘Jet,’ fondest and faithfullest of companions! Stone deaf, and stiff with rheumatism, she quietly lay down and died, in 1897, and I can hardly hope to ever see her like again (pg. 49-50).

Jet was a poorly trained animal by our standards today, but she had lots of drive and intelligence that could have been crafted into a fine working animal.  Her longevity is something that many retriever people would like to see again. In no breed of retriever do dogs routinely reach those great ages now.

Jet was not purebred by any stretch. She was a “collie-and-smooth-coated-retriever mongrel.” From her photo in Wildfowler, she looked very much like a small flat-coated retriever, so the “smooth coat” in her breed description like refers to her being a cross between some form of collie and what became the flat-coated retriever. She had definite feathering, and if she had been a cross with a collie and the dogs that became the Labrador retriever, she would have been without feathering. The flash of white on her muzzle might point to her collie ancestry, but she would have been very typical of the retrievers that Millais and other sporting young men at the time would have had.

John Guille Millais recommended crosses between “the curly and the waving retrievers. As a general rule a curly coat denotes strength, intelligence, and a relish for the hard and coarse work of the water; whilst the wavy-coated dogs are more amenable to discipline, and gifted. with a softness of mouth and sweetness of disposition not to be found in any other of the canine species” (pg. 44).

John Guille was ultimately going against his brother’s aesthetic. His favorite dogs are retrievers bred for work:

“In selecting a pup for wildfowling work the shooter cannot be too careful in his inquiries as to the cleverness, mouth, taste for the water, and other characteristics of the mother. Where possible, he should ascertain this for himself, as the mental capacity and proclivities of the mother are generally transmitted to the pups. I think am correct in saying that a dog gets from her most of his abilities—good, bad, or indifferent; while his external form is due rather to his father. Good bench qualities will, of course, add to his value, as affording more pleasure to the eye, but otherwise, they are of no importance (pg 44).

John Guille Millais would eventually become a major force in conservation.  He was a co-founder of what became Fauna & Flora International, and his travels in North America, Europe, and Africa brought him into contact with many wild things. He wrote of his experiences in those regions, but he also wrote tomes of natural history, including books on magnolias and rhododendrons.  He wrote about deer species and deer hunting, and he often returned to the subject of wing-shooting and the natural history of game birds and waterfowl.

Like so many young men of his class, he came to natural history with the gun in his hand and a retriever at his heels. It was around the same time that Jet came into his life that John Guille and his father met the ornithologist John Gould.  That meeting laid the eggs of a passion that would drive the young man out onto the windswept coasts with his little black retriever. (It also became the inspiration for Sir John Everett Millais’s painting The Ruling Passion.)

John Guille Millais, at least when it came to dogs, was a bit of rebel compared to his brother. Everett Millais was a doyen among the dog show set. He was more interested in producing dogs that could be judged and discussed in lavish sitting rooms. John Guille was more interested in the wilder working dogs, the ones with rugged coats and lots of pluck and courage.

I am so glad that John Guille Millais was able to have this connection with Jet. She was a wonderful creature, the very sort of dog that burns your psyche deeply, the kind that visits you in dreams and leaves the memories waxing rheumy.

 

 

One antler left

Rutting has been tough on the bucks. Cold winter temperatures are pretty tough too.

The antlers are coming off. This fellow has already shed one.

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He’s survived the long deer season well. He’s got a nice big body, and next year, he will be quite nice.

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