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Archive for the ‘lore’ Category

In West Virginia, this is a week of great significance.

Although the rest of the country experiences the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of this week, rural West Virginia begins its yearly ritual on the Monday of this week.

Of course, I am talking about the beginning of the modern firearms season for antlered deer. This holiday has always eclipsed Thanksgiving. Because we always got the whole week off from school, most school children and nearly all adults from this part of the state call this break “Deer Season.”  Thanksgiving is an afterthought. Deer hunting is far more important.

In the halcyon days of the Northeast Ohio industrial economy, many people from West Virginia  wandered up “Route 21” (now I-77) to the land of high wage union jobs. With that disposable income and good vacation times from their jobs, they would return home for Deer Season. I remember those years when the small rural county where I grew up would virtually double its population on the weekend before the first bucks could be legally shot.

In that one week, these urban workers got a chance to reconnect with their rural pasts, meet again with old friends, and shoot guns.

Many people would join hunt clubs that set up “primitive” hunting cabins, where the bullshit and booze tended to flow rather freely. Some people were always more interested in “beer hunting.” The song may have been The Second Week of Deer Camp, but for some sportsmen, it was more likely the Second Day or maybe the Second Hour.

Those days of large hunt clubs have mostly passed. The industrial economy has faded away.  The incomes that once sustained the deer camp ritual have gone. The deer are now so numerous that they can be shot off the front porch (albeit illegally).

But I’m sure that in those remaining deer camps, the traditions are still going strong. Maybe someone will actually get that Thirty Point Buck.  (I promise this will be the last cheesy deer hunting song! The deer in that video have far bigger antlers than any I’ve ever seen!)

***

Virtually every small business around here caters to deer hunters. I checked out the weekly paper, I saw a big full page ad with a list of all the official game checking stations, as well as the businesses that were offering deer hunter specials.

I laughed when I saw the two photos of cervids that were posted at the top of the ad.  Neither species could be shot in the county. In fact, they couldn’t even be shot illegally.

On the left hand side was a photo of three mule deer, one of which had its twisty, black-tipped tail raised. There have never been any mule deer in West Virginia. The other was that deer from the genus Cervus that we call elk. Those once ranged here, and they could potentially move up from Eastern Kentucky, where a healthy population of these animals now exists all the way up to the West Virginia border. Of course, we’re a long way from Kentucky, and I doubt those big deer are going to make their way up here any time soon.

Although you may have not been able to shoot an elk, you could eat an elk burger. That’s because on Saturday night, the local cafe had a big game special on which you could have an elk or bison burger with steak fries.

***

The internet daily news report for my county will have the opening day kill totals from the checking stations. I will update this post with a link to the report.

With a poor mast this year, it is likely that a lot of deer will be killed. The deer will be out in the open foraging, simply because there are not enough acorns and other nuts to feed them all.

For many locals, venison will be the main protein source for this winter. This will be particularly true with this bad economy.

***

As noted earlier, Deer Season tends to eclipse Thanksgiving.

On that day, the hunters typically go out in the morning, and then return home around noon. They then wash-up for dinner and settle in front of the TV for the Thanksgiving football games.

By the weekend, the guns start to draw silent. Only those truly die-hard hunters who have yet to kill their limit go into the woods.

Because Sunday hunting was voted down in a referendum, Deer Season week is usually done by Saturday evening. Buck season with modern firearms lasts another week,  but because it doesn’t coincide with a federal holiday, the number of hunters in the woods is but a mere fraction of what it was on opening day.

I hope that I haven’t bored you with this little account of a rural American custom that is slowly disappearing.  There are better states to hunt deer than West Virginia, and so we really don’t get the big trophy hunters coming here. And West Virginia’s population continues to get smaller, and the collapse of the Midwestern industrial economy means that large numbers of West Virginia transplants won’t be coming down the interstate to blast a few bucks.

The deer have no significant predators here other than people. Bears and coyotes might take the odd deer, but they do very little to reduce deer numbers. Even with the presence of coyotes, we now have more deer per square mile than we have ever had.

***

Having such large numbers of deer is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the old days, those people who lived in the Allegheny Plateau and Ohio Valley regions of West Virginia had to travel into the High Alleghenies to find deer that they could legally shoot. This part of the state is associated with spruce forests and bogs. This area gives one the impression that one is in the Canada or Maine. Only the trademark dense thickets of Rhododendron that grow on the mountainsides give the location away.

Centuries of unregulated hunting and then market hunting had reduced the population of white-tails significantly. The only parts of their range where they were able to survive was in the high mountains.  The Alleghenies had largest populations of white-tails in the East. It is partially from these deer that the other parts of the East were restocked with white-tails.

So if the deer are eating your flowers in parts of the the East or Midwest, you can partly blame West Virginia for your troubles.

***

Here’s a really good analysis of what deer season means to this part of West Virginia.

***

Update: Does can be taken during this this time, but most people are gunning for bucks. That’s why this year’s first day totals look like this.

Only one human fatality and one injury to report statewide.

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Arctic wolf

In perusing the names and descriptions of cryptids canids, I came across two animals that sound very similar. These are the waheela of Alaska and the Northwest territory and Ontario Giant wolf. Both of these are described as larger than normal wolves that are white in color. There is also another wolf from Inuit mythology called Amorak, who is a giant white wolf. The waheela is said not to hunt in packs, which is quite different from modern wolf populations.

What could these be?

Well, I don’t happen to believe that there are any relict populations of dire wolf, hyena, creodont, or bear dog left in North America. I do think, however, that modern wolves are far more diverse in appearance than we realize– and have historically evolved in shapes that are mirrored with some exaggeration in their domestic form.

For example, everyone seems to know about the dire wolf (Canis dirus), but did you know that there were large wolves of the  C. lupus species that have very similar adaptations to those of the dire wolf? These wolves were not dire wolves, but an extinct population of modern wolves. In fact, these wolves are the ancestors of no living wolf or dog population.

The indigenous people of North America surely knew of these larger subspecies of wolves. In fact, they probably knew a very diverse population of wolves, which we cannot imagine today. For not only were there coyotes and dire wolves, there were also many diverse forms of the C. lupus species.  And as we know today, not all subspecies of wolves form packs.

It’s very likely that the waheela and the mythology about Amarok are based on these extinct forms of modern wolf, which have survived in the folklore of the native peoples of their respective regions. Maybe these big game hunting wolves were not pack hunters. Who knows?

Now, the Ontario white wolf could be a similar story– either the dire wolf or some unusual and extinct form of modern wolf has survived in the folklore of the indigenous people.

However, I have a far more likely story.

Everyone knows that there are large white wolves in North America, specifically in the northern reaches of Canada and in the praire provinces. The most famous North American subspecies with white fur-coloring is Canis lupus arctos. It is almost always white in color. They are born gray and stay that color for the first few years of their lives, but then turn white in color.

Now, this subspecies is larger than both subspecies found in the more settled areas of Ontario, which are C. l. nubilus and C. l. lycaon. Neither of those are rather large wolves and virtually none of them are white,  although nubilus sometimes comes in a cream color. Lycaon is almost always gray, although in its fomer range in the US, it was sometimes black.

Most people living in those areas would be more accustomed to seeing wolves that looked like these animals.

But what would happen if an Arctic wolf showed up?

My guess is you’d get legends about a giant Ontario wolf that was white in color.

But how would an Arctic wolf make it the settled areas of Ontario?

Well, as the old Russian proverb goes: “A wolf is kept fed by its feet.” And as a result, wolves have evolved long legs and efficient gaits to travel vast distances.  Sometimes wolves travel hundreds of miles from where they are born. In fact, when you wolves disperse from their natal packs, they very often travel a very long way to set up new territories. It’s a good strategy to prevent inbreeding.

Perhaps a young dispersing Arctic wolf popped up in the settled regions of Ontario, where it was thought to be some sort of giant white wolf.

I think a lot of these cryptid canines are nothing more than unusual subspecies of C. lupus, extinct animals that have survived into folklore, or hybrids. If you cross a domestic dog  (especially those that don’t look like wolves) with a wolf, you have no clue what you’re going to get in terms of appearance or behavior.  You could get a very strange looking animal indeed.

In fact, I think this is why the people of eighteenth century France thought the Beasts of Gevaudan were  some weird creatures. They were larger than any wolf native to France and far more aggressive. It’s very likely that these were hybrids between wolves and some French mastiff (an ancestor of today’s dogue de Bordeaux). The ancestral dogues were very aggressive, and what’s more, they often came in brindle coloration, which describes the “tiger stripess” the beasts perfectly. In fact, dogs of the mastiff type were used as weapons of mass destruction and torture in Spanish colonies in the New World.

I don’t think the waheela or the Ontario giant wolves are hybrids.

I just think they are either extinct subspecies that survived in native folklore or members of extant large white  subspecies that wandered into areas where the locals were not familiar with them.

Keep in mind that we are just now getting to understand how diverse wolves were in pre-historic times. This should be no shock to us. We see this diversity reflected in their domestic forms, which vary in size from the tiny chihuahua to enormous mastiff. We have bulldogs and pekes were very bandy short legs and flattened faces, but we also have long-nosed Afghan hounds and borzoi, which are built on gracile frames with very long legs.

And most of this diversity in shape and size in domestic dogs has come about only in the past few centuries. However, dogs have varied in appearance and type since they were domesticated anywhere from 10,000 to 135,000 years ago.

Now, think about that for a minute. If dogs can evolve into so many shapes and sizes in just a few millennia through artificial selection, imagine what wolves could evolve into through millions of years of natural selection in such varied habitats throughout their historical native range?

So for those reasons, I don’t think the waheela and Ontario white wolf are separate species and certainly aren’t new species of canid.

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The largest modern wolf on record was a Canis lupus occidentalis.

The largest modern wolf on record was a Canis lupus occidentalis.

I remember receiving a book from a great uncle on Pleistocene mammals of North America. As a boy who was always fascinated with the large animals of East Africa that often appeared on nature documentaries, I was truly amazed that such large creatures once roamed my country. I was deeply impressed with the large carnivores, like the Smilodon species and the American lion (Panthrea leo atrox). But I am fundamentally a dog person, so my eye was particularly drawn to a large species of wolf that once roamed the Americas. At the time, I was reading Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, and wolves were my favorite wild animal. However, the name of the extinct species slipped my mind for many year. Then one day happened upon an article that speculated that a relict population of these big wolves could still exist.

Now I began to wonder, could such big wild dogs still exist in the world today? And if so, are they the same species or a close relative of the animal that graced my book on Pleistocene mammals? Well, I began to look at the facts. I plenty of good books on wolves gracing my bookshelf, and thus began a mini-research project. I found lots of interesting things about wolves and their close relatives, and I am offering you these findings as a sort of synthesis, combined with some of my other writings and findings on wolves and dogs that also talk about their evolution and natural history.

The modern wolf is believed to have evolved in Eurasia, most likely in India. However, its ancestors are believed to be a North American animal rather similar to the coyote. From that basic form, we have seen the development of all sorts of different themes and variations evolve.

The largest wolves in the world are of the Rocky Mountain/Mackenzie Valley subspecies (Canis lupus occidentalis). One of these animals was killed in Alaska that weighed 176 pounds. It was a fluke, of course, for this subspecies typically weighs between 100 and 140 pounds. These are big moose-killing wolves that have to have the large size to help bring down their fierce ungulate prey.

Now, domestic dogs do exceed this weight. The mastiff and St. Bernard sometimes weigh in excess of 200 pounds, and at least a few Newfoundlands and Great Danes [sic] have also reached this size.

Because we tend to associate wolves with these larger subspecies, it is easy to forget that many wolf subspecies are significantly smaller. In Wisconsin, it is estimated that the average dog wolf weighs 75 pounds, while the average female weighs 60 pounds. That means that the average wolf in those more southerly populations is about the size of a golden retrieve. However, because wolves have longer limbs in proportion to their body size, the wolves would be taller at the shoulder. The big wolves are limited to the northern reaches of their range.

However, during the Pleistocene, there was a large more southerly distributed species of wolf. Unlike the coyote and the modern wolf, this species also ranged into South America. Its size approached that of the Mackenzie valley wolf, often exceeding 150 pounds and occasionally as much as 175 pounds.  The first specimen was discovered in 1854 at Evansville, Indiana, when a jaw bone of an ancient wolf was found in the Ohio River. The teeth on this wolf were larger than any known modern wolf, and the carnassials had a sharper slicing edge. This robust wolf was given the best name of virtually any extinct animal– the dire wolf (Canis dirus). It was this species that captured my imagination all of those years ago, when I first read about them in the book my  great uncle gave me.

Since the discovery of the Evansville specimen, we have found out lots of interesting things about this species.  Thousands of dire wolf remains have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits, and from their  remains, we know that dire wolves had shorter legs than modern wolves. Their heads were larger, which means that dire wolf had a stronger bite than the modern wolves. Dog bite strength is strongly correlated with head size.

At one time it was believe that dire wolves were bone crushers, like hyenas, but more complete analysis of their jaw structure indicates that their jaws were more designed to kill and consume meat, like modern wolves and coyotes. The dire wolf is believed to be a large animal specialist, like the large occidentalis subspecies of Canis lupus. However, this wolf lived at a time when there were all sorts of huge megafauna in North America. This wolf most likely relied on these larger species for food. Think of the dire wolf as something like a naturally evolved mastiff-wolf hybrid that is even more powerful than those two modern animals. It was an animal that used its size and strength to bring down large prey. It was probably not a good courser.

About 16,000 years ago, the great megafauna of North America started to become extinct. The remaining prey species were mostly smaller animals that were much fleeter than the dire wolf could keep up with. The modern wolf lived in North America during the dire wolf’s reign, and it proved to be a better hunter of these smaller species. The dire wolf was able to hold on for a relatively long time, but the modern wolf was much better equipped to survive in this new world of fleet deer and swift jackrabbits. Officially, the dire wolf went extinct between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago.

It is possible that a relict population of dire wolves lived in the Ozarks of Arkansas up until 4,000 years ago, but officially, the species is extinct.

Or is it?

There is little documentation about how dire wolves lived with modern wolves. We do know that coyotes scavenged their kills, but at LaBrea Tar Pits, there are no modern wolves, just dire wolves. We do know that the genus Canis is plagued with infertility issues among species and this infertility among the species makes taxonomic issues very touchy. Just ask wolf experts what a red wolf is, and you’ll get lots of interesting answers.

It is possible that the dire wolf interbred with the modern wolf. I don’t think it was a very common occurrence, if it happened at all. I don’t think that the wolves of the Northern Rockies and Alaska are modern wolf/dire wolf hybrids. They are just big modern wolves that have evolved as moose killing specialists.

But there are reports of big, anomalous wolves. In Native American folklore, there are lots of stories about big wolves that are different from the wolves we see today. Two of these could be dire wolves or memories of the dire wolves that got passed through folklore.

The waheela is said to be a large heavily built wolf, but it is said to have longer hind legs than front legs. It is also not seen in packs. Because so many dire wolves were found at La Brea, it is assumed that they were pack hunters. The shunka warak’in is another wolf-like animal that is said to be larger than a typical wolf. This one also unusual legs, but this one has longer forelegs than hind legs. One of these was supposedly shot in Montana, and the animal was taxidermied. I’ve seen photos of the taxidermied speciemen. It looks like a poorly mounted wolf-dog hybrid. (And that’s another problem with “mystery dogs”– domestic dogs vary so much in appearance that crosses between domestic dogs and wild dogs and even just regular mutt dogs look can look like  an unusual species.)

I think the shunka warak’in is an animal that actually existed. However, it existed in Central Asia and Siberia, which is the ancestral home for the Native Americans. In the Ioway language, shunka warak’in, means “carries off dogs.” I thought that was interesting. I had previously ignored the descriptions of the shunka warak’in’s unusual leg length. Then I read this article about how  may have hyenas kept people out of the America for thousands of years. These hyenas were big creatures, and a major predator of humans. Humans occurred only south of where the hyenas were the major predator, effectively keeping humans out of Eastern Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Berginia.

What I found interesting, though, was the only record of humans during the hyena period in this part of Asia was the skull of a dog. The dog was too small to have survived in the wild, which is how we know it was a domestic animal. The dog was probably captured near a human camp. The hyenas then carried its body into a cave, where they tore it apart.

Now, these hyenas were in the same basic area where the people who became the Native Americans originally lived before they crossed the Bering Land Bridge. The stories of dog killing hyenas could have survived in the folklore of Native Americans through the generations. The description of the shunka warak’in’s leg lengths sound very much like that of a hyena.

Now, these two animals in the folklore are probably not dire wolves, but I have found one animal that sounds a bit like a dire wolf. The Ontario giant wolf is a described as a big, heavily built wolf that supposedly lives or lived around the Great Lakes region. However, it was a white animal. I don’t know whether the dire wolf was a white animal or not. However, a northern race of this animal could have evolved a white pelt.

However, it could also be that the Ontario white wolf was an Arctic wolf that wandered south after dispersing from its natal pack. Wolves have been know to travel up to 1,000 miles from their natal packs to start their own. The wolves of the High Arctic are big wolves, almost as large as the occidentalis subspecies. They are of a heavier built than the Eastern North American wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) and the Great Plains wolf  (Canis lupus nublius), which are native to the region. If you were used to seeing these smaller races of wolf, encountering one of those big white wolves would be a shock. If you didn’t know they were the same species, then it is possible that you could think of them as some sort of giant wolf.

To be honest, I have not seen any accounts of large anomalous canids in North America that cannot be explained as subpecies of the common wolf, coyotes, hybrids between coyotes and wolves, or hybrids between dogs and wolves or dogs and coyotes. I think people fundamentally do not understand that wolves are very diverse species. If you think about it, domestic dogs are the result taking wolves and breeding them into every exaggerated shape imaginable. These exaggerations come from a species that has wide variations in its appearance in the wild. The biggest wolf on record was the aforementioned occidentalis specimen. The smallest was the extinct shamanu (C.l. hodophilax) of Japan, which was often as small as 15 pounds.

Further, coyotes also vary in appearance. There are black ones, red ones, gray ones, and even white ones. The biggest coyotes are nearly wolf-sized, weighing as much as 60 or 70 pounds. These are found in Eastern North America. The smallest coyotes are shamanu-sized creatures that live in Central America as far south as Panama.

Now, as I’ve said before some of the variation in wolves and coyotes comes from interbreeding with domestic dogs. Black coloration in North American and Italian wolves and in coyotes is now believed to come from interbreeding with domestic dogs. The gene that causes the black color evolved first in domestic dog populations. Wolves in Italy were discovered to have dewclaws on their hind legs. No other wolves had this feature. However, domestic dogs sometimes do have these dewclaws. When it was determined that this feature also evolved first in domestic dogs, scientists are now using the existence of these hind dewclaws as diagnostic feature of hybridization.  The wolf researcher Adolph Murie speculated that the wide variation that existed in Alaskan wolves came from hybridization with domestic dogs.   It is also likely that the Beasts of Gevaudan was a Dogue de Bordeaux or other mastiff-type crossed with a wolves. So when an unsual “wolf” is seen, one cannot discount the possibility that Fido might have had something to do with it.

As much as I would love for dire wolves to still exist in some form, I don’t seen any convincing evidence to suggest that they do. Their genes could exist in some population of modern wolves or maybe even coyotes, but those genes have not been found.  (If someone could locate a pristine stample of dire wolf DNA, we could find answers to some of these questions).

There are interesing issues with classifying the genus Canis. The interfertility among most of the animals in that genus is but one of them. The other is that Canis lupus is historically a genetically diverse species. A study of the remains dogs and wolves from caves in Belgium suggests that the ancestral Canis lupus population was extremely genetically diverse. This means that modern wolf populations could have very unique genetics and still be of the same Canis lupus species.

This former genetic diversity is further added when some wolves were found in the Alaska permafrost. They resembled large modern wolves of the occidentalis subspecies, although they were quite bit more robust in appearance. When the jaw structures were examined, the wolves were found to have much more powerful jaws than any known population of wolves. Because this find was in Alaska, the animals were known not to be dire wolves. However, these wolves had such powerful builds and jaw that it is believed that they were capable of killing mammoth, even though they looked very much like modern wolves. When their DNA was sequenced, their DNA sequence that was found to match any extant wolf populations. What the scientists had found was a specialized population of wolves that evolved to hunt large prey species.  Where these bone crushing wolves fit into the natural history of wolves is a very good question. Because these wolves lived 12,000 years ago, it is possible that one or two of these wolves lived into historic times. It’s also likely that the memory of wolves like this worked its way into Native American folklore and added to the stories about the waheela and shunka warak’in. Further, we know that wolves have the ability to evolve into rather robust forms, which could also be augmented with hybridization with massive domestic dogs.

The theory that the dire wolf still exists in some form sounds appealing. However, it is very unlikely. Instead,  we have something even more amazing. It is this remarkable elasticity exhibited by wild dog to evolve into different shapes to exploit new niches in the ecosystem. This elasticity has been used in our selective breeding of domestic dogs to produce all manner of exotic shapes, some of which are now quite deleterious to the health of the dog. However, in the wild, this elasticity allowed the ancestral Canis to evolve into the little pot-licking black-backed jackals of Eastern and Southern Africa that evolved to snatch morsels of meat from the kills of the great carnivores, and this elasticity has allowed for the dire wolf to evolve into a predator that preyed on the megafauna, the equivalent of the lions and hyenas from which the black-backed jackal scavenges.

This elasticity is believed to come from tandem repeats in the dog’s DNA sequence. This genetic eccentricity has been as useful to dogs as our tool use and innovation has been to us. Dogs can simply evolve into new forms rather quickly. However, it also allows humans to totally mess up the domestic dog’s body structure, producing forms that are very unhealthy.

So it is unlikely that these mystery dogs of North America are extant dire wolves. I wish they were. I would love it if such unusual wolves still lived here. I do hold  the possibility that their genes could be found in some North American wolf population, but I don’t think it is very likely. I think it is more likely that the unusual wolves found in Alaska might have some descendants in a population of modern wolves that have not had their DNA sequenced. I don’t have much hope for the dire wolf, even if one population could have survived 4,000 years ago.

Because if they still were around, we could write a heck of a Jack London novel about them!

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(I wonder if the Fonz did this in Minnesota or Wisconsin. ; ) )

I hope no one  believed the drivel I wrote yesterday. I intentionally mislead you. No shark would ever make it up to Minnesota or Wisconsin. Too many locks and dams on the Mississippi. There also never been a shark in West Virginia– at least in historic times. That story came from an April Fool’s joke that I received about three years ago.

Why would I mislead you?Well, I am reading post after post about the Montauk Monster, I thought I’d try my hand at writing absolute tripe. I    wanted to see if I had any readers dumb enough to “bite.” I have none. But I am amazed at how many people think the Montauk Monster has something to do with a government conspiracy.

I did mix in actual facts: a bull shark was captured in the Mississippi near St. Louis, the Matawan Creek shark was probably a bull shark, and one was captured 2,000 miles up the Amazon in Peru. These sharks have shown up in Washington, D.C., proving that those who make political class are not the only cold blooded killers in that town. And the best lies always contain a lot of truth wrapped in.

I even gave some  canards about the Lake Michigan shark attack, which I actually think is totally false, and the skill that these creatures have at crossing locks and dams. However, I know I lost a few people when I said the sharks could jump Minnehaha Falls. Bull sharks do jump the rapids on the San Juan River in Nicaragua, but I doubt they would make it up these falls.

I apologize to anyone who would believe that story, but yesterday was my birthday. I wanted to have some fun. I wanted to try my hand at something like the Montauk Monster-swine flu theory. I actually had two rather disconcerting discussions on youtube about the Montauk Monster, swine flu, and government conspiracy. Someone actually asked me “Why woud Plum Island do that to a raccoon?”

The answer is it wouldn’t. Raccoons die every day, and some wind up in the ocean. Because we have killed tons of sharks and other scavengers,  these carcasses remain in the ocean long enough until they rot.

I also need to tell you that my own grandfather started a wildlife mystery entirely by falsehood.

His friend is the town barber. This barber keeps lots of taxidermied animals in the front window. One of them is a ghastly creature. It looks like a moderately sized monkey-type creature with long nails. It is obviously fake.

However, patrons of the barber shop often ask about its identity. For years, the answer was that it was just a joke.

My grandpa decided one day that he wasn’t going to go along with the “it’s a joke” story.

He knew that such a creature needed a heck of a story.

One day, a woman from the local church brought in her little boy for haircut. While waiting their turn for the barber’s chair, the little boy went around and checked out all the taxidermied specimens. When he approached the monkey creature, he asked “What’s that ugly thing?”

To which my grandpa replied: “It’s a bujeonowl.”

“A what?!” both the boy and his mother asked.

“A bujeonowl. Quite rare in this country. But I hear the DNR turned some more loose to keep the coyote numbers down.”

“Why would they turn out something like that?”

“Because unlike wolves or other predators of coyotes, these bujeonowls won’t also kill calves or sheep. You see, the bujeonowl likes coyote meat above all other animals. They wait in the trees until an old coyote comes slinking down the trail. When it passes the tree where the bujeonowl is waiting, it leaps down onto the coyote. It takes its long claws and tears out the coyote’s throat. Then it carries the coyote up into the trees to eat. If you see a coyote carcass up in a tree, you can bet that a bujeonowl carried it up there.”

Well, it wasn’t long before word spread that the DNR had turned out some new predator to kill the coyotes. Not everyone believed it, but those who did often came by my grandpa and asked him about the bujeonowl. He would tell the same story, although sometimes he would had that the beast had eyes that glowed read in the dark or that it sometimes hunted children, even claiming that his own brother was attacked by a bujeonowl one winter as the boys walked home from school.

One day, he found himself telling the bujeonowl story to an entire cafe full of people. I think after that, he started to feel guilty about the whole thing, and he stopped telling the story.

However, the story of the bujeonowl is not the story of a unique coyote-killing ape.  It is really an interesting story about how naive and gullible people are. After all, the year before the people were all talking about how the insurance companies turned loose the coyotes in order to reduce the number of deer and, thus, the number of deer-related damage claims.  Of course, that story was utter malarkey. The coyotes had arrived both on their own volition and because various hunt clubs wanted them introduced as a game species. (Of course, no one did any research to find out that coyotes don’t kill that many deer, and the insurance companies were more interested in knocking off a few elected judges than knocking off the white-tailed deer.)

So I’m sorry I misled you, but I hope that it is a fair warning. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, especially if it has to do with wild animals. People like to sensationalize everything.

And just remember, the Montauk Monster didn’t kill JFK. JFK and Elvis were last seen ice fishing  for bull sharks on Lake Woebegon.

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My grandpa knew the natural world quite well. He spent much of his life in the forest, so much so that he called his life-long education a “Ph.D. in the woods.” He loved to tell stories about his adventures with with the various wild animals he came across.

But none was as interesting as his encounter with a large black monkey. Its species is still a mystery, although I now have some guesses about its exact taxonomy. However, for a few weeks in the 1970’s, this monkey was a major story for a small community in West Virginia.

My grandfather’s work was in a remote area of central West Virginia. Stories often circulated about the region about all sorts of unusual beasts that hid out in one of the last redoubts of wilderness in the Allegheny foothills.

My grandfather worked a well-tender for an oil and natural gas company. He walked the whole ten miles of remote territory during his first decade on the job. Then he purchased a half-wild horse that no one could break, and through his sheer determination, he was able to turn that animal into a decent trail horse.

In those days, the wells produced a lot of gas, and a few of the oil wells gurgled out the black crude. A century before, a vast deposit of oil gushed from the earth. Fortunes great and small were made from the black goo, but by the 1970’s, the oil wells were starting to run dry.

In those days, young hippies had been returning to the land, and some were starting to have second thoughts about trying to live the agrarian lifestyle in land that was already known to be marginal in its agricultural utility. Lots of them released their animals into the forest before they returned to civilization.

Even today, it is not unusual to come across a flock of feral goats on a summer drive along some remote forested lane. These goats were owned by the back to the earth people, some of whom tried to live like the Diggers of 1649 fame. Too bad this land was “waste ground” for a good reason. The people who originally farmed it could make more money selling the mineral rights than they ever could raising stock or growing corn and vegetables. That’s why the land itself was so cheap in those days. However, even those hardy pioneers couldn’t make a go of the land, what made the neo-Diggers think they could do the same? It usually wasn’t long before the collective farms grew only rocks and thorns, and their inhabitants moved on.

However, some of these back to land people had kept exotic pets. There were always reports of “black panthers” slinking through the undergrowth. Supposedly, these were black leopards that had been released into the wild by their naive owners.

Monkeys were often seen, but these animals could never really make it in a cool temperate forest. In those days, squirrel monkeys were all the rage. They were quite difficult to rear in captivity, but they were easily caught in the wild. They were then sent to Florida, where one could easily order one through the mail for very reasonable cost. Never mind that squirrel monkeys are quite difficult to keep in captivity. Never mind that their temperaments are quite plucky, and their wild natures are impossible to remove from them no matter how long their owners try to turn them into pets. It was not unusual for someone to find a squirrel monkey wandering around.

He would have never gotten excited over a squirrel monkey. Everyone knew about squirrel monkeys. One of his friends had trapped a squirrel monkey that chose to sleep with his beagle pack every night, snuggling against the dogs during the cold winter nights.

However, as he rode his horse down the well-worn trail that summer morning, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. Up ahead was a dark form wandering down a forest path into a clearing. At first he thought it was a mink, but it was too large. However, he had never seen a raccoon that dark before, and it lacked the white-tipped tail of the melanistic red fox. It move with an unusual rocking motion, and unlike other wild animals, it seemed to be approaching the oncoming horse and rider. As he rode a little closer, he realized that he was approaching a rather large black monkey. Its long tail was curled at the end, and its body was rangy and gracile.

Now, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. He rode the horse a little closer, but knowing how easily this particular horse was spooked, he stopped him about 25 yards short of where the monkey now stood. The monkey stopped and stood on its long, thin hind legs. It studied the man and horse over, and then realizing that they were no threat, it continued on its way.

When he returned to company toolhouse that afternoon, he knew he’d better keep quiet about the monkey. No one would believe him, and heck, he really didn’t believe his own eyes anyway. Surely he hadn’t seen a monkey.

At the toolhouse, the men let off steam, telling bawdy jokes and outright lies about the things they saw. He knew no one would believe he’d seen a big black monkey.

As he sat at his chair eating what he had saved for his lunch, a co-worker stammer through the door. His face was as white as a sheet.

“Boys, you won’t believe what I saw. You wouldn’t guess it in a hundred years!”

My grandpa leaned over and said, “Well, I bet I can. I bet you saw that big black monkey.”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“I saw it, too. It was just walking down the road. Just hunchin’ along.”

About fifteen minutes passed, and another co-worker staggered in. He also tried to engage in the guessing game.

“You won’t guess what I just saw. Not in a million years.”

Well, it turned out they did guess correctly that their co-worker had seen the big black monkey.

The story of the great monkey soon spread throughout the town and the little farmhouses that lined the river. As summer turned to autumn, the men began to think about running their hounds. Running hounds in this part of the world is unlike the organized hunts of Britain and the East Coast. Indeed, these events are more about running the hounds. Raccoons and foxes typically aren’t killed when the hounds are released on those crisp, cool nights. It is about letting the dogs run and sipping whiskey around a bonfire with your good friend while you spin a few yarns and brag about the hounds. Not a single red coat or horse will be in sight.

Well, that year, a couple of men took their coonhounds out for a run in that remote area where the monkey had been seen. The dogs caught wind of the strange animal’s trail, and soon ran it into the trees. Now, raccoons and gray foxes will take to the trees to avoid the dogs. They will even jump from tree to tree to baffle the dogs. The experienced dogs know this, and they will move from tree to tree, hoping that they are not “barking up the wrong tree.”

Well, this animal did move from tree to tree, and it continued to do so for nearly twenty miles. The dogs ran from the base of each tree, baying with all their might. But running such an animal through the tree tops was something they were quite unaccustomed to, and soon the dogs tired. They were of no use as monkey hounds.

Nothing was heard of the West Virginia black monkey after that. It probably either froze to death in the cold winter or was killed by a dog or other predator.

My grandpa never knew its species, but my guess is that it was a spider monkey– possibly a black or red-headed spider monkey.  It also may have been a black-headed spider monkey, but the description of the animal and its behavior suggests that it definitely was a spider monkey. Spider monkeys are very fast in the trees and could cover that distance from the treetops rather quickly. Further, my grandpa described this monkey as lanky with a long curled tail, and it stood up on its hind legs and looked at him. That is a common spider monkey behavior. They were also commonly imported as pets, even though they are very intelligent and hard to keep. It makes sense that someone would have released one into the forest after discovering how hard it was to care for.

So for a very brief time, the West Virginia hills had a large black monkey running through them. And for at least one day, the crazy stories at the toolhouse were true– there was a monkey in our midst.

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