I was a Northeastern Oregon ranch kid so I grew up with animals. Some were pets, some were livestock. We had cattle, horses, mules, llamas, and bison plus the usual cats and dogs plus rabbits and a baby alligator that found a new home after it bit my mother. (The folks brought it home from a party one night when I was in grade school, complete with red ribbon around its neck. Only with some retrospective did I begin to infer the circumstances of that acquisition.)
A few critters stand out in my memory.
Gotta start with a two-year-old bull bison I named Brewster. Aviation fans will appreciate the reference to Brewster (the) Buffalo. Everybody else can Google it.
Brewster was athletic. Flat-footed he could clear almost any fence on the ranch, and then he’d head in whatever of 360 degrees his Pleistocene instincts dictated. Now, buffs are not especially fast but they can run all…day…long. Their trachea resembles a three-inch fire hose. That’s why the plains Indians ran them in circles—or over a cliff. No horse can keep pace with them for long.
As you may imagine, Brewster could cover ground, and it became a Challenge to find him. After the second or third episode people asked, “How do you find a runaway buffalo?”
I said, “It’s easy. You go home and you sit by the phone.”
My youngest brother graduated from college with a degree in English and minor in philosophy. When he declared the latter, Dad asked, “Have you checked the yellow pages lately? There’s no listings for philosophers.”
So…the lad decided to raise llamas. That was in the mid-70s, and exotics were still a growth industry. Actually, he gave some thought to camels but our father said, in monosyllables, “Not just No but hell No.”
The New World camelids are llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicunas. The latter are easily identified by the silky ruffs on their chests, contributing luxurious fibers to really spendy coats.
Have you ever seen Salmon P. Chase on a greenback? Me neither. But at the height of the llama market a cria was worth $10,000 when it hit the ground. My brother had impeccable timing—got in early and got out at the right time, even married his very astute veterinarian.
Llamas are worth a separate blog, and I’ll keep that in mind. Suffice to say that they can be warm and cuddly or cranky and spiteful, which often means spit-ful. You devoutly do not want to get caught in a llama crossfire. They’re called “modified ruminants,” meaning they have three stomachs and regurgitate a bilious green slime to express their displeasure. Think: high-pressure fire hose for starters.
In the 1980s I knew a lady who volunteered at a wildlife park. Michelle was, to employ an overworked phrase, drop-dead gorgeous—married twice in the time I knew her—but we became friends. She mentioned that occasionally she tended giraffe and asked if I’d like some face time. Done deal! She convinced me (very little convincing required) to accompany her on a feeding detail—a rare opportunity to meet arguably the most fascinating animals on Planet Earth.
When I say “face time,” I mean face-to-face time. There are eight or nine varieties of giraffe, but the Rothschild’s I met were curious and friendly as long as I had something munchable. Their long, rough tongues were darkish colored and amazingly agile. If there’s such a thing as a prehensile tongue, giraffe have it.
However, meeting giraffe even in a large enclosure was not the same as seeing them in nature. In 2000 I went to Zimbabwe on a magazine assignment with some hunting included. Riding the Land Rover onto the reserve, I noticed three long-necked creatures peering at us over the top of acacia trees. That was an unforgettable moment—a small yet tangible sensation: We’re really in Africa.
A few days later I was out early with my hunting guide when we crossed a dry creek bed. He pointed to some fresh tracks. “Leopard. Passed here last night.”
The hair on the back of my neck actually stood up, accompanied by a prickling-tingling sensation. Only much later did I mention it to a friend who’d treated himself to a safari upon assuming command of an aircraft carrier. He said, “That was your DNA talking to you.”
He was right. It’s hard for most humans to realize it today, but there was a time when it was uncertain whether leopards or hominids would finish atop the food chain. (There’s archeological evidence indicating a prehistoric contest: Leopards 1, Humans 0.)
At the opposite end of the Fascinating Animal Scale from giraffe are hummingbirds.
There are more than 300 species of hummers, with 19 historically recorded here in Arizona, mostly in the southeastern part of the state. However, several species are considered Rare (migratory) and five Accidental. The Phoenix area hosts three or four varieties, with Anna’s mostly patronizing the feeders outside my office and the dining room.
Anna’s are especially colorful. They display almost iridescent green bodies while males sport brilliant red or reddish throats.
I never get tired of watching them. Like every other aviator, I find them absolutely enchanting. Their ability to change direction and velocity in an instant make them the envy of every Harrier pilot—“viffing” is part of the VSTOL aviator’s inventory, but Mom Nature imparted unmatched virtuosity to the tiny masters of vector in forward flight.
Then woodpeckers discovered the feeders in April. Damn poachers.
The other day I was typing away when I heard a tap-tap-tapping sound. Looked to my right about four feet and saw a Gamble’s Quail on my window ledge. The little guy was persistent—kept at it though I have no idea what he wanted. A day or so later a lady Gamble’s repeated the process at the kitchen window. I guess The Word got around.
So did the word on the porcine grapevine. My wife’s flower pots have drawn attention of javelina, which regard the decorations as an open-air salad bar. But know what? We don’t mind too much. It’s a pleasure to share our environment with wildlife, even including coyotes, bobcat, and at least one cougar which a friend calls the “mountainous lion.”
After all, they were here first. But we really could’ve done without the diamondback rattler in the garage.