Andersen: Animals in our lives
A mountain lion burst into our world when it attacked our hound dog, Heidi, the summer before last. Snatched up by the jaws of a lion from a wilderness trail, Heidi was being dragged off into a ravine when my wife rushed in like a valkyrie and chased off the cat.
Heidi bore the scars of that lion to the end of her life. She died at home in December — with help from the vet — on her dog bed, with us holding her. I’ll never forget the way she looked up at us with unblinking trust as she slipped away.
We buried Heidi in the red clay on the hillside behind our home — a place where she basked in the summer sun for all of her thirteen years. A convenient, nearby boulder now serves as her monument after I rolled it onto her burial place. Her collar and an old dog bone are the beginnings of a shrine.
The void in our lives was palpable for weeks after Heidi was set free. Stepping into an empty house without a tail wagging greeting made our home feel incomplete. She was our last pet.
Our cats lived to be 18, a remarkable lifespan for outdoor cats hunted by coyotes, owls, foxes, bobcats and mountain lions. They were agile and quick, and they knew their escape routes well. The junipers and pinons around our house were their perches.
One died of cancer, the other simply disappeared. I found a trace of her a month afterward and assumed a coyote had snatched her. Such is the law of the wilds at Seven Castles on the Fryingpan Valley.
Now that we’ve adjusted to the absence of pets, we feel somewhat liberated. The trade off for their affection is balanced by our easy comings and goings. Without our dog we see more deer and bighorn sheep. Without our cats we see more birds.
We have no house pets, but we have animals galore, just beyond our windows. We observe them with appreciation, as reminders of where we live. These free-roaming critters — rabbits, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, stellar jays, flickers, magpies, ravens, eagles — are part of our lives.
Time agazine recently ran a cover story describing wildlife as “pests.” This is a word not usually associated with beautiful wild animals, which the article pointed out may not seem so wild once they have habituated to human environments.
Time reported that populations of bears and deer especially are out of hand in many parts of the country. Without natural predation from keystone species like wolves, lions and grizzlies, the natural balance is askew, causing Time to condemn Bambi, Yogi and Wylie Coyote as common pests.
Living on the Fryingpan we feel differently. We appreciate when the deer and sheep bed down in our yard, scooping out patches of snow beneath our evergreens. We watch as they browse without fear on our shrubs and stare into our windows.
In the fall a particularly huge buck with a massive, antlered rack plucked unconcernedly at the honeysuckle vine affixed to our kitchen wall. It casually nibbled the dark-green leaves, twitched its ears and shook its regal headgear. This buck became a familiar visitor that we admired for his stature.
A family of bunnies spends winters beneath our deck, burrowing under the snow to a warm and well provisioned warren. They appear in the early mornings, hopping across the yard and nibbling whatever grasses aren’t buried in the snowpack. Often they sit motionless — round, furry balls — and appear comfortable on the coldest mornings.
The bighorn sheep gather in the meadow below our house. Studying the powerful rams with their full curl horns is the best wildlife scene I can conjure. Observing them bounding among the cliffs of the Seven Castles is an unforgettable display of agility.
These animals are not pests. They are outdoor neighbors that remind us that the animal world is part of our world and that we are part of theirs. Wildlife are pests only by our definition. If they had a voice, I’m sure the views would be reversed.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Long before you could buy your Patagonia apparel and gear at the Snowmass Village Mall, company founder Yvon Chouinard was an avid rock climber and mountain man living in California.
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