Wildlife Sanctuary

01 Aug

            I lived in northern California in the early 80’s. I had an opportunity to stay in a house at the base of the Usal Mountains, about as far north as you can go on Highway 1, before it makes an abrupt right turn north of Westport, and winds its way eastward toward 101. The owner had offered to sail a friend’s boat to Hawaii, and would be gone for the summer. He had been constructing the house entirely from logs, and although it was far from complete, I saw it as an opportunity to spend some time in a very isolated and unique setting. The house sat on a hill, and had no electricity, water, or facilities of any kind. The “walls” were wrapped with semi-clear plastic sheeting, and the roof consisted of corrugated fiberglass panels, allowing plenty of light to filter in throughout the day.

            During the months that I lived there, the only wildlife I encountered was a magnificent buck. I had been sitting on a rock in a streambed not far from the house, and did not hear him approach. He had been walking in the riverbed, and the sound of the water rippling over the rocks masked his footsteps. He rounded a heavily wooded bend downstream, no more than 20 feet from where I was, and stood facing me in the stream. As soon as our eyes met, he seemed to leap up into the air in one bound, turn around, and disappear in the direction he had come.

            I would have expected to come across other animals in a wilderness area like that, but for some reason, even in other places I have lived which were equally remote, that doesn’t seem to happen very often. It was not until I moved back to my hometown in one of the most developed areas of north Jersey that I really began to encounter a variety of critters.

            Having grown up in Bergen County, 10 minutes away from New York City, when it was still considered partly rural, I spent many of my childhood years playing in the woods behind our house, and like a lot of kids, I caught my share of rabbits, snakes, turtles, and frogs. We brought home wounded birds with broken wings, and tried to take care of them until they could fly again, and there were many nights when we could smell the scent of a skunk, or hear the screeching of some poor animal caught by a predator. When the woods behind us was bulldozed to make way for a housing development in the 50’s, apparently not all of the animals moved on.

            There are times when I miss living in isolated places like Westport, but now that I am back in New Jersey, living in the house I grew up in, I’m content to spend my evenings sitting in the backyard, enjoying the same sense of the outdoors that I knew during my childhood. The houses behind me are hidden by a tall stand of dense hedges, and there is a sense of privacy that allows me to enjoy being out there without feeling as if I am crowded out by my neighbors. 

            One moonless night, I was sitting in the dark in an old Adirondack chair, when I noticed something white moving along the hedges. It took me a few moments to adjust my eyes, before I realized a skunk had wandered into the yard and was making his way toward me. I bolted for the side door, and must have startled him as much as he startled me, because I made it inside without getting sprayed.

            There were other times when the skunk came to pay me a visit, but I was better prepared after the first incident. Skunks are primarily nocturnal, and prefer the dark of night, so I began bringing a flashlight out with me, knowing that if I shined it directly into his their, they would slink away. One night, however, I was sitting in my chair, scanning the yard for any movement, when all of a sudden a skunk appeared under the picnic table just to my left, and walked right out in front of me. I felt a rush of adrenaline, and instinctively pushed myself back against the chair. He was only a few feet away, and for a moment, I was trapped. There was no place to run, and getting up would surely have given me away, so I turned on the flashlight, and hoped for the best. He scurried past me not moving any faster, and disappeared into the neighbor’s yard without so much as a glance back. My heart was beating fast, but I kept the light shining in his direction in case he changed his mind. When I was sure he was gone, I went back into the house, thankful that I had escaped another close call, but shaken by the thought of what might have happened without the light.

            I haven’t seen any skunks for a while now, although I still bring the flashlight with me whenever I go out, but lately I’ve started to notice how many other animals are still in the neighborhood. Like so many other yards in town, we have our share of squirrels, and a rabbit or two, but I’ve also seen groundhogs, raccoons, a possum, chipmunks, and even a small owl that was sitting in our maple tree one night, softly hooting from his perch. What makes this so unusual is that this is one of the busiest counties in the nation, where lawns are meticulously cared for, bushes pruned, and concrete and blacktop surfaces abound. There are only two trees left of the hundreds that used to border our backyard, and despite the number of animals still around, it can hardly be called a habitable place for wildlife.

            Now that summer is here again, my wife and I are planning a few short vacations up north in places like New Hampshire, the 1000 Islands, and the Adirondacks. We usually bring our kayak and hiking boots, and spend as much time as we can up in the mountains or out on the lakes and rivers that make New England such a beautiful place live. We don’t expect to see much in the way of wildlife, though. We’ll have to wait until we get back home for that.

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