Sunday, November 16, 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

A trail camera in a Malibu garden captures an image of a night visitor. Coyotes are just one of many wild animal species that make their homes among us. All photos © 2014 Suzanne Guldimann

Let the wild rumpus begin!

—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

In Malibu you don't have to go far to find where the wild things are. They are right here, living parallel lives that rarely intersect with their humans neighbors, despite the fact that we all occupy the same neighborhoods.

At the Malibu Post we've been monitoring some of our local wildlife for the past four months with the help of a trail camera. It's an illuminating experience. 

I was anticipating catching the local coyotes at work when I set the camera up. We see constant evidence of their presence: footprints, scat, and holes dug in pursuit of gophers, although this wily wild canine is rarely seen in person. But the very first photo we captured wasn't a coyote, it was this shy beauty:

Madam Bobcat is a silent secret presence in the night garden, where she hunts for rabbits, and rodents. Unlike the coyotes, she leaves no trace of her presence.

I was astonished. I had no idea there was a bobcat in the area, but I learned that a friend who lives nearby has seen her so often that she refers to her as "my bobcat."

The bobcat is shy and secretive. We rarely get a photo of all of her, but we know now that she is a presence in the garden. Bobcats are generally solitary and require a large territory—at least a square mile for females and nearly twice that for males, according to the Urban Carnivore website

Bobcats are bigger than a house cat and look impressively wild, with spots and stripes and enormous paws, but they are not a threat to humans and prefer to avoid confrontations. they are also much smaller than most people realize, usually weighing no more than 15-18 pounds. 
Urban legend provides many colorful tall tales of wildcats attacking people and pets, but National Park Service biologists who have been studying the local bobcat population for over a decade, maintain that there is absolutely no credible evidence of a bobcat ever attacking a human or eating domestic cats or dogs. Bobcats are obligate carnivores, but they primarily hunt rabbits and rodents like ground squirrels, gophers and wood rats. Unfortunately, this puts them at high risk for secondary poisoning from anticoagulant rodenticides. Research indicates that the impact of poison on the bobcat's immune system can lead to death from manage and from a condition called chronic wasting disease.

Madam Bobcat performs a disappearing act, slipping through a gap in the fence in broad daylight. You can just see her nose and her ears, illuminated by the sun. A blueline stream nearby and a buffer zone of riparian habitat, including deep thickets—and plenty of poison oak that keeps human interlopers out—provides shelter and a wildlife corridor for animals like bobcats, who may include gardens in their nightly rounds but require secure places to den and to raise their young.

This is the wild thing I expected to photograph—Malibu's resident trickster spirit, the coyote. I haven't been disappointed. The remote camera, with its motion detector and infrared flash, has recorded the previously unseen adventures of a pair of coyotes.

After carefully checking to make sure the coast is clear, the coyote squeezes through the same small gap in the fence that the bobcat uses. This is a tiny space, barely nine inches high and less than two feet across. This coyote arrived at 3:02 a.m., and left, for a reason she didn't bother to share, two minutes later. 

Mischief managed, I guess. Or perhaps she received word from her mate informing her that the gophers were better on the other side of the fence. Coyotes sing to communicate with the other members of their family, not while hunting, which would defeat the point of being sneaky and stealthy. The local coyotes appear to live in a small family group consisting of a mated pair and their young. They sometimes hunt cooperatively, especially while the youngsters are learning to fend for themselves, but they absolutely do not hunt in giant packs, no matter what local urban legend claims. Coyotes are also smaller than most people realize, rarely weighing more than 35 pounds.

There are always coyotes and many other species of wildlife living among us, whether we are aware of them or not, but the drought has greatly increased contact with humans, sometimes with tragic results for households pets. Pet owners are strongly encouraged to keep cats indoors and make sure small dogs have a safely fenced enclosure and are always walked on a leash.

This coyote is not sure what to think of the infrared flash on the remote camera. Coyotes are intelligent and curious, qualities that help them to adapt and survive in urban environments. 

Coyotes look big, but a lot of their bulk is fur. They can fit through remarkably small gaps and are capable of jumping a six foot fence. Anyone who wants to keep coyotes out of their space should make sure that there aren't any gaps in their fences or gates. Coyote rollers—rotating pipes that prevent coyotes from climbing over fences are easy to install. There are DIY and manufactured options on the Internet. 

There are a lot of urban legends about coyotes and bobcats. The truth is, they are fragile, intelligent, flesh-and-blood animals not that different in behavior from the dogs and cats that share our lives as companion animals.

Unlike the bobcat, coyotes are omnivores. They dig for gophers and ground squirrels and are expert mousers, and yes, they will catch and eat cats and small dogs if they get the chance, but they also eat fruit and insects and anything remotely edible that humans leave outside, including bird seed and BBQ drippings. Coyotes leave scat in the open as a sort of canine calling card, so it's relatively easy to determine what they've been eating at a glance. Lately, ours have been feasting on pomegranates—they wait until the fruit splits open, then pull them off the lower branches, eat the good parts and leave the empty rind behind. They've also been eating large quantities of palm tree fruit, potato bugs and snails. The snails surprised me, but they are abundant, easy to catch and probably provide plenty of protein and moisture—necessities in short supply during drought conditions.

The coyotes and Madam Bobcat aren't the only animals to use the gap in the fence. Rabbits also travel this way. These fierce and intrepid lagomorphs are busy in the garden day and night, and not only thrive but appear to enjoy every minute of their lives despite being at the bottom of the food chain and in constant danger.

There are other garden visitors that have so far eluded the camera: the raccoons that fish for tadpoles in the creek and for koi in a neighbor's pond; the ferocious, secretive long-tailed weasel, glimpsed only twice in all the years we've lived here; and the gray foxes we sometimes hear yipping at the moon on winter nights but rarely ever see.

The sight of a gray fox is so rare that I felt inspired to write a poem commemorating my first encounter with this elusive species in 2008. 

The Fox

I walked on the beach on a winter’s day,
In a moment snatched between rain showers,
When the sea and the sky were pewter gray,
Empty and lonely as the dawn hours.
I heard a curlew’s sweet sorrowing cry,
As bright and clear as the evening star.
I watched a little gray shadow slip by,
Secret as a ghost, across the sand bar,
Between the sea and the storm-swollen creek.
Along the shore I watched him lightly flit
Chasing the silly plover, not to seek
To catch one, but just for the joy of it.
He left his footprints for the tide to fill—
As proof for me that what I’d seen was true:
That foxes live here also, even still.
I’ve lived here all my life and never knew.

After encountering the fox, the bobcat shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was. And it makes me wonder what other unseen creatures may be quietly living among us. 

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote "in wildness is the preservation of the world." One doesn't need to travel to remote corners of the world to find that wildness, it's often just outside the door.  And while no one is thrilled when the skunks take up residence under the deck or the coyotes hold a wild rumpus under the bedroom window at 3 a.m., most Malibu residents appreciate what a gift it is to live in a place that still has room for wild things.

Suzanne Guldimann
16 November 2014

We rarely see coyotes by daylight, but this one appeared right in time for the birthday of the Malibu Surfside New's founder and former editor and publisher Anne Soble. Anne was (and is) an advocate for all wildlife but especially for coyotes. She often devoted her editorials to the issue of conservation and peaceful coexistence with this remarkable wild canine. So it seems entirely appropriate that a coyote should stop by to pay his respects on that particular day. He is one of the celestial beings in Chumash cosmology, after all. One of the Sky People, a creator, shapeshifter, hero, trickster and messenger. 


  1. Awesome writing! And some great photography catches too. Happy Birthday to Anne Soble, whose voice we all miss on the community scene. You are doing a great service by carrying on with a voice for nature via this blog, Suzanne!

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