Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Animal predators prowl neighborhoods

Cover image: Dark’s Tale by Deborah Grabien
Few sounds are more chilling to me than the shrill yips and howls of coyotes. Whenever I hear these eerie sounds, my immediate concern is to bring my cat Elizabeth inside.

In each Lake County community that we have called our home, we have always been conscious of the surrounding areas of woodland. Deer, turkeys and rabbits wander through our neighborhoods and it seems entirely credible that predators lurk unseen.

From time to time, people report sightings of coyotes or mountain lions.

Our cat Elizabeth is a skilled negotiator in being allowed to spend more time out-of-doors: by vocalizing back when I call to her or by making periodic appearances, she reassures her humans that all is well. But whenever we hear coyotes, she must come inside the house.

Reading "Dark's Tale" by Deborah Grabien, I could almost hear coyotes' howls and could see them stalking cats and other animals in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

"Dark's Tale" tells the story of a former house cat abandoned in Golden Gate Park. She finds herself in a complex new world that is subject to changes in season and to rules that keep the peace among species inhabiting the park. Every animal knows its place and survivors earn an unquestioned respect.

The coyotes' arrival threatens this balance; they don't merely kill to eat, but to take down potential competitors. Dark and her friends find themselves under siege from this new danger.

Humans are viewed according to their potential as allies or as a threat. One of the most poignant aspects of this book is that many humans want to protect the cats and other animals from the coyotes but their complaints to city government go unheard.

"Dark's Tale" skillfully brings to life the various complex relationships between animals in Golden Gate Park. It presents a very believable portrayal of the danger imposed by a predator that will not respect the natural balance.

Grabien sought to draw attention to a real-life threat posed by coyotes in Golden Gate Park. She and her husband feed stray and feral cats with the Trap-Neuter-Release cat rescue program. The character Dark is modeled after one of the cats that Grabien and her husband fed.

The coyotes' arrival, in 2006, was outside the natural rhythm that had existed in Golden Gate Park and their impact was felt immediately.

Foxes -- formerly the park's top predator -- began to disappear. Skunks and birds went in hiding. Possums vanished and without them, nothing controlled wasps' nests. "Then one night, we drove up to feed Dark and her new buddy, an old, smart feral named Ivy. We were just in time to see a young coyote charging straight at them."

As of Grabien's writing the book, there were still coyotes in the park:

"The TNR group has managed to catch and relocate many of the park cats to a wonderful shelter in the California hills. More skunks around, but they're cautious and we haven't seen a possum or a fox for over a year now.

"The park is a different place than it was the first night we met Dark."

I was reassured to learn from Grabien that the real-life Dark is one of several cats that were successfully transplanted to the Agee shelter for feral and abandoned cats.

Ivy, too, did not meet his end in the jaws of a coyote; he died in the park at 18 years of age.

I could relate to the animals' plight depicted in Grabien's book, even though rural Lake County is a very different place from Golden Gate Park.

Lake County neighborhoods are so much nearer to the wilderness that coyotes occupy; whereas coyotes' arrival in Golden Gate Park threatened the established order, it could be argued that in Lake County, we humans are the interlopers here. And somehow we must co-exist with predators while protecting the animals in our care.

Published March 16, 2010 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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