Creatures Great & Not So Great

by Marshall Newman, September 25, 2013

In my years in Anderson Valley, from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, I experienced plenty of local wildlife: a sea of baby toads on every sandbank along lower Rancheria Creek in early summer, occasional turtles in the Navarro River, rarely seen foxes and (back then) coyotes, the sounds and paw prints (though never the sight) of mountain lions, native snails with flattened, “sideways” shells, eels in the rivers and creeks, jack rabbits bolting from the brush, coveys of quail bursting forth on whirring wings and more. These were familiar events for those of us living away from town and Highway 128. Most of these encounters were pleasant and not dangerous, but a few were problematic, dangerous, humorous and sometimes all three.

Deer are common in the valley, likely more so during my years there. My parents’ summer camp, El Rancho Navarro, was a lively, noisy place in June, July and August, and deer avoided the main area of camp at first. For years, my father planted tomatoes in the flagpole circle at the center of camp, usually watering his plants in the evening before dinner. In the early years, the deer stayed away, enabling him to harvest a decent crop. Later, they became bolder, traipsing across the lawn at twilight. Eventually they were coming into the main area of camp at all hours. Sadly, they discovered tomato plants were edible. They essentially ate the plants down to nothing, leaving my dad fuming in their wake. Knowing he was fighting a lost battle, he gave up on tomatoes and planted nasturtiums. The voraciousness of deer went well beyond tomato plants; I used to watch them eat prune plums off the ground in our tiny orchard and spit out the pits.

Raccoons also are common, but — unlike the masked marauders one encounters in some state parks today — reasonably shy. However, one day around nightfall, my brother Aaron got close enough to trap one against a tree with a cardboard box. He then began wondering why he had been able to get so close to this particular raccoon and came to a scary conclusion — maybe it had rabies. He dropped the box and watched the raccoon climb the tree to a high limb. He then returned to the house to tell us of his suspicions. We went back to the tree with flashlights and rifles, shot the raccoon and buried it. While it is probable the raccoon wasn’t rabid (rabies is relatively rare in raccoons), we were very careful to avoid contact with it.

Skunks are common as well, but as they are mostly nocturnal, sightings were rare. While checking pasture irrigation late one afternoon, my brother and I watched as a skunk took refuge in a length of irrigation pipe. Being young and foolish, we decided to force the skunk out of the pipe. We stacked a pile of large rocks into one end and tipped the pipe on end. Surprisingly, the plan worked; the rocks and skunk slid out of the pipe. My brother then managed to hit skunk with a rock and stun it. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay stunned long and, upon awakening, sprayed us both.

My mother wasn’t too happy about the two of us returning home reeking of skunk (fortunately, we didn’t get sprayed in the face, so it didn’t get in our eyes). She found some tomato juice — believed to remove skunk odor — and had us bathe in it. Despite its reputation, this “remedy” didn’t work; for the next few days, we smelled like tomato juice and skunk!

Anyone who has a dog or cat already knows about ticks in Anderson Valley. We Newmans were novices about removing them when we acquired Tinkerbelle, our McNab-Border Collie cross (who deserves and will get an article devoted to her), but learned quickly and in the worst way possible. We discovered a tick on her belly and followed the advice of touching a hot match to the end of the tick. Unfortunately, no one told us the match was to be blown out first. To make a long story short, we lit the poor dog on fire — in the house! We kids ran out various doors in panic and Tinkerbelle — ablaze — ran into my parent’s closet with my mother in pursuit, where she “put the dog out” with a cloth laundry bag. Fortunately, Tinkerbelle and the house survived little worse for wear. We promptly found better ways to remove ticks.

Ticks aren’t exclusively a dog and cat problem; people can be bitten as well. I was last bitten on a visit to the valley about five years ago. The tick picked an inaccessible spot to drill in and getting it out — using tweezers and a mirror — proved no fun.

Last, but not least, there are yellow jackets. We didn’t have much trouble with them, though they could be unnerving in their persistence during a barbecue. Occasionally we found a nest, usually built underground. I remember pouring gasoline into one at night when it wasn’t active. We did not know then gasoline wasn’t good for the soil (fortunately, the nest was a distance from the main area of camp), but it did kill the yellow jackets.

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