Where the Wild Things Are

I walked down the driveway, and the wolf followed me. He slipped into the narrow space between the garage and the fence.

We knew there was a wolf in James Bay, the area of Victoria where my sister lives. Its presence in this urban environment was unheard of, so had been all over the news and social media the day before, when several people snapped pictures and a neighbour on her street had videoed it loping down the sidewalk in the middle of the day. When I had texted her that I was walking over, I had even joked that I hoped the wolf didn’t get me. And when the walk took longer than I predicted, she asked if I had been eaten?

The police came, they called the conservation officers and several hours later the wolf was tranquillized and removed. The next day, after being checked by a vet, he was released about 80 kilometres away, in the wilderness.

My sister provided a “play by play” on social media and it was interesting to see the comments. Everyone was sympathetic to the wolf, not wanting him to be harmed. Someone even relayed commentary from Europe, where it was explained that we lived in the wolf’s territory, and we should all just leave and give it back to them. I wonder if they would have been so sympathetic if their pets or children had been attacked by this apex predator.

Several of my friends were concerned about how I was doing, having had such a close encounter. It might have been different if I had looked backwards and seen the wolf, but I just walked into my sister’s house and had no idea the wolf was there until a few minutes later when we asked the police, who had suddenly appeared in the yard, what was happening?

Besides, I’d been followed by wildlife before. When I was 8, two friends and I were stalked by a cougar as we hike a kilometre through the bush between the two logging camps we lived in. We thought it was my friend’s brother, following us and making cougar noises to scare us, so we inadvertently did all the right things- stopping, shouting (We know it’s you, Ricky! You’re a stupid jerk!) and not showing fear. It was only when we came out to the townsite and looking back, seeing the cougar at the forest edge, that we realized.

In logging towns, you knew that bears and cougars lived in the woods around you. When a cougar started coming up on porches to eat cats and small dogs, the children would not be allowed alone outside until the cougar hunter and his hound had come and tracked it down, but it was always an old or injured animal. The healthy ones much preferred deer. It was live and let live, for the most part.

You saw them sometimes- I still remember, coming home from work when I was 18, the cougar who stood for a moment on the road in my headlights, magnificent. Heading to work in the cookhouse before 4 am, I slammed my door into the bear who was sleeping on my porch- but I just banged the door a few times and shouted, and he ambled off. It was the same when I was alone on the midnight lunchmaker shift and a bear tried to come through the screen door. I was at the dishwasher when he ripped the screen with his claws, and all I could think was “He’s not getting my sandwiches!” So I hit him in the face with the hot water sprayer, and when he retreated I closed the solid door.

Photo credit to Coast Mountain News, from the small town in Northern BC that I lived in for 5 years. I have no bear photos of my own, as when I was this close taking a picture was not the first thing on my mind!

Years later, working as a geologist, I had déjà vu when a bear ripped through the back of my tent one night. That bear, displaced by fires that year that sent wildlife looking for new territory, was killed, but the others who ate our lunches from our back packs when we were out in the field were only scared off. You learned quickly what techniques worked– and which didn’t. One year, above the tree line, we spotted a grizzly, too close for comfort. With shaking hands, my partner fired a bear banger– that landed BEHIND the bear, prompting him to dash towards us! We went to the sides and the bear ran past. Others were not so lucky. George, a fellow geologist, had the scars on his head from where a grizzly dragged him, and the story was terrifying. Another friend gave up geology all together and moved to California after the man in the tent next to him in the Yukon was dragged out, killed and partially eaten by a bear.

A teacher who replaced me at a northern school made the news when he was pulled off his mountain bike and mauled by a grizzly. Fortunately he survived to give an interview from his hospital bed. My children knew what to do if approached by a bear or cougar, and apparently impressed their friends with their matter-of-fact, detailed explanations when we moved to more “civilized” locations!

So I am not a romantic when it comes to wildlife. These animals are magnificent but can be dangerous when our paths cross. We should do what we can to coexist safely, such as reducing attractants that would bring them into communities. We should protect their habitat so they can stay in the wild, as much as possible.

At Giza, Egypt, January 2019

I bring the same attitude when I travel. I hiked in a tiger preserve in India, but I would not go to the temples where the animals are drugged so tourists can have photo ops with them. I observe animals where the people are the ones confined, in a boat or a vehicle, and the wildlife is free to roam. I will ride a well cared for horse or camel, but I do not ride elephants. I swam with the manta rays, who came by choice to where we waited, but I will not swim with dolphins who are confined in small pools under terrible conditions.

Seeing animals is an amazing part of my travels, but I try not to have a negative impact on their wildness.

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