Little Bear, our Australian shepherd (shown much younger), alerted us to a coyote on the hill behind the house. He didn’t bark, but he had been sitting by the sliding glass door, as the dogs often do, gazing out at the steady parade of birds and chipmunks, when suddenly his whole energy changed, and his casual gazing turned into an intense, focused stare. I went to investigate.
He had good reason to stare. It was an almost totally naked coyote, by which I mean not that his winter coat had fallen out, but that he had little or no fur at all on his body, and his tail was a thin and naked embarrassment of an appendage. It was—or certainly appeared to be—hands down the worst case of mange I’ve ever seen on any animal.
We tend to think of disease as unnatural, as an aberration away from the norm, but because we see it in ourselves and our fellow man, as well as in our dogs or cats or horses, we accept the occasional aberration as unfortunate but not unnatural, something to be treated and cured. Because we do not usually see it in wild animals we tend to think it doesn’t occur, or at least only very rarely, but I suspect it happens far more often than we realize.
Think of the rabies outbreaks that from time to time sweep through various parts of the country. When I was very young, rabies was still common among dogs, especially in the South, and I can remember my father and mother once cautioning me about the deadliness of the disease, and what to look out for. Today it is a thing of the past among household pets, but when we first moved up to these mountains, the local game warden told me that a rabies outbreak had decimated the gray fox population and in fact it was almost twenty years before I saw one.
Also here in California, I was once attacked by a skunk I assume was rabid. I don’t mean that he sprayed me (though I have had that happen too—memorably) but that he kept charging me and trying to bite me until I finally just outran the little bastard.
I have seen fluctuations in the local rabbit population, ranging from their being so numerous that they were a pain in the ass and I practically had to kick them out of my way every time I went out of the house, down to non-existent. Last year I didn’t see one at all, and I have yet to see one this year; even the jackrabbit numbers seem to be greatly reduced.
Blue tongue (hemorrhagic disease) and Chronic Wasting Disease have had their impact on the whitetail herds in parts of Missouri where I like to hunt with my old friend Hal, and deer are also susceptible to tuberculosis and any number of parasites. Birds can carry—and die from—West Nile Virus. Wild pigs can have brucellosis, swine fever, and pseudorabies, which has nothing to do with actual rabies, despite the name. Domestic sheep are subject to more diseases than you can shake a stick at and I’m sure wild sheep have a lengthy list of species-specific illnesses, but the one I am familiar with is pneumonia, which strikes wild herds fairly frequently. I was once asked to help rid a ranch in Texas of its herd of red sheep (mouflon), a task that turned out to be more difficult than you could imagine. Wild sheep are far more cunning and wary than even whitetail deer, and at the end of three days of three men hunting from dark to dark in a relatively small high-fenced pasture, the grand total was two sheep, both of which I shot. One was a lucky snap-shot at a running sheep, and the other was a poor thing I found bedded down under a juniper, too sick to be able to get on its feet. As far as I know the rest of that herd is still on that ranch.
I’m sure the list of wild animal disease goes on to things I’ve never even heard of. I’m just going off of personal experience.
But in addition to diseases, animals are also subject to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: think of the countless times we’ve all seen wild animals going about their business on three legs.
For those of you who live in greener parts of the world, foxtail is the name we give to a ubiquitous grass here in the West that, when it dries, has a sharp, barbed point, rather like a miniature porcupine quill, and if it gets caught in an animal’s fur, it works its way in until it punctures the flesh and then continues working its way in until, in the case of domestic animals, it has to be surgically removed. It’s why after running the dogs we check them over carefully and thoroughly. I once asked our local game warden what happened to coyotes when they got foxtail in them and the answer was that they either lived in discomfort or died slowly.
And sometimes animals hurt themselves because of their own clumsiness.
The first time it ever occurred to me that an animal might be clumsy was when I was about seven or eight. I was exploring in the woods and pastures near our home when I came across the body of a red fox hanging impaled on the broken vertical branch of a sapling that had gone up through his lower jaw and into his skull. I was so stunned by the sight of the fox that it was several minutes before I chanced to look up and realized what had happened: there was a bird’s nest on one of the lower branches of a tree, and I knew in flash that the fox had jumped for the nest and the eggs or fledglings, missed, and fallen on the vertical branch.
Sometimes, like an old Laurel and Hardy movie, there is a certain humorousness to wildlife mishaps.
Hunting in Colorado, I once watched a young buck strolling along on the top of an embankment above a logging road. He stumbled and went ass-over-teakettle down the slope, jumped up, and then (I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize) looked around in embarrassment before trotting off down the road with great intent—a busy deer with places to go and important things to do.
I also once watched a bobcat, surely one of the most graceful and athletic of all of God’s creatures, slowly and carefully stalk some unseen rodent on the side of a hill. When he finally pounced, he not only missed the rodent, but he missed his footing and did probably three full somersaults before he got his feet under him.
And on a memorable occasion, quail hunting with General Chuck Yeager and Colonel Bud Anderson, the three of us were eating our lunch overlooking a valley and we watched two coyotes trying to catch a jackrabbit. The coyote is one of the most efficient and effective predators in the world, and when they work in pairs, or as a pack, they are unparalleled. I voiced the opinion that it wouldn’t take long before they got him.
General Yeager shook his head. “He’ll outsmart them.”
He did. In fact, it was such a comical mismatch that after a few minutes I actually began to feel sorry for the two coyotes. When they finally gave up, they sat down facing each other, yards of tongue hanging out of each of them and disgusted looks on their faces. I would have given much to be close enough to hear what they said to each other.