bear bites dog
Tuesday, September 24 2013
I don't know how it happened, but this morning the bed felt comfortable and I didn't end up getting out of it until noon. Gretchen had gotten up much earlier and even taken the dogs for a short walk before going to her unpleasant weekly organizing gig on the New England side of the Hudson.
I'd consulted Google Maps and was curious about some landforms across the Canary Valley that I'd explored back on the 17th. So when I took the dogs for the longer walk that they were owed, I took them directly to the Canary Valley (about a mile south-south-west of the house) and then looked for a way to scale the escarpment on the other side. The wide, flat-bottomed Canary Valley is walled-in on three sides by formidmably-steep slopes, and this is particularly true to the southwest, where the escarpment looks like the 200 foot tall wall that it is. I did eventually find a steep ravine incised in that slope. Its bottom was a spectacular pocket-shaped gorge and it didn't offer much help in scaling the slope, but it was all I had, so I took it. At one point I could see Ramona on the far side of the pocket-gorge and I wondered how she'd be able to get over to me and Eleanor, but a few seconds later she was with us. Dogs have absolutely no problem repeatedly going up and down such terrain just for fun.
As is always the case in the peculiar geology of this easternmost phalanx of Catskill foothills, the escarpment was topped by a flat terrace. (The terraces correspond to exposed beds of bluestone and the escarpments correspond to exposed beds of shale.) It's always a relief to get to a terrace, where suddenly walking is easy and there are sometimes even trails and logging roads made by other humans. Not that I hadn't seen a few artifacts here and there: a five gallon bucket half-full of rain water and lots of really ancient no-trespassing signs on dead and fallen trees. It suggested someone had tried to assert dominion over this land many years ago and then grown old and either given up or died.
I wasn't on the terrace long before I saw Ramona running off towards something, and when I looked to see what she was running towards, I could clearly see, between the trees in the distance, a large bear with some smaller bears (I thought I saw three of the smaller ones). I shouted at Ramona in hopes of stopping her, but that was a lost cause and only served to raise Eleanor's interest. She quickly joined the pursuit. Since this bear was clearly not the same bear as the one that climbs up and down trees repeatedly (which is probably a male), I wasn't too worried. If this was a sensible mother bear, she would do what the only other mother bear I'd ever encountered had done: send her babies up a tree and then join them and wait for the danger to pass. Wherever the dogs had gone, they weren't barking, which was a good indication. The bears must have either run away or found a tree to hide in. So I continued listening to my podcasts, which in this case was a story on This American Life about a smart Bosnian refugee kid saved from a terrible American public school by a teacher who is impressed by something he plagiarized by translation from Serbo-Croatian. I started walking down a logging road that was unexpectedly clear of downed trees. But then I heard it: off in the distance Ramona was barking. She must have found the bears. (Eleanor's bark has been weak for months now, though she was probably barking too.) If it hadn't involved a mother bear and her babies, I might have kept walking, but in this case I felt perhaps I should try to intervene. So I started running towards the barking, yelling for Ramona (and Eleanor) to come.
It's hard to piece together exactly what happened next. I remember it all happening very quickly though. I heard a horrible sound from Ramona suggesting that perhaps she had been injured or had resorted to uncharacteristic aggression. I continued calling. During this phase, I saw a bear in the distance climbing a fairly small tree. Stretched out vertically, that bear looked as tall as a human being, though, as I was soon to discover, it must have been one of the babies. And then I saw both Eleanor and Ramona running towards me. They were not running at full-tilt and seemed to have confused expressions on their faces as they also kept track of what was happening behind them. Still, it was a relief to see them finally leaving behind that commotion I'd just heard. But then I saw that they were being pursued by a very large black mother bear. She was pissed. For a moment I considered the trees around me as a possible refuge from her wrath, but then I realized that tree climbing was something bears do much better than humans. Oddly, I didn't feel anywhere near as panicked as it later seems I should have felt. There was a situation and I was dealing with if practically and sensibly as if on autopilot. It's reassuring to know that I'm this was in a crisis. By now, though, the mother had slowed to a walk. Her rage at the dogs was being overwhelmed by her fear of a human, but not completely. Eleanor was content to just come along with me, but Ramona, sensing that she was no longer being so hotly pursued, seemed to think perhaps going back to chase the bears some more might be a good idea. I saw the ambivalence in her eyes. She looked in the direction of the bears with a weary flicker of interest that I tried my best to extinguish. "Come! Come! Come!" I commanded. The mother bear had already turned and left, and Ramona finally decided, shit, let's just get out of here. At this point I noticed some bad puncture wounds on her left haunch. Evidently a bear had made contact. Fearing worse damage, I looked Ramona over more carefully, but those punctures were her only injuries. Of course I didn't want to linger with a pissed-off mother bear so close, so I led the dogs down a nice downhill ramp into the Canary Valley and then we continued up the opposite side, an extremely steep slope broken by a single terrace. But then we were at the Stick Trail. Soon thereafter, the dogs ran off to chase some creature, and I hoped it wasn't a bear.
Later I found myself thinking about why it is that the dogs almost never encounter bears and have only encountered a mother bear with babies twice in eleven years. I realized that the animals are probably all tuned in to our schedules. They know Gretchen hikes with the dogs in the mid-mornings on just a few routes, and that Crazy Dave (the tenant of our downhill neighbor) has his own predictable routes in the forest at around sundown. It's only when we stray from these routines that we surprise the wildlife. The first time I saw a mother bear with babies, I was hiking up a valley bottom completely off-trail. Today's encounter with a mother bear and her cubs happened in a place that neither Gretchen nor I have ever been to before, a place that humans may not visit for months at a time. Wild animals do their best to avoid humans, even arranging their schedules so as not to conflict, but it's possible to surprise them when one is willing to go just about anywhere at just about any time.
It bears mentioning, by the way, that today (with the possible exception of the time Eleanor was attacked by a "coyote" that later turned out to be Kate, a sheepdog from up the road) marks the first time I have ever seen Eleanor or Ramona running away from a situation out of fear. I've seen them be afraid of things: Eleanor of thunder or gun shots, Ramona of mysterious new objects in the yard. But I've never seen them run away from a wild animal. Perhaps a valuable lesson was imparted today: one can't just chase after anything one sees in the woods. The fact that Eleanor wasn't injured at all in this altercation suggests she might have learned this lesson a long time ago in a situtation that neither Gretchen nor I witnessed; she's come home with some gnarly unexplained injuries after all.
View Today's walk in a larger map
Back at the house, I looked more carefully at Ramona's wounds. Initially I hadn't been clear on what had happened, but now it was pretty obvious. Ramona had three injuries in her haunch, and they defined a cartesian grid. This suggested a bite. The injuries were clearly from the mother bear's canine teeth. Based on the spacing, it looked like a top and bottom canine had pinched up Ramona's skin and punched completely through it without doing any damage to the underlying muscles, while another canine had merely grazed the surface without punching through. There was little bleeding and almost no swelling associated with the injuries, meaning there hadn't even been bruising. Indeed, Ramona didn't seem particularly affected by the wounds. She licked them occasionally and didn't complain when I touched them. I've seen worse injuries on Ramona herself that healed up with almost no scarring. Here's a picture:
(Click to enlarge.)
After Gretchen got back from work, she wondered why I hadn't at least tried to superglue Ramona's wounds shut, so I did that and then slathered them with antibiotic ointment. Then we put "the cone of shame" on Ramona for a couple hours so she wouldn't immediately undo those things. But the truth of the matter was that she was pretty subdued, perhaps just from all the activity of the day.
In other things, today I buried a bunch of accumulated urine both from the laboratory urinal system and from the piss trough in the brownhouse. The latter slowly fills a five gallon bucket that also collects rainwater, and it's an easy thing to ignore even when it is overflowing. But there's a hickory tree next to that bucket that hasn't been very healthy for the past few years, and I don't want the urine to stress it any further.
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