The wildest animal I encountered in the city was a desert tortoise. It belonged to the neighbor at the end of our street and went missing after digging a hole under their backyard fence. We discovered it crawling up our driveway toward our open garage.
There were plenty of wild creatures on our cul-de-sac. We lived among the sparrows, robins, butterflies, and wasps. There were hummingbirds and honeybees, garden toads and snails. Occasionally a large bird circled above but rarely swooped low enough to identify its species. We were conservationists, helping nature by raising orphaned birds and saving earthworms from dehydrating on the sidewalk.
We found a fresh, dark mound of half-digested berries in our gravel driveway the day we moved to Cook Peak. After comparing images from the Internet, we concluded it was bear skat. I was giddy. I took photographs, determined to show our city friends that we lived where the wild animals are.
The previous owner warned us about the local wildlife around Cook Peak. She seemed to enjoy our nervous reaction a little too much. It did not take long to get acquainted with the local deer, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lion, bears, Ravens, red-tailed hawks, Turkey Vultures, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas. The scary ones prowled at night and rarely did we see them, but we knew they were out there by their skat. Coyotes were the most vocal bunch, screaming in the pasture on a full moon while hunting jackrabbits. In the side yard, we caught raccoons as big as Labradors with our flashlight beams and watched them saunter into the night as if we’d interrupted their leisure. Personally, I was glad the rattlesnakes were reclusive, at least in our yard, unlike the tarantulas that climbed the stucco to escape a summer downpour. We had a healthy respect for the wildlife and were careful not to interact, especially after dark. We knew what lurked beyond the fence line.
The bear was a regular at Cook Peak on hot summer nights. We knew when he was outside because the fur on Hernia Dog’s back stood straight and he growled a low, steady rumble. There were no porch lights, motion detectors or landscape lighting on that side of the house, only the moonlight and the bear eating our garbage.
Most nights the bear toppled our trashcans. He pulled the plastic bags out and dragged them into the lot next door to forage and defecate. In the mornings, I cleaned up his mess while complaining about the Ravens and the wind making it harder to round up debris, strewn all the way down the street. My worst day was trash day when the sanitation worker came before dawn. If the bear pillaged the night before, there was a huge mess and little time for cleanup. They did not like to wait for me and sent a notice in the mail complaining about it. I had to find a way to keep my trashcans safe from the bear or risk losing my service.
We sinched the cans to the oak trees. We tied wind chimes and strapped Bungie-cords to the lids. We put the trashcans in our backyard behind the gate. We tried camouflage and doused the cans with vinegar. The only thing that worked was keeping bear-worthy garbage inside the house and only taking it out at dawn on garbage day.
I didn’t mind that there was a bear at Cook Peak. I had wished for years for night vision goggles so I could watch him. Mostly I was content straining to see his shadow from the upstairs bathroom window, but when he began showing up during the day, that was exciting.
A frantic neighbor came to my door around noon. They saw the bear drinking from the trough in my barnyard and wanted to warn me. I already knew. That year was a drought year, and the bear was searching for water. Often he drank from my bird bath in the side yard and didn’t seem worried as we watched through the sliding glass door. Weeks later another neighbor called to tell us the bear was in a tree, and we should come and see it, and of course, we did, but it wasn’t our bear; it was a terrified youngster treed by a crowd of lookie-loos. Once they dispersed, the bear came down and ran to the ravine. On several occasions, while coming home late at night, the bear was in my front yard. At first, I waited for him to leave because the distance from my truck to the front door was too far to make a run for it. But over time, I merely told the bear to go home and walked to the front door with confidence. He never bothered me, just my garbage.
After the Erskine Creek Fire in 2106, the bear disappeared. I wondered if he had died in the fire, fled to the high country or if someone shot him for living too close to humans.
I take the trash out like everyone else, now. There’s no drama. Part of me hopes and waits for that one special day when I wake up in the morning and find my trashcans on their side. If that were to happen, I’d gladly clean up the mess and whisper; I’m glad you’re back. I missed you.