Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

February 24th, 2016 14 Comments

bobcat and Bear 023 (Small)


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.

Coyote with mange


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.

Deer 011 (Small)


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.

Bobcat 023 (Small)


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.

 Wile E. Coyote

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Do you have to check your dog for ticks? Ticks are common in the south. My sister-in-law lives in Missouri and she used check her kids for ticks when they were small.

    People have caught West Nile virus even in Michigan. I think there were a few cases last year. Now, there is a problem from the Zika virus. People have gotten the virus from misquotes. The virus is in South America and is starting to show up in the United States. Pregnant women are at most risk because the virus causes the unborn child Microcephaly.

    • Anonymous says:

      I have heard of people getting in various kinds of trouble for misquotes, but not a virus! Ha! Some typos are FAR BETTER than what they were supposed to be, in my opinion!….L.B.

      • Anonymous says:

        West Nile virus (WNV) is most commonly transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. You can reduce your risk of being infected with WNV by using insect repellent and wearing protective clothing to prevent mosquito bites. There are no medications to treat or vaccines to prevent WNV infection. Fortunately, most people infected with WNV will have no symptoms. About 1 in 5 people who are infected will develop a fever with other symptoms. Less than 1% of infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurologic illness.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Road Runner and Wylie coyote.

    Where can I get some of those Acme lighting bolts?

  3. Anonymous says:


    Very interesting recollection of animal misfortunes. I don’t know how peaceful my sleep would be after witnessing so many battles in the wild. But then again, I’m not an avid hunter either.

    Love the pictures too.

    Carla In California

    P.S. I finished reading “Return to Laughter” a few days ago. I appreciate the style of writing that left me wanting for a sequel. Some parts hit too close to home since I was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended school with several celebrities whose lives changed for both the better and worse. Thank you for your honesty.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi, JP!

    I remember reading that you had one of those damn foxtails in your ear.
    My thoughts still go out to you!


  5. Anonymous says:

    Il y a énormément de maladies diverses chez les animaux. Lorsqu’un éleveur est obligé d’abattre son bétail pour éviter la contamination, c’est vraiment dramatique. Parfois ces maladies se transmettent à l’homme. Lors de vacances en Espagne, j’étais encore une petite fille, je passais mes journées à attraper des têtards dans un ruisseau. En revenant chez nous, dans le nord de la France, j’ai eu énormément de fièvre et plein d’aphtes dans la bouche. J’avais attrapé la fièvre aphteuse, maladie rarement transmissible à l’homme !!! Comme cette maladie ne touche principalement que les bovins et les porcs, j’ai subi pas mal de sarcasmes de la part de mon entourage 🙁
    Inutile de vous dire que l’année d’après, j’ai choisi un autre passe-temps que la pêche aux têtards !!!!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Chronic Wasting Disease has reared its ugly head here in Wisconsin as well. Used to be localized down in the lower central farmland section of the state for many years, but over the last several years has managed to spread north. Very unfortunate.

    I met General Yeager and Colonel Anderson about fifteen years ago at the big airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I knew who both men were long before then, as General Yeager had been a role model of mine in my younger days and was the driving force in my learning to fly. Anyway, I heard they were both at the airshow and just had to meet them. I am usually not ‘star struck’ and care less if I bump into a celebrity (Sam Shephard and Jessica Lange, if they remember the ‘parking lot’ incident at the Freight House in Stillwater, Minnesota, could attest to that), but damn I was in awe of those two men. I recall General Yeager was 78 or 79 at the time, and he and Colonel Anderson climbed into two P-51 Mustangs and took to the air at the show and were doing the most amazing dog fight maneuvers pulling multiple Gs and weaving in and out and up and down… wow…just wow… two of the toughest men I have ever met in my life flying the type of aircraft that made them Aces in WWII, and doing so like they were still in their early 20s. It was so amazing.

    You got to hunt with them and hear stories and just sit around BSing… wow, I would love to pick your brain over that.

    TD Bauer

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    fit and proper. You write about deseases and I have got the flu. Or better the flu’s got me….
    In normal circumstances I could go on reading your wildlife experiences for hours 😉
    Mange is always a sign of a generally weak immune system. Poor coyote.
    I once have had a black chow chow with a similar problem. He couldn’t fight the demodex mites all dogs have. He even lost his hair at (on?) his tail and it looked
    like a rat when he became older. He also has had an awn surgically removed. I was reminded of him immediately. His name was “Bärchen”.
    But he managed to become fifteen years old anyway.

    Bes wishes


  8. Anonymous says:

    JP little bear is not only adorable but earning his keep!
    I love when animals alert and protect humans and sometimes get humans to protect

    Tena French Halifax Nova Scotia Canada

  9. Anonymous says:

    I never saw a coyote look that poorly before that picture you posted. Sometimes us humans tend to forget that different diseases can be just as prominent in wildlife as in household pets. I know it sure surprised me.
    Rabies is still while not as bad as it used to be it still rears its ugly head at times. There was an outbreak here just a few years back when someone’s dog contracted the disease. They were warning everyone near that person’s house to keep their dogs contained as much as possible in their houses and to get them tested.
    As you mostly always seem to though Jameson you gave me a chuckle with this one where you said you finally outran that skunk. I know it sure wasn’t funny while it was happening though. Sure am glad you got away.

    Nancy Darlene

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