It’s remarkable how adept animals are at communicating, if only we learn to watch and listen.
When people come to the house, the dogs bark in a very particular way that varies depending on whether the people arrive by car or by horseback. If there is a bobcat on the rocks behind the yard, they growl in a way specific only to the presence of bobcats. Raccoons seem to make them angry. Deer get a different reaction, very excited, but not upset in any way. And occasionally, something in the dark of night, when the cooling air slides down the hill, makes our Boxer’s hair stand up along his back and causes him to walk around stiff-legged, muttering to himself. My old collie, many long years ago, only growled once in his life, on a street in New York, at a man who looked to me like a lawyer or businessman, but it was such a serious growl, and so out of character, that I crossed the street. And the most horrifying sound I ever heard come out of a dog came from my father’s Bullmastiff when someone made the mistake of punching my father. The sound that dog made as he ran the hundred yards to where my father lay on his back was truly apocalyptic, berserk, not a roar or a growl, but an insane screaming sound, and I have no doubt that if the young man who did the punching hadn’t gotten back in his car he would have been killed. This morning, our Boxer’s reaction was so radical, so very different from any other signal he has ever given, that Darleen and I both went out into the backyard.
Darleen has better vision than I do, so she saw him first: a black bear standing in the dark early morning shadows of a pine about forty yards above the house. He—or she—wasn’t much of a bear, no more two hundred pounds at the most, but a bear is a bear and always lovely to see.
He watched us all, Darleen and me and the dogs, with interest, but no concern, before ambling along the side of the hill and eventually out of sight. Darleen thought he looked very young, perhaps a yearling, and judging by the size of his ears relative to the size of his skull, I think she was probably right.
It occurred to me, after he was gone, that I probably should have yelled or done something else to encourage him to move on. Bears are lovely to see from a distance; up close and personal, they can lose some of their picturesque charm, and as they are among the most opportunistic of animals, if they think they can get away with it, they will happily march into a home to help themselves to vittles. The problem is that they usually don’t bother with such niceties of behavior as opening the front door. They just rip it off its hinges. Hell, sometimes they don’t even bother to wipe their feet on the mat. Reports have been circulating from a nearby community that there have been several break-ins (if that’s not anthropomorphizing too much), and my friend Dan Bronson, the retired screenwriter and inveterate jogger, asked my advice just the other day about protecting himself after several bear encounters. (My advice, for the record, was pepper spray, which research and experience show appears to be far more effective than a firearm. The late gun writer and big-bore advocate Elmer Keith became a big-bore advocate in part because he was charged, over a hundred yards, by a grizzly whose heart had been turned into hamburger by four bullets. A bullet may kill a bear, but he may not get the news right away; pepper spray will make him long to be elsewhere.)
In any event, in my delight at seeing the bear, I forgot all about yelling or anything else. On the other hand, I did take the garbage to the dump this afternoon.