Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On coyotes and sea bass

(photo from Wikipedia)

As you may have already read, two coyotes living in Golden Gate Park were shot and killed this weekend after they reportedly attacked one dog and were seen stalking another one (see the Chronicle story here).

There has been a lot of heated comments posted on the local newspaper's website, both in favor of the shooting and against it. Some are arguing that we live in a city and wild carnivores like coyotes are are danger to pets and children. Others are arguing that coyotes were here before any of us and that we should learn to live with them (or at least move them somewhere else instead of shooting them).
This whole thing makes my heart feel heavy. I love that there are wild things in this city. Something inside me feels a particular thrill at knowing that there are large animals, living their large, wild animal lives in among our cafes and buses and built, managed stuff. Today, it's the negotiation of that boundary between wildness and cityness that I'm interested in. A few people posted comments admitting that they have purposefully fed coyotes living in San Francisco. Mostly I was aghast that anyone would feed coyotes (first, dog food is not coyote food. Second, feeding wild animals makes them less fearful of people, making it more likely that they will meet the end of the two GGP coyotes) but part of me can understand. There is something about wild animals, perhaps especially for us city folk, that is almost spellbinding. I think that urge to get close and have a relationship with animals is deep and unfortunately, sometimes misplaced. Have you seen Grizzly Man? Maybe that's an extreme example of someone "making friends" with wild animals, but I don't think the underlying feeling is uncommon at all. I feel it. I say good morning to the birds outside my house every morning when I fill their feeder and goodnight to my fish before I go to bed.

What is it about animals that makes us want to get close to them and what is our responsibility when we do? The museum where I work has an aquarium that I like to walk around in to give my eyes a break from my computer screen. Today, as I walked around the few late-afternoon visitors I took special care to notice what they were saying to the animals on display. Most people, even the adults, said hello when they walked up to a tank. Some people spent many minutes locked in some serious eye-contact with the fish. Do those fish know or care that we're there? I kind of doubt it. Do I love going downstairs and spending time with the sea bass? You bet I do.

Are we seeking out those relationships because these animals need us, or because we need them? I readily admit that I am sustained daily by the non-human creatures in my life. I also feel deeply responsible for them and realize that responsibility manifests itself in different ways. For my fish, it means that I feed them everyday. For my plants it means water. For the coyotes of San Francisco it means that I leave them alone, content with the knowledge that they are out there living their wild animal lives so close to mine.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Water Water Everywhere

Grey and windy day today, but it's summer and still really dry, so I spent my moring having a slow cup of coffee and watering our plants. While I was moving plants and furniture I uncovered this charming little one living under our table outside.
It's a California Slender Salamander (Batrachoceps attenuatus). Check out it's short little arms and legs (four digits on each if you want to get really close). Like earthworms these animals breathe through their skin, which is why they hang out in moist environments, like the rotting wood on the underside of our table. If their skin dries out, they'll suffocate. They manage to survive the hot (or at least dry) months here by estivating, a sort of summer hibernation, where their metabolism and activity slow way down.
Having such absorbent skin makes amphibians extremely sensitive to even low concentrations of chemicals. All over the world amphibian populations are crashing, and while the exact causes are still unclear, pesticide exposure seems to be a significant contributing factor. I know when a lot of people think about pesticide exposure, they think of huge farms in the Central Valley (or wherever the large farming communities are where you live), but home pesticide use is greater (up to 10 times more per acre) than agricultural use. The pesticides and herbicides that you can buy at the store are serious chemicals and should be treated as such. Besides being dangerous for the critters in your backyard, they can be washed into waterways by rain and even transported in fog, impacting organisms far beyond the boundaries of your yard. So for heavens sake, be careful with those chemicals. Better yet, don't use them at all. Garden organically. You know it's a good idea.
This morning was not the first time that I've seen a salamander at our house. I remember the first time I saw one in our basement. I was shocked to find such a moisture-loving animal right smack in the middle of the city, in my house no less. Then I saw this map, and it started to make a little more sense. Today we are living in a houseboat on a concrete lake. But as recently as 200 years ago the land my house is on (18th between Mission and Valencia) was the middle of a pretty good sized body of water. My area of the Mission had lakes and streams and, I can only assume, all of the plants and animals that make up riparian communities. Somehow, incredibly, some of them have managed to hang on. That's pretty freaking incredible. Even surrounded by all this stuff, water and the living things that depend on it is never very far away, for me or for anyone else.

Amphibian-friendly gardening

Our friendly local organic demonstration garden

San Francisco Watershed finder