Thursday, June 7, 2007

Animals: Dead or Alive

Ok, here is another entry of the "general musing" variety. While we were riding with the Chamberlains, Jim suggested we may want to do an entry on road kill, since we encounter so many dead animals along the side of the road. Let me expand that theme to cover the live variety of animal encounters as well.

Let me also do a disclaimer at the start. Those of you who know Joan and me well know that both of us enjoy and have a lot of respect for animals. You also know that I, at least, have a bit of a "Far Side" comic sense of humor. So, if what follows may seem a bit mean-spirited toward our fellow creatures, it really is not intended to be.

OK, animals we have encountered. Certainly, since we are traveling routes through such rural and undeveloped areas, we frequently encounter animals as we bike. As we roll down the road, we are accompanied by a continual progression of birds and loud bird calls (mostly warning calls, I assume), and the rustling sound along the roadside as animals there detect our approach and scurry for safety into the underbrush. Most often, we hear the rustling in the bushes and grasses along the side of the road without ever getting sight of what the animal is. But at times you do catch a glimpse. Small birds and squirrels often are the source of those scurrying noises. But we have also seen rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, groundhogs, large birds (herons, hawks or turkey vultures) and deer start as we pass by. We've flushed grouse and covies of quail. Just yesterday, we had a coyote cross the road in front of us. In Alabama, I saw a very slow moving armadillo crossing the road. So slow-moving, that I clearly understand why one sees so many of these creatures dead along the roadside.

And that is a good transition point to the subject of road kill. The sad fact is that many, many, many animals meet their end on the roadways, hit by fast-moving vehicles. And in rural areas, there is no sanitation department to come along and clean them up. So the shoulders of almost all roads we ride serve as an ongoing inventory of the doomed fauna in the area. You cannot bike for long without encountering this. We have seen some domestic dogs and cats alongside the road, but they really are in the minority. Most have been wild animals -- especially those slow-moving varieties. Armadillos, Opossum, Racoons, Turtles, and Snakes are most frequently seen. We've also seen birds, a duck, and deer killed along the roadside. And then, there are the countless carcasses that are beyond recognition. Mind you, we don't dwell on looking at these, in fact, often it is best not to look too closely. On the other hand, you do need to watch for them, just to avoid hitting them. In addition, I have learned to spot them up ahead, and to start holding my breath when I get to within 15 feet of them, to avoid the odor that frequently comes with them. All in all, a sad subject, but a reality

Now, back to the live animals and some stories. There have been a number of interactions with animals as we have ridden that have struck me as pretty interesting or funny. (Many are of the form of the animal being surprised and scared by our sudden unusual presence. Sorry, this is where my sick humor comes out.)

-I have mentioned in a previous post about horses and cows in the pastures we pass. Almost all seem extremely interested in our pass-bys. I love to call out a friendly "Hey, guys!" to them. They look up, usually very curiously, sometimes run to follow us, and occasionally run to get away from us in the form of a mini-stampede. Just the other morning, though, we passed a hog farm, and caused a hog stampede! I didn't even realize that they were there until they began running. But they were quite agitated by the sudden appearance of these odd cyclists, and proved that they really can run pretty fast. Sorry, but I found it very funny.

-While in Tennessee, we were riding on a woodsy road with a few homes scattered throughout, and I suddenly see a full-sized deer with a red bandana around its neck darting out across the road in front of me. Then I see a woman outside her house up ahead. I slow and ask her if I had seen what I thought I'd seen. She said yes, that that was her pet deer. She'd had it for over a year. I apologized for scaring it, and she simply said "That's ok, she'll be back."

-Turtles. An interesting side note is that Joan and I discovered soon after we were married that we both had raised box turtles as kids, and we both have a little soft spot for turtles. So, whenever we see a turtle trying to cross the road (a clearly risky situation for the turtle), we stop, get off the bike, pick the turtle up and carry it across the road to help it along. A few days ago I found a huge turtle, and as soon as I picked it up, it let loose with about a quart of pee. I cannot believe how much that turtle had inside him! Not sure how I avoided it, but I managed not to get wetted by this impressive stream. And I left the big guy safe and sound in the grass on the side of the road he was heading for.

-Early in the trip, I remember biking down a road, and seeing a bird up ahead flying across the road, circle a patch of grass on the right side of the road. It took its time to find exactly the right place to land. He obviously did not see me though. He landed just as I was about to pass that spot. I saw him land, look up, see me, and then with a screech that in bird language probably was the equivalent of a blood-curdling scream in horror movie, fly off in terror as my bike rolled on the road past the spot.

-Dogs. Actually, this is a pretty serious subject normally. Dogs represent one of the greater risks for bicyclists on a trip like this. We heard from the Inaugural riders some real watchouts about dogs, as the group had some serious problems with them. Out in the country you have to be very wary of dogs that are loose, protective, and potentially vicious racing out to attack you.

Thus far, we have found that we definitely attract the attention of most dogs, and most bark at us, sometimes really violently. Most of the time, though, the dogs are not mean, but are only barking because we appear as a strange entity (I'm not even sure dogs recognize us as people on bikes) and a possible threat to their territory. By yelling strongly at them "NO! STAY!", most of them stop or back off. If that does not work, I wear a sports whistle around my neck that I will blow at them loudly. I actually had my first chance just yesterday to use it with 2 dogs that were barking around my ankles, refusing to listen to my voice commands. A short loud blast from the whistle rendered them both silent, trying to figure out what to do, and giving me time to move away. The third step in fending off a dog attack if the whistle were not to work is to give the dog a spray from a small can of dog pepper spray that we carry. Fortunately, we have not needed that yet, but we're ready, just in case.

A humorous case example of how voice commands, and a bit of surprise, works .... when traveling with the Chamberlains, a dog came out ferociously barking behind Mary Beth's bike, and never saw me following her. I yelled out at it, and it stopped in its tracks, obviously totally surprised to see me rolling down the road toward it, its tail went between its legs, its bark turned to a literal crying wimper, and it ran home. That'll teach him!

Then there are dogs that are hard to take too seriously. I know small dogs can bite, but some dogs are so tiny that when the bark at us it is funny in and of itself. Then there was the dog at a farmhouse that barked at me and came racing toward me.... with a tennis ball in his mouth!

-This story had to do with a cat. Riding down one road, I saw a cat amble from the left, slowly and nonchalantly cross the road in front of me, obviously unaware I was coming. I started braking, and called out in a friendly voice "Hi kitty...". It looked back at me over its shoulder, and a wave of pure terror crossed it. It looked just like a scene out of an animated children's cartoon: The hair on the cat stood out in all directions, its legs started running but it did not really move for a moment, and then like a bullet it flew across the road and to the saftey of some bushes.

-Finally, a potentially scary event that happened a few days ago, that ties in the live vs. road kill themes here. I was rolling pretty fast down a hill, and saw a squirrel sitting in the road in front of me. Unlike the dozens of other squirrels I've similarly encountered who quickly race away when they see me coming, this one seemed mesmerized in a trance, and just sat there staring at me. As I got closer, I started braking hard, and yelling at him "LOOK OUT!!!" I moved right of where he was, as there was no way I could come to a full stop in time. I could not move further away for fear of a sudden swerve at that speed causing me to go out of control. Fortunately, just as I was about to pass him, he chose to bolt away from my bike and not into the direction I was moving. I know a collision would have been bad for him, and quite possibly for me as well.

In summary, you never really know what critter you are going to see around the next bend, but alertness is needed to catch those quick interactions, moments of humor, and to avoid potentially nasty situations.

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