Adventures In The Wild Life

By Leo W. Banks

IF YOU WERE being attacked by an 18-inch-long lizard, would you have the presence of mind to stick a pen up its nose? Could you stand rail-stiff while a pack of half-blind pigs charged right at you?

And if you looked up from balancing your checkbook and saw a mountain lion doing the backstroke in your backyard pool, could you stay calm as you scrambled back into the house?

Tucsonans are confronting such questions every day as the city spreads deeper into desert once populated only by scorpions, snakes, coyotes and javelinas.

The latter are the half-blind pigs in question. They're everywhere, known mostly for chewing up flower beds and eating dog food. They rarely bite people, but once in a great while they'll get agitated, snort like an old Ford on a cold morning, and charge.

Don't take it personally. Javelinas' eyesight is so bad they probably didn't know you were there in the first place. When they finally spot you, and see how big you are, they veer off.

Experts advise standing perfectly still, but nobody does, of course. The preferred response is to wave your arms over your head, scream uncontrollably and run for your life.

Mountain lions, once a rare sight, are becoming almost commonplace. In recent years, these secretive beasts have turned up on trails at Saguaro National Park East, and they've been spotted strolling across golf courses.

A couple of years back, Judy Stern, a Buffalo, N.Y., resident who spends part of the year in Tucson, got the scare of her life when a mountain lion showed up in her backyard in the northeast foothills.

"I was sitting on the patio doing my banking statement when I looked up and there he was, half in and half out of my swimming pool," says Stern. "It was right in front of me, and I never heard a sound. It was just there drinking out of the pool and watching me."

Stern, who wears a leg prosthesis, struggled out of her chair and backed toward the patio door, phone in hand. As she called for help, she watched the animal patrol the deck, then leave as quietly as he came, slinking through the wrought-iron fence into the mountain darkness.

"If you want to live in the foothills on an acre and a half with desert landscaping," says Bob Miles, formerly with Arizona Game and Fish, "you're going to have to share your house with unexpected guests."

These include poisonous scorpions, who enjoy crawling into underwear left on the floor, and Gila monsters, slow-moving lizards that have a particularly nasty way of showing their temper.

"They'll latch onto your arm and grind with their upper and lower jaws while they release this poison," says John Karolzak of the Rural-Metro Fire Department. "You can't rip them off without taking the skin, too."

He offers three recommendations for getting free of the Gila monster's grip: Jump into a swimming pool, light a match under its chin, or stick a pen up its nose.

Those are true and useful. But there are many myths about Gila monsters, too. A few years ago, Arizona Highways published three: The Gila monster is poisonous because it has no rectum, so its waste is stored in its body; when it bites, the monster will hold on until it hears thunder; its very breath is poisonous.

In 1890, the Tucson Citizen published a story about the discovery of a man's body found beside a Gila monster: "As the body bore no marks...we must suppose that his death was caused by the mere exhalation of the lizard."

Gila monsters do produce a venom when they bite, but it's not especially strong. The bite itself is painful, but never lethal.

Truth is, says Jude McNally, assistant director of the University of Arizona's Poison Control System, Gila monsters are so docile it's next to impossible to get one to bite you, unless you harass or provoke it in some way.

"We have a saying here," says McNally. "People who get bitten by Gila monsters need to be bitten."

LEGEND PLAYS A role in reactions to the harmless tarantula, too. Rodger Dougherty, spokesman for Rural/Metro, says he's arrived at homes on tarantula calls expecting to see one of the big, hairy spiders sitting up in the front hall.

The homeowner meets him at the door, takes him all the way through the house into the backyard and points to a tarantula sitting under a cactus way out in the desert.

"There! There it is!" the homeowner declares.

"I have to explain to them that, ah, that's where they live," says Dougherty.

Once he and a partner arrived at a home at Swan and Sunrise and walked into the backyard to find a lady leveling a rifle at a bush containing a harmless king snake.

She had been about to blast away when the phone rang. The caller, a friend, urged this Foothills Annie Oakley not to shoot, and she was still mulling the matter when Dougherty and partner arrived.

In other words, humans are sometimes spookier than the critters. Speaking of spooky, consider this:

You're a 25-year-old woman house-sitting for friends. One night, as you're watching TV, you spot a tiny black hand reaching through the cooling vent high in the wall.

You stand on a chair and peer into the vent and there, staring back at you through a black mask, are two eyes. You nearly collapse in fear. You jump to the floor, race to the phone and call you're best friend and scream into the receiver:

"Help! Help! It's...raccoons!"


"It was like something out of a Stephen King movie," says Jeff Carver, co-owner of Animal Experts Trapping and Rescue Service, a Tucson company.

When homeowners Patty Clymer and her husband returned, they summoned Carver and partner Marc Hammond to their home at Ina and La Canada.

They put a trap on the roof to snare the mother raccoon, but were unable to capture the two babies holed up in the ceiling crawl space. They hit upon a plan: Return the mother to the crawl space and wait. She'd feel so unwelcome there, after the trauma of her capture, that she'd take her babies and flee.

She did just that.

"I've had raccoons come down the chimney and people come back from vacation and find black paw prints all over the walls," says Carver. "I've had to knock holes in dry wall to get raccoons out."

But is that worse than strange noises in the bedroom closet?

Felicia Cutler's 4-year-old son, Mycah, came out of his bedroom one morning and said, "Mom, you need to come in here. Now."

Felicia was busy with another of her kids. But Mycah insisted. Felicia finally followed him to his closet. He'd been hearing noises inside.

"I opened the door and it was just like Doctor Suess," says Felicia, who lives on the eastside between Harrison and Houghton. "In the corner there was a fox sitting in a box."

It was about the size of a beagle. It got in through the doggie door. It had a bushy red tail, which, oddly, Felicia had seen the night before. She was in bed when she heard a crashing noise in the kitchen.

She figured one of her two cats had knocked something over. When Felicia walked into the kitchen, she saw a bushy tail flying up in the air as it rounded the corner out of the room.

She didn't get a good look, and assumed it was one of the cats. And that same night, when Mycah awakened to noises in the closet, Felicia went in to comfort him.

As she was doing so, the family's two cats were sniffing and scratching at Mycah's closet door. "None of this dawned on me until later," says Felicia. "My son slept with that fox in his closet all night."

She called Animal Experts. "When I got there I saw this little red fox's head sticking out from the heads of all these stuffed animals," says Hammond. "It was so frightened it didn't move. I got it with a snare pole."

The fox weighed in at about 15 pounds, more than the ringtailed cats that Hammond and Carver recently removed from the Miller's Outpost at Tucson Mall, the Walgreen's at Oracle and Roger, and from the roof of the McDonald's across from Tucson Mall.

"There must've been a family of them in that area," says Carver. "They sleep during the day, so if you stumble across one and startle it awake, they can be dangerous. Otherwise they're not."

BUT A BOBCAT protecting her newborns certainly is. Hammond responded to a call to remove a female bobcat from Tucson Raceway Park. It was during the Miller Lite Time Trials, and the place was packed. She'd given birth to three kittens under a concession stand.

"She was the nastiest thing pound for pound I've ever dealt with," says Hammond. "I needed two other people to help me hold the snare pole."

He then removed two of the kittens, but the third refused to budge. Hammond tried every kind of tasty bobcat food he had--sardines, raw chicken, chicken livers.

Nothing lured her out. He finally turned to that Raceway Park delicacy, the corn dog. Worked like a charm. "It turns out the mother was feeding on nachos and corn dogs, and that's what the kitten wanted," says Hammond.

And what was up with the skunk that got under the Tucson Mortuary? He was holed up right on top of the toilet pipes, and when somebody upstairs flushed, he got so spooked he sprayed.

The scent made its way up to the chapel and viewing rooms, where two bodies were laid out. It was so foul they almost woke up.

Then there was the time Hammond bravely rowed out to an island on the golf course at the Tucson Country Club. His target: three geese that were attacking and biting the ankles of women golfers.

"They were spooky," says Tucson Country Club General Manager Rodney Maddox "They'd flap their wings and howl, making a great racket, and that big beak would be going a mile a minute. It was horrible."

Every time Hammond sailed out to the island, the geese took off. But they didn't attack him. Why not? Why were they savaging the women and not the men?

The reason, Hammond theorized, was that most men wore long pants, and women usually wore dresses or shorts. Figuring he was dealing with geese excited by the sight of exposed gams, Hammond put on a pair of shorts and tried again.

Sure enough, the geese went bananas. "They attacked me," says Hammond. "One ripped a piece of flesh out from my armpit. It drew blood."

As for why the geese attacked only women, Maddox still isn't sure. "Some of the men wear shorts, too," he says. "I don't know, maybe the women smelled better."

THE GREAT GRANDPA of unwanted critters is the rattlesnake. Rural/Metro had 2,400 rattlesnake calls in 1995, and was approaching 3,500 in the fall of 1996.

McNally says Poison Control deals with 300 rattler-bite calls a year, most involving young males. "One week last summer we had bite calls on three adult women over the age of 60," he says. "Most people wouldn't find that amusing, but we did."

One lady was on her morning walk and picked up a rattler she saw on the road. She thought it was dead. Ooops.

Another pulled into her driveway and was bitten when she stepped out of the car. She jumped back into the car and ran over the snake a few times to kill it before driving herself to the hospital.

The third woman went to pull a weed in her front yard and a rattler bit her hand. A TV crew showed up and asked her to demonstrate how it happened.

She wasn't eager to return to the scene, but agreed anyway. Sure enough, when they went out to the yard, the same snake was curled around the same plant. But the woman wasn't bitten a second time--a good thing, too, because it probably would've left McNally and his colleagues rolling around on the floor.

Not long ago a woman called Poison Control and asked McNally if he'd like to take her rattlesnake. He said they don't take animals in. The two got to talking. McNally asked where she got the snake.

"Oh," the lady said. "It bit my son." He urged the woman to get him to the hospital immediately, but she kept saying she thought he'd be fine.

"She said that over and over," McNally said. "Finally in my frustration I said, 'What makes you so sure he'll be all right?' And she said, 'Because it bit him on his wooden leg.'

"I saved the tape of that call if you don't believe me." TW

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