Don't judge a cat by its cover, at least not from a mile away

Friday, December 20, 2013

I was attempting to make a "things aren't always as they seem" comparison to Declan the other day when I became wrapped up in recounting an experience from my Washington state days. The long-winded conversation failed to make the comparison I intended on the topic at the time, but he certainly seemed to enjoy the tale.

I built a horse corral a few summers back for my sister, on property she owned in a suburb of Seattle. The acreage had fruit trees throughout and had been overgrown for decades, making clearing it a task in itself. Coupled with building a log fence large enough for three horses to run and her husband and I had a busy summer.

Early one morning as I was enjoying a cup of coffee and mulling over the days activities, my sister said, "Look at that cat climbing in that apple tree."

I looked out her front window at the tree she was gesturing towards. It was quite a distance away, roughly 200 yards from her house down a slope and past the area we had cleared for her horse corral.

I grabbed a pair of binoculars and sure enough, what looked like a big black cat was crawling around the top of one of her larger apple trees.

"That would have to be one heck of a big cat, think about how far away that tree is," I replied, thinking it was likely one of the healthy-sized raccoons I had seen running around downtown in recent months.

"I'll take the dogs and go check it out," I replied as I laced up my shoes and headed out the front door.

My sister and her husband were big fans of German shepherds and they had two rather large males that got along well enough with my boxer. The three dogs began circling me excitedly in typical fashion, always eager to go for a walk with anyone willing.

I made it to the beginning of the unfinished horse corral, which was probably another 150 yards from the tree, when I noticed movement underneath the tree. I couldn't make anything out, other than a blur of dark colors in the high grass beneath the tree, so I continued to walk closer as the dogs frolicked and sniffed about.

I was about 50 yards from the tree when I realized it wasn't a cat my sister and I had seen climbing on top of the branches, but rather a bear cub.

I immediately froze in my tracks as I was struck with the terrifying reality that the movement I had seen underneath the tree was very likely a mother bear.

Right on cue, an adult black bear stood up on her hind legs underneath the tree and gazed in my direction. I was certain I was going to become a poster boy for a Game and Parks campaign about avoiding mother bears and their cubs.

I wonder how many people mauled by bears are later reported as some knucklehead with a camera getting too close, when in reality, they are simply some knucklehead like me unable to tell the difference between a bear cub and an alley cat.

I became even more concerned that my sister's untrained German shepherds were going to go racing after the bear and the situation would turn ugly fast. Her dogs were not known for their willingness to follow direction, especially from me, and had been raised with free reign to travel her ranch, as they pleased.

Alsmost immediately after I stiffened up all three dogs followed suit and focused their gaze in the direction of the black bear.

I'm not sure if the dogs sensed something was wrong due to my actions, heard something I didn't, or had simply seen the bear stand up and were as disinterested in becoming bear food as I was. At the time, I was confident that if I didn't get them out of there soon, their canine curiosity was going to take over.

I barked at my boxer first, yelling his name and demanding he follow as I began back pedaling towards the house. He immediately pulled his gaze from the bear and began towards me, which I believe contributed to the pair of German Shepherds doing the same.

I began walking faster and faster backwards through the partial corral, repeatedly calling each of the dog's names in the most threatening tone I could muster to keep their attention.

Just about the time I reached the edge of the horse corral the mother bear dropped down to all four legs and rumbled off in the opposite direction, with two bear cubs in tow.

My sister's ranch was bordered on two sides by a creek that became inundated with salmon every year during spawning season. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that a bear would travel along the creek and the mother bear I encountered had probably been stopping to enjoy the fruit trees on my sister's property for far longer than she had owned the place.

At the time though, it had never crossed my mind that a bear would be anywhere near her property, especially so close to a densely populated suburb of Seattle.

I told Declan I was more than a little relieved to see the back side of the adult bear as it ran away from me, disappearing into the thick brush surrounding the creek. His curiosity primarily centered around the size of the bear.

The conversation with Declan may have felt like a failed attempt at explaining not to "judge a book by its cover," but I am at least slightly more confident that when his time comes, he will remember to bring the binoculars with him.

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