Stories & Lit
|Print |Text Size: |||
Jadzia’s barks wake us in the dead of night.
Not happy ones or play ones, but her all-business barks. I leap from bed thinking a bear must be prowling outside. The trailer’s screens can’t keep out mosquitoes, much less a grizzly. But Jadzia is not looking out a window. Instead, I find her in the middle of the gear room, barking at the closet door.
“What’s your problem?”
She ignores me. Hey, you in there! Come out and fight!
I sigh and open the door.“There’s nothing in there, ya moron.” Jadzia lunges for the top shelf. Then I see it—a radio collar that, until yesterday, was worn by a mountain lion. It’s wrapped in three layers of plastic bags. Jadzia paws at it. “You weren’t so brave when we found it,” I tell her.
It is Labor Day. My wedding anniversary. Three times a week since May, my wife Misty and I have taken turns squeezing into the passenger seat of a Cessna 185 to fly over the southern Selkirk Mountains, tracking radio-collared lions for my graduate research. Our trailer is next to the grass runway on the end of Sullivan Lake in northeastern Washington. Although a dozen other small planes landed here over the holiday weekend, Jadzia’s tail hadn’t begun wagging this morning until she heard the faint drone of the one Misty was on. Jadzia ran for the airstrip, then whined and pranced while the plane circled the lake, floated down over the water to the end of the runway, then bounced and rolled to a stop. She ran to the plane and greeted Misty and the pilot, Dave, with enthusiastic kisses. Misty reported that they’d detected a radio collar that hadn’t moved in two days. A dead lion or a slipped collar.Anniversary or not, we had to investigate.
To get to the ridge the radio collar was on, across the border in British Columbia, we had to walk through a pasture. Perhaps the cows were bored, or maybe they thought we had something better than Canadian grass to eat, but we soon had a Pied Piper thing going. Jadzia, the third member of our field crew, immediately started dishing smack to the cows. She’s part Rhodesian Ridgeback, so the fur from her shoulders to her rump rose in a canine Mohawk. She thinks it’s tough, but it really looks ridiculous. The cows were unimpressed, too.
“Leave it!” I told her.
Jadzia snorted. Just doing my job.
“Leave it anyway.”
She moped after us into the forest at the base of the ridge, where we broke out our radio gear to track the collar. It was spooky work. Somewhere above us was either a dead lion, which might have attracted another predator like a grizzly bear, or a live, uncollared one. An hour later we found the radio collar in the thick brush.We didn’t find the lion—it had slipped its collar and could be miles away. Or, only feet. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. Misty was ready to go, but Jadzia—chuffing and pacing around a pile of leaves and branches—wasn’t. I shifted some vegetation and saw a deer carcass cached beneath it, leftovers from the lion’s last meal. A recent one, judging by the kill’s bloody condition.Misty and I must have walked by it a dozen times while searching for the collar. Usually Jadzia cannot resist picking up bones or rubbing her ruff in decaying goo, but she wanted no part of this dead animal. She sat off to one side, tail tucked between her legs, the antithesis of her normal dominant behavior. Ironically, Rhodesians were bred to hunt African lions. We were a long way from Africa, though, and Misty and I were the only pack-mates around to watch Jadzia’s back if a big cat wanted to mix it up. Jadzia sniffed the air.
“Uh-oh,” I said, “vertical fur factor.” Jadzia’s back hairs were standing straight up again. She looked part Stegosaurus.Misty rolled her eyes. Did I mention this was our anniversary? “Good find,” I said, and patted Jadzia, trying to smooth down her fur, as though that would eliminate the cause of her unease. Locating lion kills was an important part of my predation study, but hanging around a half-eaten meal with an uncollared lion nearby was a really bad idea.
We flagged the site and headed down the ridge. As each step added to the distance between us and the lion’s kill, Jadzia’s tail and usual cockiness re-emerged. By the time we reached the pasture, she was ready to take on the Canadian cows again.
Investigating predation sites is not as glamorous as it sounds. There are thick woods to thrash through and steep slopes to slip on.Usually the kills are weeks old, with little left but a scatter of bones.Helping us locate these bones is one of Jadzia’s jobs.After finding the collar dropped by the mountain lion, I decided we should work a nearby site, where the same lion had killed a mule deer a month ago. Bouncing down dusty logging roads to get to a specific area was time-consuming, so it seemed logical to me to do this now rather than return another day, even though it was our anniversary.
After only a few minutes at the site, Jadzia emerged grinning from the shrubs. I expected to see a bone in her mouth, but instead, the whipping tail of a field mouse protruded from her lips.
“Drop it!” Misty said.
Jadzia’s brow furrowed and her big brown eyes grew sad. Are you KIDDING, Mom? Don’t you know how hard this thing was to catch?
Jadzia opened her mouth and the soggy mouse plopped to the ground. It looked around wildly, then scurried away.
Part of my predation study involved measuring vegetation to determine differences between sites where lions made kills and sites where they did not. As I walked out laying a transect sample line, I slipped and fell, but didn’t hit the ground, hanging instead in the thick shrubs like a fly in a spider’s web. I heard the brush rattle. It was not a spider, but Jadzia. What are you doing, Dad? A few face-licks and she moved on. Dad’s okay—he’s just a little weird.
Watching Jadzia leap over logs and thread through dense thickets with ease and grace, I could picture a mountain lion working the same terrain, using its stealth and agility to stalk an unsuspecting deer. Like me, Jadzia is part couch potato.Yet in the forest, her wild ancestors seemed less distant than mine, providing me with another, non-human perspective into the natural world. Away from their heated homes and kibble dinners, few companion animals are wild enough to survive on their own, yet most are more connected to the natural world than are their human friends.
Another one of Jadzia’s roles on the crew was beast of burden. When I regained my feet and reached the end of my transect line, I realized I didn’t have the clinometer—a device for measuring tree heights. “Where’s the clinometer?” I shouted to Misty.
“Don’t you have it?” she shouted back.
A few moments later, Jadzia appeared next to me, clinometer tucked under her collar. She was laughing dog-style, tongue lolling from her gaping mouth, eyes bright with glee. Forgot something AGAIN, didn’t you?
“Who asked you?” I replied. “Let’s not forget who makes your dinner.”
Jadzia snorted.We both knew who’s really in charge here. She turned and raced back toward Misty. A moment later, I heard my wife cry out. I sprang to my feet and thrashed back through the morass of shrubs, fearing lions and carnage. I found Misty at the bottom of a small rise, kneeling, her back to me. Between her shoulder blades was a muddy paw print—a dog’s.
“She just jumped over me!”Misty said.
By the time we finished our work, Jadzia had covered 10 times as much ground as the two of us combined.When we got back to the trailer, she collapsed in the yard. We had to wake her up for her Popsicle, then hold it while she raised her head and licked the cold treat.
Although a vital member of the field crew, Jadzia is not a working dog. She’s a pet. The state ofWashington had a policy against dogs riding in state trucks, and we compromised by strapping Jadzia’s crate in the bed. I thought Jadzia would balk at riding back there, but every morning she would be in the crate before I came out with my coffee. Come on, Dad! Let’s go!!
I turn the triple-bagged radio collar over in my hands.“What was she barking at?”Misty calls from the bedroom.
Unlike jadzia, who was the crew’s dog-of-all trades, specially trained hounds were used to catch the lions. I remember standing knee-deep in powder snow above Stony Creek, in the rugged region called the Forgotten Corner of northeastern Washington.
Up there, the cold air was silent except for the baying of the Black and Tan Coon Hounds— Boomer, Sooner and Maggie—in the valley bottom far below.
“Must have a cat treed,” said the houndsman, Tom.He meant a mountain lion.He was a short man of few words.His favorite story was the time my lunch sack came open on the back of my snowmobile, leaving a trail of food for him to follow. There was a bit of hound in him.
Washington voters banned hound hunting in 1996, yet it remained a contentious issue, with as many opinions as there were people in the state. The dogs’ hard-wagging tails and eager barks when setting out on a fresh trail left no doubt as to what they thought about the subject. The lions, if the dogs managed to tree them, disdained opinions, simply watching both humans and dogs below. If they had a middle finger, no question about what direction it would be pointing. But we were not out there to shoot a lion.We were hoping to radio collar one. Since the ban, Tom and his hounds had continued to work by helping state game wardens remove lions who ventured too close to someone’s back yard and assisting research projects like mine. The population of caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains, which stretch north from Washington and Idaho to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, had been in rapid decline for decades. Lion predation was the suspected cause. My job was to find out if that was true. The Black and Tans were the specialists of my field crew, trained by Tom from pups to do a single, dangerous job—tree big cats.
We unloaded all the gear needed to safely anesthetize and lower a 200-pound animal from 20 feet up a pine tree. But before we could strap on our snowshoes to head down the steep slope, the hounds’ baying changed from quick, constant barks to sporadic, frustrated howls. “Cat’s bailed,” Tom said. “He’s on the run again.”With all our gear, we had no hope of keeping up with the animals. Tom headed down alone with just a radio, a knife and a Snickers bar.He also had a pistol for protection, but I’d never seen him take it out of the truck.My job was to wait for his call and try to keep from freezing. The lion, hounds, and houndsman zigzagged across the valley all day without the dogs getting close enough to run the cat up another tree.As night closed in, Tom called the hounds off the trail.We packed up our gear and headed home. It took two weeks—dozens of hours snowmobiling backcountry roads looking for lion tracks—before we treed the cat again and collared it.
Jadzia won’t stop barking at the bagged collar. Finally, I take it outside and put it in the cab of the truck.When I come back in, she follows me into the bedroom, climbs up on the bed and snuggles down between us. She sighs and tucks herself into a furry ball. Soon her feet start twitching as she dreams—perhaps of chasing rabbits. If it’s a good dream, she’ll catch one.
Illustration by Cleo Papanikolas