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What to do when you encounter a wild animal

Photo Credit: David Ohman

For those with little or no experience encountering wildlife outside an animated film, members of the wildlife community don’t dance, sing or talk, at least not with us. Don’t crowd them or attempt to feed them, especially by hand. Either they fear you, hate you, love your garden, or consider you an essential food group. Let’s just take a few examples of Southern California wildlife to make the point.

Raccoons, masked-but-mischievous-looking, may look cute and rather amusing for their size but don’t be lulled. Behind that visage is an unpredictable determination to frighten the unwary. Do not approach a raccoon, especially to hand-feed. They may feign an attack to show their lack of fear but then again, they may just follow through with the threat. With very sharp teeth, the bite will not only be painful, you may be vulnerable to rabies.

Opossums are quite common and, quite frankly, not all that attractive. Think of them as Nature’s version of an Ugly Dog contestant. Opportunistic omnivores, when they’re not cleaning your barbeque hours after the patio party is over, they will also devour pet food if left outside. For defense and feeding, their bite is painful and, as with raccoons, can transmit rabies.

Skunks, too, love pet foods left on a back porch or patio. Found in residential neighborhoods, as well as open space, nothing seems to bring as much joy to a skunk’s heart than sharing a bountiful spritz of skunkness into the night air to be carried into every open window in the neighborhood. Short of giving an odorous home back to the bank, some homeowners have rid their houses of just about every stick of furniture and shred of carpet and rug to cleanse the house. Now, if your dog or cat has the misfortune of meeting a skunk up close and personal, rumor has it that bathing your unfortunate pet in tomato juice is the best method of decontamination. Perhaps, but keep a hazmat suit handy, just in case.

The southern Pacific rattlesnake is well known for its deadly, unpredictable demeanor. Herpetologists (snake experts) say you can differentiate a venomous snake from a non-venomous type by looking into their eyes. They say the safer of the two has round pupils like ours. They may bite but you’ll live to tell about it. Venomous varieties, on the other hand, have eyes likened to that of a cat. And since a rattlesnake has a striking distance equal to its entire body length, and that it all happens in a blur, this seems a rather risky vantage point. Here is a rule that may be hard to follow: if you suddenly encounter a rattlesnake on the trail, or the back porch, don’t make a sudden move. Slowly drift away to avoid triggering the snake’s defensive nature to quickly coil and strike. Since this snake has a tail rattle wagging noisily, you can eliminate the need to look into its eyes for proper identity.

If you drive frequently on our canyon roadways, you may have seen deer on a hillside or darting across the road. Or, perhaps, tragically, one that did not make it across the road. As migratory grazers, they pose some sticky challenges, especially when they come in contact with cars and trucks. Owing to their camouflaged coloring, as well as their famously capricious nature, they can go unseen until the last second when it’s too late to avoid an accident. The dim light of pre-dawn and the sunset hours makes it particularly difficult to see them crossing or standing in the highway. One old saying goes, “Where there is one deer, there are usually others.” So it’s vital to always remain vigilant while driving at any hour of the day or night.

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About the Author

David Ohman is the former Editor and Creative Director for Coastkeeper Magazine. He is now living in Denver, Colo., where he works as a freelance photojournalist and feature writer.