August 28, 2012
By all rights, I should hate coyotes. When I was 14, one ate my charming pet cat, Spike Liebowitz (sometimes known as Vasco de Gama), as if he were nothing more than a Vienna sausage.
I was heartbroken, but even at that age I knew that in suburban Los Angeles, owning an outdoor pet was tempting not just fate but the hunger of our wild neighbors. It wasn't pretty, but that's the way things were. Southern California is a coyote-eats-cat world.
But if I learned to accept wildlife's savage intrusions as a boy, as an adult I even came to appreciate them. I'm not hoping nature beats us humans back into some romanticized version of a simpler life. I don't see animals as harbingers of a better world or signs that humans have encroached where we don't belong. Truth be told, I'm much too frightened of nature to take its side in a struggle with civilization. (The baby possum I once found innocently napping in my mailbox warranted a frantic call to animal control.)
But I confess that even the most routine coyote sighting still gives me a thrill. And like so many Angelenos, I'm fascinated, even obsessed with stories of the "Glendale bear," which since March has been breaching the seam between the suburbs and the San Gabriels on the hunt for Ikea meatballs, and P-22, the mountain lion making its home in Griffith Park.
I love these wildlife cameos in the same way that I'm drawn to trees that sprout through cracks in concrete. They're metaphors for uncontrolled life, things not meant to be, of chaos and its consequences. They show us that not only are we sometimes powerless to control nature but that it still has the power to surprise and delight us. Can you believe P-22 crossed both the 405 and the 101 to get to his new home? How did the Glendale bear find his way back to La Crescenta after being drugged and returned to his forest home 25 miles away? Who told those coyotes you had Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner last night?
I think we're all hoping for our own Vaz Terdandenyan moment. With news cameras watching, the unsuspecting La Crescenta resident was walking while texting and nearly bumped right into a 400-pound California black bear. We get so engrossed in our routines, our gadgets and our limited sense of the range of life's possibilities that we need an encounter with something completely unexpected, something wild, to shake things up. We need to remind ourselves to stop and look for the bear (or the coyote or even the possum) before it finds us.
Humans have always projected meaning onto the behavior of wild animals. We've made them into gods, sought to match their strength and mythologized their abilities (the sneaky coyote, the wise owl). But now we're turning the ones with the chutzpah to live in our territory into reality TV characters, ones that, deliciously, don't have a scripted narrative to fall back on.
My folklorist friend Peter Tokofsky tells me that animals like the Glendale bear and P-22 inspire us for a simple reason: "Humans always want to go beyond our boundaries, but rarely can." Animal hardships notwithstanding, he thinks we'd like to emulate their freedom.
I think we'd also like to claim some of their wildness. No, we don't want to become Timothy Treadwell, a.k.a. Grizzly Man, who was killed by the wild Alaskan bears he thought he was protecting. (Just think of what the response would have been had Terdandenyan bumped noses with a wild human, wandering out of the woods.) We don't want to lose our tether to the civilized world. But with the Glendale bear and P-22, the wild comes to us. That's surely part of their popular appeal.
I can still remember the combination of thrill and primal fear that gave me chills when I heard the yips and yelps of coyotes in the night as a kid growing up in the foothills of Glendale. The cries told me that that boundary I wasn't supposed to cross was closer than I could have suspected. They lured my imagination into the canyons even while making me appreciate my cozy bed all the more.
The bear that was euthanized Sunday, after being hit by a car, is proof that crossing boundaries can be dangerous to these animals. And I have no illusions that the Glendale bear or P-22 wouldn't hesitate to dine on me given the right circumstances. But I'm still rooting for them. Deep down I'm hoping that if they can survive at the margins of human civilization without forsaking their wildness, so can I.
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