BONNIE AND LARRY WOLFE were watching television one evening in their Hollywood Hills living room when a raccoon trotted by, headed toward the kitchen. As the couple looked on in amazement, the beady-eyed intruder marched up to their cat's dish, picked up a piece of food, washed it in the conveniently provided water dish and began to stuff himself. "He knew just where it was," Bonnie Wolfe says, "as if he'd been there before."
And clearly he had. As they watched their uninvited guest depart--out the cat door--it dawned on the Wolfes why, on most mornings, they found a wet kitchen floor and crumbled cat food floating in the water dish.
As with celebrity sightings or traffic horror stories, almost everyone who lives in Southern California has an animal tale, or two, to tell--about skunk invasions, rats in the ivy, ants in the flowerpots, parrots roosting in the sycamore or coyotes howling through Mozart at the Hollywood Bowl. The region may be getting more developed and congested, but somehow countless wild animals have held their ground.
What distinguishes these creatures from domesticated ones, of course, is that they lead a life independent of human beings. But in the city, that line can get blurred. Some animals move away from autonomy toward the easy handout, usually in the form of garbage. But most successful wild things find or retain their niche among us because they are opportunists, adaptable enough to take from civilization, or exist alongside it, on their own terms.
From the animals' point of view, the Los Angeles Basin must seem a Gargantuan cornucopia. The pockets of "natural" resources still left are supplemented by cultivated fruits, nuts and vegetables growing in back yards and perfectly edible refuse from households and restaurants. Excellent real estate is available: nesting sites, sheltering nooks and crannies, swimming pool "lakes," parks, vacant lots and building sites. All of it for the taking, if an animal can live with people--or despite them.
It makes for a sometimes uneasy coexistence. Marvin and Betty Hoffenberg, for example, have been trying for months to discourage a family of deer from denuding their yard in the hills of Pacific Palisades. "They eat not only flowers but the ivy on my hillside," Betty Hoffenberg says. In recent weeks, the deer have grown bold enough to walk on the Hoffenbergs' patio. The couple has tried hanging Ivory soap in the trees and packets of blood meal in the bushes. They have sprinkled the landscape with lion urine given to them by a friend. But, Marvin says, "nothing ever works."
Sometimes the animals get too close for comfort. One winter in the Hollywood Hills, a raccoon looking for a place to raise her young took up residence behind the walls of writer Theo Wilson's third-floor bedroom. "Night after night, all night long, it sounded like they were moving furniture," Wilson says. "Finally one day I was beating on the walls, shouting, 'If you're going to live here, you'd better shut up!' Then I realized, what am I doing yelling at a wall with raccoons in it?"
Under the house, Wilson discovered an opening through which the mother had entered. When this uninvited family departed a few months later, an exhausted Wilson sealed the hole with a grate.
The nearness of wild animals can make us confront the unsavory realities of nature, even while we are trying to be our most civilized. Los Feliz resident Nina Mohi recalls a dinner party that was ruined one beautiful summer night. "We were eating," she says, "when all of a sudden our dog got hold of a skunk. The skunk sprayed him, and the dog killed the skunk.
"One gal was pregnant; she got nauseated and ran upstairs. My husband and her husband couldn't handle it, and they went for a walk. I had house guests, and one of them took off all his clothes, down to just his socks and shorts. I gave him a shovel and a big paper bag, and he put the remains inside. He drove into Griffith Park with it. The neighborhood, everything stunk.
"Nobody stayed for coffee and dessert."
Los Angeles is a new city, as huge cities go. As it evolves, so does the balance between humans and wildlife. Some of the creatures who live among us are newcomers, forced into proximity as we take over previously wide-open spaces. But most have inhabited urban areas for hundreds of years; their ability to live on their own in the cracks of human society makes them almost invisible to us, as if they occupied a parallel universe. The species we notice most often are those big enough, dangerous enough or irritating enough to fit the human notion of nuisance --or they are the ones that simply delight us.
Wildlife specialists say they do not know how many untamed animals live in Southern California. The L.A. city Department of Animal Control can say that, in fiscal 1989, it caught 171 coyotes, 2,992 opossums, 603 raccoons, 597 skunks and 75 rattlesnakes. But these captures were responses to complaints or reports of injured animals and represent a fraction of the animal population. A complete inventory would include birds, bears, bobcats, beetles, horned toads, snails, even aphids and white ash flies, and would constantly change. A few years down the line, it might include the African "killer" bees said to be wending their way toward California. What follows is a select bestiary for greater Los Angeles, the natural histories of 10 of the region's most memorable wild things.
MARSUPIALS MADE IT into the annals of Western Civilization when a dead female opossum brought from Brazil by explorers created a sensation at the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1500. According to one account, the king and queen "placed their hands into this pouch and marveled greatly thereat." L.A. residents are less intrepid.
Opossums are Southern California's No. 1 uninvited guest: The city and county departments of animal control receive more calls about opossums than any other wild animal. The complaints have to do with simple revulsion: Callers frequently claim that a giant, lumbering rat with a naked tail and a long, pointed face has invaded the back yard.
The opossum's high profile in our region proves that intelligence is not necessary for success among the civilized: The opossum is without question the stupidest animal in the Americas, the only possible competition coming from the armadillo. Its cranial capacity amounts to about 1/10th that of the red fox, a placental animal of equal size. The opossum is so stupid that in captivity it does not even learn to distinguish its owner from other people. It apparently does not associate boulevards and cars with danger; that, combined with its slowness, is why we see so many dead opossums in the road.
Why, then, does the opossum persist? It fits perfectly into the seams of society. It is a night creature, active when people are not. It nests in places humans tend to ignore: low shrubs, woodpiles, empty garages. It's omnivorous--an opossum thrives on almost everything that back yards have plenty of: garbage, fruit, insects, birds' eggs, even lizards. It can climb out of trouble, and with its prehensile tail and hind feet, which have opposable thumbs, it makes highways of back-yard fences and safehouses of trees. When push comes to shove, it can deliver a 50-tooth bite, or in grim situations--if it's attacked--it can curl up and "die." Playing possum really works.
Opossums proliferate because no predators show particular interest in them, and because they breed year-round. They have one to two litters a year, each containing four to 10 young. They are literally embryonic when they are born, no larger than a bumblebee after the usual 12 to 13 days of gestation. They crawl into their mother's pouch, fasten onto a teat and remain there for about two more months.
When they mature, they are a good bet to become the target of complaints to animal control. In Los Angeles, the city Department of Animal Regulation responds to such calls by supplying free opossum traps. If the trap works, the department will pick up the opossum and airlift it to the Angeles National Forest. The same goes for raccoons, foxes and bobcats.
OF ALL THE INSECTS that cohabit with us in Southern California, the Argentine ant may be the most irritating and the most inescapable. At any time, in any season, you may find them crawling across the bathroom ceiling or even out of an electrical outlet. You may wake up with ants in your bed or come down in the morning to a black line of them streaming across the kitchen floor. And what could they possibly want in a filing cabinet? If the buildings of the world vanished, leaving just the ants suspended in air, you could still see the outlines of civilization.
What makes Argentine ants so omnipresent?
The answer has to do with a few powerful modifications of the usual ant social structure. While most ant species have only one queen in each colony, Argentine ants have a number of queens, as many as eight per 1,000 workers. Because only queens lay eggs, this makes for a tremendous Argentine ant reproductive capacity. And it makes them almost invulnerable to extermination, which would require the deaths of every queen. These ants are also formidable competitors with other ants: They possess a chemical weapon, called iridomyrmecin, that they smear on their adversaries to repel or kill them.
Argentine ants are polydomous--a large colony spreads out into many smaller subcolonies. While other ants of the same species create sovereign states and fight each other over territory, Argentine ants can pass freely among the subcolonies; even their queens are mobile. They are efficient at exploiting resources, deploying subcolonies like little panzer divisions, setting up bivouacs while the resources last. Usually they nest outside human quarters, but they will at times set up a colony indoors, often in the soil of potted plants. They will forage anywhere they can find food--not just crumbs but termites and larval fleas.
As a result of their fertility and the rest of their social and physical arsenal, Argentine ants have forged a virtual monopoly on ant industry in California cities. Where they have moved in, they have essentially eliminated the native species. Entomologists first tracked them to California in 1905 (to Ontario, to be exact) after following their spread from New Orleans, where they arrived from South America sometime before 1891.
Like so many successful nuisances, Argentine ants are omnivorous; they will eat insects, earthworms, baby field mice or candy bars, but just as incidental fare. Studies show that during most of the year as much as 70% of their diet is composed of honeydew, the sweet, sugar-laden excrement of aphids, soft scales, mealybugs, whiteflies, leaf hoppers and other sap-sucking insects. They tenaciously protect these bugs, attacking and killing parasites and predators that feed on them.
In honeydew may lie their Achilles' heel. If whole neighborhoods united to put barriers between ants and their honeydew sources--bands of stickum or Vaseline around the trunks of trees and bushes where aphids live, for example--it might be possible to suppress the Argentine ant. The alternative would be to coat the entire region with pesticide, killing the pestered along with the pest.
Amazona finschi, A. viridigenalis, A. ochrecephala
PARROTS ARE NOT exactly the typical uninvited guests; they were, in fact, welcomed to Los Angeles as captive pets. But for 70 or 80 years they have been living among us on their own. Many got free--and get free--by chewing through the bars of their cages; a bamboo cage is just a good day's work.
In 1913, parrots were allowed to fly free on the Arcadia estate of Lucky Baldwin. In the early 1950s, about 200 were released by smugglers in Alhambra as the law closed in. The Bel-Air fire in 1961 consumed several private aviaries and the occupants escaped. And all along, people have been releasing a steady supply of the creatures when they can no longer stand their wrenching shrieks and yawps. What were once the most common species in pet stores--yellow-headed Amazons ( Amazona ochrecephala ), red-headed Amazons ( A. viridigenalis ), lilac-crowned Amazons ( A. finschi )--are now the most common species in the urban wilds of Southern California.
The curious thing is that even though these big, strong flyers no longer find themselves behind bars, they are almost as rigidly contained--by diet. You will find parrots only in lush areas planted with the exotic trees and shrubs that have been imported for shade and ornamentation. They have never invaded the natural regions of California.
Parrots are herbivores. Their diet includes a wide range of fruits, seeds, nuts and flowers. In all, parrots feed on more than 30 varieties of plants, including English walnuts, plums, liquidambar, camphor, eucalyptus, pecan, cherry, carob and juniper, but, surprisingly, not bananas or oranges.
As for the private lives of parrots--the social agenda consists of raising the family and foraging for food--everything revolves around the pair bond. Parrots mate for life. In some species the pair even complete each other's calls in a performance known as "antiphonal dueting." One member begins the phrase, the other picks it up in mid-arc and finishes it; it is their way of assuring one another that all is well. When they are close together and not hidden, they sound like a single bird; when they are separated, they sound like a single stereophonic bird. They feed together, sleep together, fly together. A flock, in fact, is a collection of pairs.
In their native habitat--South and Central America--Amazon parrots usually form flocks of a single species. They tend to do the same here; however, because their numbers are limited, Los Angeles parrots must make do with whomever they can attract and often form melting-pot mixtures of multiple species. Several flocks have been identified in our region, from Pasadena to the Westside. A flock averages about five to 10 pairs of birds, but these are kinetic, not regimented, arrangements.
Parrots roost in tall trees with dense foliage. The height confers safety, and the thick canopy protects them from the wind and colder-than-tropics temperatures. Anyone who has ever witnessed a flock entering its roosting tree for the evening will never forget it. The shrieks and cries build to a deafening crescendo, pairs jockeying for position, new arrivals trying to horn in, established residents being shoved out. Suddenly one bird will give a strange, piercing cry, and instantly the din stops, cut off cold as if some avian maestro had waved his baton in one final command. No one knows why.
Another thing no one knows is whether parrots have been truly successful at finding a niche in this part of the world. The population in Southern California may be holding its own, researchers say, but it does not seem to be growing. Even parrots in the tropics appear to have a low reproductive rate, and the same is true here. Breeding parrots have been documented locally, but nesting sites are limited--parrots nest in tree holes, and the competition for them is ferocious. Without a supply of new escapees, the parrot flocks of Los Angeles might shrink and eventually disappear.
Mephitis mephitis/Spilogale putorius
OUR LOCAL SKUNKS SOMETIMES appear to be a little obtuse. They are often sighted ambling nonchalantly across the patio, seemingly oblivious to the family dog or the fascinated human audience behind the French doors. But such blase behavior is not stupidity; it is confidence. The skunk has a most persuasive weapon--a pungent, blinding, gagging spray that shoots from scent glands under its tail and is accurate up to 6 feet. The skunk's black and white stripes or spots advertise that fact--such standout coloration in nature is usually a warning--and the creature instinctively acts in accord with its weaponry.
Two species are found in Southern California: The classic striped skunk ( Mephitis mephitis ) is larger, averaging about 6 pounds; the spotted skunk ( Spilogale putorius ), which weighs up to 2 pounds, is a chaparral or desert dweller. Skunks are omnivorous and take as much advantage as they can of human facilities. They commonly set up housekeeping in basements and the cool spaces beneath houses. The young are curious and have a bad habit of getting caught between walls and dying there. Skunks are essentially nocturnal foragers, but they will also wander out in broad daylight.
Such unflappable behavior makes them vulnerable to predators that have never encountered a skunk or those suffering from diseases such as rabies, animals without a sense of smell (owls) and extremely hungry coyotes. It also makes them easy prey for a research scientist like Jerry Dragoo, a doctoral candidate in wildlife and fisheries at Texas A & M University.
Dragoo--who jokes that he has no friends and that friends think of him when they see dead skunks on the road--captures skunks like this: He walks over and picks them up by the tail. His landlord has threatened to evict him, and no one wants to steal his truck.
Dragoo says that skunks show a wide range of temperament. Some never grow accustomed to people; you have merely to think about approaching their cage and they will cut loose with a salvo. Others seem to behave like pets from within minutes of capture and almost never employ their scent glands. Dragoo's one-time companion, not surgically deodorized, was a skunk he called "Penny" (as in one scent). "She would climb up on my lap as soon as I started to eat graham crackers and take them out of my mouth," says Dragoo. He eventually released her back to the wild.
When not living with people in their quarters, skunks do very well as uninvited guests. They may be beneficial in the overall balance of things, because they eat large numbers of insects and mice when they can catch them. On the other hand, they dig up lawns and gardens in search of these items, and they are guilty of eating the underground parts of plants--flower bulbs, for example.
CELLAR SPIDERS RESIDE almost exclusively in the cushy protection of human quarters: attics, cellars, toolsheds, garages and unkept rooms where they hang upside down in shapeless, chaotic webs. With their half-inch gray-brown bodies and very long, threadlike legs, cellar spiders are often mistaken for daddy-longlegs. But daddy-longlegs are actually rare in Southern California (and not spiders at all; their bodies are compact and oval, while spider bodies have two sections).
Cellar spiders are harmless to humans, but, like all spiders, they are predators and carnivores: They will eat almost any kind of insect--moths, mosquitoes, flies, beetles--that blunder into their webs. They wrap their victims in cerements of spider silk and suck them dry; then they cut them loose and let them drop to the ground, where a dump of small pellet-like cadavers accumulates.
They are particularly good at finding out-of-the-way spots to live in, but, unlike most spiders, which are solitary, they are semi-social. Males and females often live next to each other in a reproductive relationship. The females bind their eggs in a translucent sack that they hold in their chelicerae, or jaws, protecting them until they hatch, a period of several weeks.
When threatened--their enemies include birds, wasps and humans--cellar spiders have the unique habit of spinning. Hanging upside down by legs so thin you cannot tell where the web ends and the appendage begins, these spiders twist their bodies this way and that until they are spinning back and forth in a blur. At the same time, they are jerking randomly in the web. The result is that they become almost invisible, an impossible target. And if, by chance, they get dislodged and fall to the ground, they run along with that same, wobbling, hysterically drunk motion.
WHEN WILLIAM WIRTZ, a biology professor at Pomona College, studied coyotes in Claremont and in Glendale and other nearby towns in the early 1980s, he found an interesting difference between the two groups: 78% of the Glendale-area coyotes ate garbage as part of their diet; only 2.5% of the Claremont coyotes ate any garbage at all. This is not a comment on the values of Glendale coyotes; it simply illustrates how catholic this opportunist's eating habits can be, especially if humans give it the chance.
In Claremont, the coyotes depended on wild prey and native plants, which they found on vacant lots and undeveloped land. They ate rabbits, wood rats, insects such as potato bugs, cats (only a few), some birds and garden produce, such as peaches, apricots and grapes. In contrast, the Glendale coyotes would course down alleys and raid garbage cans that had easily opened lids. Claremont coyotes could not get at garbage because the city required the garbage cans to have spring-closed lids that could not be jimmied.
The coyote is highly intelligent and extremely difficult to trap. Also, it is a swift, strong traveler. Striding along in that typical canine lope, it can easily cover 10 to 15 miles in a night. This medium-sized wild dog can spend its days in the chaparral and range deep into human habitation at night; or, it can live in town. Wirtz placed radio collars on half a dozen coyotes to study them. He discovered that one of his subjects, a female, was a full-time Claremont resident--she lived her life within the city limits and raised a litter in a vacant lot.
Coyotes often pass for dogs, inspiring people to tolerate them and even to put out food. But this practice can lead to human-coyote clashes. Bruce Cahill, a biologist with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's coyote control program, says the number of coyote encounters with humans has increased in recent years as Southern California encroaches farther into their preferred foothill habitat. In 1981, the death of a 3-year-old Glendale girl was blamed on a coyote, the only such incident ever reported in this country. In Southern California, 12 to 15 coyote bite cases are reported each year, and Cahill says his department receives calls every week complaining of coyotes acting threateningly.
"Not all coyotes are a problem," Cahill says. "A true wild coyote a human being cannot get close to at all." But, he says, contact and feeding can cause some to lose their fear of humans. Cahill's department eliminates what he calls the "bad guys" by trapping and destroying them. After the Glendale girl's death, the agency removed 57 coyotes from a square-mile area of her neighborhood, an unusually dense population caused, Cahill says, by a resident who was putting out food for the animals.
Wirtz and Cahill say that the key to controlling coyotes is to deny them civilized food, either in the form of garbage or intentional offerings. It is against the law to feed coyotes (or other wild animals) in Los Angeles County. During Wirtz's observation, Claremont attracted only a few coyotes on a regular basis, and they foraged for their traditional food. Glendale, however, attracted many. Wirtz concluded that they were subsidized by garbage--they had become bag animals.
Rattus norvegicus/Rattus rattus
THE ROOF RAT and the brown rat have been members of human society for so long that some scientists consider them virtually domesticated (scholars point to rat references in the Old Testament). Civilized might be a better word, though, because rats retain complete autonomy over their lives. Their behavior, their instincts, their temperament have been molded for life in the human domain but not under human dominion. Although both of these rat species can thrive in the wild and are found at elevations as high as 3,000 feet in California, populated areas have become their natural environment.
Wherever humans go, rats follow. They were among the first animals listed by the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus in the 1700s. (Not above a good ethnic joke, Linnaeus named the brown rat Rattus norvegicus in honor of Sweden's neighbor to the west.) They have been associated with odium--sewers, disease and questionable kitchens and basements--since at least the 13th Century. The roof rat, a.k.a. the black rat, is thought to have been brought to Europe from the Holy Land by homebound Crusaders. The rat carried with it the rat flea, which, in turn, harbored the Black Plague.
The roof rat ( Rattus rattus ) can be light gray or black and is actually quite a beautiful creature with its large, dark eyes, its big, soft ears and its fine-textured fur. Like the brown rat, the roof rat rarely weighs more than about a pound or grows to a length greater than 16 inches, tail included. The brown rat is stockier than the roof rat, with smaller ears, a shorter tail and coarser fur. Of the two, the brown rat probably most deserves a bad reputation. The variety that makes news by swarming over fast-food garbage in downtown lots or gnawing into granaries, it is one of the most reviled and, next to humans, destructive mammals in the world. The irony is that in its domesticated form, the laboratory rat, it is also one of the most beneficial, at least from a human medical point of view.
In Los Angeles, brown rats and roof rats coexist, but they divide the urban-rat niche into two worlds. An excellent climber, the roof rat lives its life above ground and eats an essentially vegetarian diet. It makes its rounds of back yards, attics and sheds by running along telephone cables, the tops of fences and interlaced tree branches. It nests in woodpiles, in the branches of thick shrubs and in vines, and it thrives on domestic fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables.
The brown rat, on the other hand, lives almost exclusively on the ground. It is common in industrial areas, around docks and in public places with extensive, dense ground cover such as ivy. The brown rat is a burrower. It is also a true omnivore; it is said to eat anything that doesn't bite back or is softer than metal.
In the early 1980s, Tony Recht, a biology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, fitted campus brown rats and roof rats with radio collars and monitored their activities. The roof rats conducted their business almost exclusively at night. The brown rats, though usually considered nocturnal, foraged during daylight as well as at night, as long as there were few people about--during semester breaks, for example.
Both species were extremely wary of humans. The brown rats would peer from the ivy until no students were approaching, then sprint between ivy patches. Recht timed one rat in slightly under 10 seconds for 96 meters--which translates to world-class speed for 100 yards. Recht also found that brown rats would avoid the area where they had been trapped and fitted with their radio collars. Roof rats would return to the area, but they never allowed themselves to be trapped again.
Coloration and body size are factors in rat survival among humans. The subdued grays, browns and blacks blend into the shadows, and the small size allows them to fit into the cracks, grooves and holes in the urban setting. Yet another success factor is the rodent birth rate. The average brown rat lives a year or less, but it produces four or five litters of four to 10 ratlets; it will mate immediately after giving birth and be pregnant with its next batch while nursing the current one. The roof rat is not quite so prolific; it matures at 3 to 4 months, but still manages three to five litters of five to eight per year.
If ever two uninvited guests have been asked to leave, it is these species of rats. But over the years both have proved impossible to eradicate. Art Tilzer, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the L.A. County Department of Health Services, says complaints about rats have decreased in the past year, which could mean that the problem is decreasing. Or, it could mean, as Tilzer says, that "people have adjusted to living with the rat; they are natural animals in this landscape."
THE NEXT TIME you see a crow splashing in a sprinkler puddle or sitting on an overhead branch, stare at it. Immediately it will begin to fidget and flick its wings, then it will bob up and down a time or two, jump into the air and make for a high tree. From there, this brash black bird will stare at you with suspicion. Or, try stopping a few feet away from a crow--but take great care not to look directly at it. Out of the corner of your eye, you'll see that the crow will hold its ground. It seems to know that the eye of man portends many things, few of them good for crows.
The crow's combination of attention and indifference in its dealings with Homo sapiens illustrates one prerequisite for the successful urban beast. The crow's history probably explains its wariness. Crows have been persecuted for decades because they feed on crops, and bounties have been placed on their heads. Consequently, crows kept away from concentrations of humans.
Then, maybe 30 years ago, in Southern California at least, crows began to invade the urban landscape. Since hunting is forbidden inside most city limits, the lack of stress must have been a powerful attraction. Occasionally you'd see them flying around, landing in the palms. Now they are as much a part of neighborhoods as the people.
Once here, crows have succeeded for typical reasons--they eat almost anything, and they are flexible enough to take over a wide range of habitats. They nest in tall trees, and, like parrots, they are highly intelligent and extremely social. Numbers are a defense--tens or hundreds of alert, beady eyes are almost impossible to dupe. One crow at least will detect danger. And its call is a very effective alarm.
Carolee Caffrey, a doctoral candidate in biology at UCLA, has been studying crow behavior for five years. Her "guys," as she calls them, reside at Balboa Golf Course in Encino. To distinguish among them, Caffrey has to mark them, and to mark them she must capture them. Early on she discovered that the trauma of getting trapped and handled burned her features indelibly into the memory of a crow, and never again could she get close enough to observe it. Now she wears wigs and fake eyeglasses-and-nose combos whenever she traps.
What she has found is that the golf course has been divided up into a tract of territories, each used by one crow family. The "kids" act much like human kids: Some leave home a few months after learning to fly; others stay on for a year or more and help feed and rear their younger brothers and sisters.
Caffrey has also discovered that crows get along just fine with the golfers. One of her favorite subjects, a large male named Al, has crossed over from simply paying close attention to Homo sapiens to exploiting them. Al begs for food, with outstanding results.
"On the 14th tee, he just walks right up to golfers and stands there," says Caffrey. "And inevitably they throw him something to eat. But if they don't, and they leave (something edible) in their golf cart, he jumps in and takes it."
Felis silvestris catus
FERAL ANIMALS ARE domestic animals that go back to nature, back to self-sufficiency rather than human dependency. Cats are remarkable in this regard because they revert so easily. This indicates they have not relinquished all their genetic autonomy to breeding and domestication, at least not to the extent of the laboratory rat and the dog. Neither of those animals would stand much of a chance without human subsidy.
Cats have a critical period between 3 and 12 weeks of age that determines whether they will become pets or feral creatures. If a kitten is cuddled and cared for by humans, it will become, with occasional exception, a household pet. But if that same kitten was reared by its mother only, it would grow up to look like a pet but would withhold its trust and affection. It may be accustomed to the presence of people, but it will not let them pet it or take other domestic liberties.
In the city, there are uptown feral cats and cats that live on the wrong side of the tracks--industrial wastelands, shabby waterfronts, garbage dumps. In such areas, cats live from trash can to trash can, and they do not live well. Unlike omnivores such as opossums or coyotes, cats are true predators, and their digestive tracts are specialized for processing animal flesh. Even though they can, for instance, eat old french fries, they cannot extract much nutrition from them. So cats living primarily on refuse suffer dietary deficiencies and get run down. Run-down cats fall victim to vermin and disease.
In contrast, uptown cats have a pretty good life, all things considered. These are the ones that pass as pets in neighborhoods with lots of open space, in heavily landscaped parks and on college campuses--places where a resourceful cat can hunt birds, lizards, moths and other food, and has access to pet food as well. But you cannot get close enough to touch them.
Overpopulation is a big feral cat problem, but their numbers are also supplemented by recruits. Ellen Perry Berkeley, in her 1982 book "Maverick Cats," mentions a California survey in which about 60% of house cats left their original home within three years. Some found new households, but others probably became feral. Why? Competition with dominating peers may drive them out, as might indifferent or abusive humans. Un-neutered males may obey a natural urge to leave in search of new territory. Lastly, their owners may simply dump them.
REPTILES ARE NOT confirmed urbanites. There are plenty of insects and small rodents for them to eat in Southern California, and many species once lived here in large numbers. But something happened. That something, scientists speculate, was a decline in quality reptile habitat--large, continuous expanses of tall grass, low shrubs and unpaved rivers. Moreover, nothing seems to bring out the extermination urge in humans more strongly than a snake. At any rate, very few species of reptiles prosper within the L.A. conurbation.
The alligator lizard, however, is one cold-blooded creature that has been able to transcend this state of affairs and is probably the most common reptile in urban Southern California. The term alligator probably refers to its large, big-jawed head and its inclination to gape menacingly and bite when threatened. But in overall appearance the alligator lizard looks more like a cross between a lizard and a snake. Yellowish-tan with black bands and a gray belly, it has a long, sinuous body a foot or more in length, much of which is tail. Its four puny legs operate as levers to push it along in a twisting, snakelike motion, as its tongue flicks in and out.
For alligator lizards, dense ground cover is prime real estate. Most California lizards live in the open, but, like snakes, these stay protected, out of sight, most of the time. They generally move at a slow pace, but, snail-like, they get there somehow.
Hot weather drives alligator lizards to seek shade and water. In summer and early fall, they turn up in swimming pools, houses and bathtubs. In spring, the mating urge brings them out of their winter torpor and out of hiding. Alligator lizards ask for nothing from the human larder. Instead they eat slugs, snails and the kind of small ground-dwelling insects that play havoc with back-yard horticulture. They should be appreciated by all who attempt to garden.