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The Day of the Badger

When I heard about the proposal to build tunnels under L.A.'s freeways to accommodate animals that inhabit the mountains around us, I almost cried with happiness. God is good to people who write satire.

I came home smiling for the first time in weeks, which is almost always greeted with suspicion.

“You’ve been up to something,” my wife said, studying me carefully. “I hope to heaven whatever you’ve done is legal and free of disease.”

“No problem,” I said cheerfully. “I’m about to run over an ecologist.”

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It’s this way.

There was a conference the other day to discuss--now get this--the possibility of building freeway tunnels for about $5 million each so that rabbits, lizards, brown towhees and ring-tailed cats can go from one mountain range to the other for purposes of sex, food and visits with their relatives.

I couldn’t believe it. Not since an unfrocked physicist proposed a hole in the mountains to drain L.A.'s smog into Arizona has a new idea seemed so . . . well . . . looney.

The project was proposed by Paul Edelman, a staff biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, who spent a year pondering a variation of the often-asked question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

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Ecologists were becoming concerned because an increasing number of wild animals were being killed trying to traverse the freeways in order to do whatever it was they wanted to do on the other side.

Edelman remembered reading once about the potential of animal corridors as a way of preventing this. He found an equestrian tunnel under the Simi Valley Freeway and began his study to determine how many animals used it to go back and forth between the Santa Susana and Simi mountains.

Paw and hoof prints were used to make this determination, though I think excrement was also utilized. Biologists love to poke around in animal waste.

Edelman discovered that in a year’s time the tunnel was used by 50 deer, 42 bobcats, 90 coyotes and a variety of other animals lookin’ for love in all the right places.

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That was during the night. In the daytime, it was utilized by 131 humans on foot and 260 lesser primates on motorcycles, mountain bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Prints determined that, too. No excreta, thank God. This convinced Edelman that some form of linkage between mountain ranges divided by freeways would indeed be used by L.A.'s wildlife, including actors and bikers. Humans by day, animals by night.

Tunnels or even bridges, he concluded, would increase the range of the animals and facilitate the proper mix.

“Think of X-number of people on an island,” Edelman said. We were in his office in the Santa Monica Mountains. Distant oak trees gleamed like emeralds in a morning mist.

“You wouldn’t get the proper gender mix, age mix or genetic mix to continue the species if they never got off the island, right? Well, that’s the way it is when you isolate animals with freeways.”

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“So you build tunnels at $5 million a pop for the little suckers to trot back and forth?”

“Maybe bridges too,” he said. “Some say deer prefer bridges. Who knows?”

Edelman’s idea has had mixed response. The kind of people who view a hatching condor as something akin to a second coming hail the proposal.

Critics, on the other hand, sneer and say what L.A. doesn’t need now is to spend millions of dollars to make it easier for raccoons to get laid.

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I was ready to jump right in and hoot along with all those in the latter category. What next, Club Meds for coyotes? Water beds for badgers?

But I stayed a moment too long.

Edelman began talking about how unique L.A. is. “No other major metropolitan area in the world has wildlife habitats that extend deep into the city,” he said. “Mountain lions, badgers . . . all the players are still here. But how long will we keep them if we don’t do something?”

Edelman is no dewy-eyed newcomer to L.A. He was born here 42 years ago in a house that backs up against the mountains. As a kid, he watched deer and coyotes roam the slopping terrain.

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“When I was 8, there was a fire. I remember seeing a rabbit in flames being chased by a coyote. I can still see it.”

He isn’t sure what impact that had on him, but he grew up to be a biologist worried about the conservation of animals for future generations.

So I’m not hooting. I’m thinking it’s a different world. Sensitivities abound that never existed before. Visionaries, rather than loonies, are at work here.

This doesn’t mean I’m about to fall to my knees over a California condor or risk my life for a darter snail. But maybe I’ll think about those corridors across the freeways every time I hear a coyote howl in the distance or see a bobcat prowl the cool morning trails of the open Santa Monicas.

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