Last May, a few blocks away from where we live, a black bear was treed and removed by the Lakewood police and fire department. I was at home and had no clue that the giant animal had waddled down one main road after another without interception. Funny enough, it worried me less afterwards than what havoc humans wreak around town sometimes. Rather, I felt sorry for the bewildered beast that was restored to the wild and probably never realized what had happened to it.
Whether in our former small-town on the Sound or here, we have our share of daily wildlife visitors, for sure. Not bears usually though. I saw a coyote of an evening back in my first year after my arrival. And ever since, I’ve been aware that I’ve never gotten anywhere as near wildlife as here.
I used to live in a suburb of the Southern German city of Stuttgart with its almost 600,000 inhabitants. It is a busy region with lots of “clean” industry, i.e. no smoking chimneys or other major pollution problems anywhere near, but lots of traffic. Yet, Nature is lurking through each and everywhere, with vineyards growing from the tops of the hills right into the middle of downtown, huge forests surrounding the city, and rivers and lakes creating a neat background for recreation.
But wildlife in our suburban backyard was rather smallish, unspectacular animals. I never had any encounter with red deer or boars that were roaming the woods some miles further away. But we had little titmice in the trees and rabbits in the fields. Sometimes, woodpeckers flew into the balcony of my parents’ apartment to explore the walls for insects. Sometimes we had little red squirrels chase each other up the trees or around the playground in front of the house. And during warm summer nights, when I kept my bedroom window tilted (a typical German window feature, by the way), I could hear hedgehogs munch away in the grass.
My husband had prepared me to expect “Ricky Raccoon” in our backyard. And indeed, we’ve had our share of raccoon families. One couple brought all of their four cubs one fall and proudly presented them. One of the little raccoons discovered the rope swing our landlord had left in one of our huge oak trees. It swung there for the better part of an hour. That was in our second Lakewood year. Last summer, in the middle of the day, a lonely, fat raccoon strolled into the garden and made for the swing. I could swear it was that little buddy of yore, whose now heavy body made it hard for him to get up all the way. He never came to the door to beg. He just enjoyed the swing.
The first American bird I got acquainted with were those gorgeous blue Steller’s jays. With that funny tuft on their heads, their intelligent eyes, asking for nuts with a harsh cry, but a flirtatiously tilted head, they stole my heart immediately. In our first home, we had four coming on a regular basis. I was able to distinguish them all from each other by their looks and behavior.
Little emerald green and mud brown frogs leapt around our Steilacoom garden pond. Turquoise humming birds flew busily in the front yard trees. Here in Lakewood, we spot a white opossum in our garden every once in a while. And at night we sometimes wake from the rather peculiar smell of a skunk passing through. We feed the birds, and pine squirrels are master beggars and thieves around the feeding stations.
The most amazing invaders of our backyard, though, are always deer. They never fail to astonish us. One year, a family of four became a daily regular, feeding from bushes, then laying down in a sunny spot, chewing the cud. They were well aware of us, but usually they just turned their heads curiously, twirled their ears, then went back to their little chewing routine. In Europe, I’d have thought such animal behavior must be due to a case of rabies. You see deer in deer parks, but not in your garden. Or you spot them from the distance, in rural areas. As soon as they smell you, they will kick up their legs and turn in wild flight.
Out here in Washington State, Wilderness clearly still dominates. Human beings have only borrowed their habitats from Nature. We are living side by side with wildlife animals. And it is quite an experience to bump almost literally into a deer, while weeding the garden, or jogging, being eyed by a fawn just on the other side of the road.