Friday, March 14, 2014

On “unnecessary danger” and hiking at the river

One Ridgeback owner rather insistently asserted that what I was doing was “unnecessarily dangerous.”  I wrote back that I don’t know how much she understand about philosophy, linguistics, hermeneutics, etc.  but just about everyone makes the mistake of thinking that their words, the things they say, can be taken in one way and one way only.  It is now accepted in linguistics and hermeneutics that all language is ambiguous.  One cannot say anything, even the simplest thing without someone some place being able to misunderstand him or her.  I suspected that she meant something different than I did in regard to “unnecessary danger” and hiking on the river. 

Consider me talking to one of my granddaughters.  She asks me, “grandpa, what’s the best and safest thing I can do to get my Rhodesian Ridgebacks to hike off leash at the river”? 

I would answer, “First, granddaughter, you’ve got to make an assessment of who you are.  If you’re overly timid then forget about it.  But if you are fairly courageous then here is what you can do.  Walk your Ridgebacks on leash down there until they get used to the area.  You get used to it yourself.  Carry anything you might need, a cell-phone, water for you and the dogs, first-aid equipment and a sturdy hiking stick.  Carry a small pistol if you know how to use it.  There is nothing down there that is very dangerous but why take chances?  Be prudent and take anything you might need.  There is no good reason to go down there without knowing what to expect and being prudent in what you take; that would be exposing yourself and your dogs to “unnecessary danger.”  After they know where everything is and how to get back to your Jeep then let them run off leash.  Head out and they will follow you.

That’s the advice I would give and I believe it is sound.  I’ve been following it for a long time.  Ridgebacks weren’t developed to keep on leashes to avoid danger.  They were bred to get out there and figure danger out for themselves and they did a pretty good job of it.  There was no hunter to keep an eye on them when they treed a lion.  The hunters showed up later.  The Ridgebacks figured out how to do that all on their own, well, maybe learning from older Ridgebacks, but they would figure it out on their own if they had to.

In my opinion the little tiny coyotes we have at the river don’t bear comparison with the animals the early Ridgebacks had to contend with in Africa.  I can’t really take them serious as a danger.  Not only have I lived near them for 15 years, I’ve hiked in their territory off and on for the last 50 years. I am quite prepared to understand that most people would be somewhat afraid.  I’m not trying to tell them they shouldn’t be.  But not all people are the like them.  “Unnecessary danger” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. 

“Statistics” come into play as well.  During the time I was diving, most people who heard of it warned me against the “unnecessary danger” of sharks I looked up the statistics on shark deaths in the U.S.  I looked them up again just now.  Between 1580 and 2013 there have been 36 fatal shark attacks in the U.S.  What would you think about that statistic if you were a diver?  If I go out there I have a good chance of being the 37th?  Or, the chance of my being the 37th is so remote that I’m not going to worry about it.  I’m obviously in the latter category, but all those who warned me are probably in the former. 

Applying statistics to coyotes isn’t as easy.  There have been countless cases of coyotes killing penned up dogs and cats.  I don’t have any cats at the present time, but I would recommend that dogs not be penned up in yards so that they have no means to escape hungry predators in almost any rural area.  There have been only two recorded fatalities of young children from coyotes, but many more from pit bulls and a few other breeds.  I didn’t check the number, but I think these statistics have more to do with parents being careless with their small children than coyotes including small children on their prey list.  And as to doing what is best to eliminate “unnecessary danger” regarding my dogs and coyotes, I believe it best to expose them to the coyote presence and let them get used to it.  All my Ridgebacks have gone through that process, and only Ginger, as I mentioned, received the slightest injury from one, and that was in her old age, long after she should have known better.  Ben is still in the process.  I’m not worried.  Heck, there are only two coyotes at the river where we hike.  Ben has been more systematic than any of my previous Ridgebacks in checking out the area.  By the present time (and I’ve had him just over 100 days) he knows more about the local coyotes than I do.  There is no point in letting him chase everyone he sees; so I will be working on getting him to stop that. But it wouldn’t be cataclysmic if he kept it up.  As I said, all my Ridgebacks chased coyotes when they were young but eventually gave it up.  I expect Ben to give it up as well, but we shall see. 

Rabbits are another story.  All my Ridgebacks have chased rabbits as long as they were able.  I still remember Trooper when he was 12 and having lost quite a bit of control of his hind-quarters, seeing a rabbit run by and making a start at chasing it, losing control of his hand legs and sitting there staring after the rabbit with fierce eyes.

Coyotes on a recent hike and other observations

Several knees have been jerking over my stories about Ben adjusting to the coyotes at the river.  Several responses have to do with stories about coyotes luring dogs into packs where they were presumably killed and devoured.  I’ve mentioned several times that there are no packs at the river where we hike.  Maybe someday there will be, but we’ve been hiking down there for 15 years and haven’t seen a pack yet.  Also, all my Ridgebacks have chased coyotes at one time or another and none of them have been lured into anything.  The mother coyote who has a litter every year wants the exact opposite.  She wants to be left alone.  The one unfortunate confrontation was when Ginger, an unusual Ridgeback who tried to make friends with every dog she met, tried to make friends with this female when she had a litter on the ground – and received a nip on the rump for her trouble.  I took her to the vet and had it cleaned.  That was a lesson well-learned.  Ginger troubled me with her friendliness more than once, but after the nip she left the coyotes alone.

Ben, now, for those who may not have been following this, was received as a three-year-old adult, and he won’t be four until November.  The river and its coyotes have been a new experience for him.  That he was going to chase them was no surprise to me.  I would have been surprised if he didn’t.  That he came back after a chase without his hackles up was a surprise, but after a bit more reflection, I don’t really recall checking my previous Ridgebacks for hackles after such occurrences so perhaps his response isn’t unusual. 

Some have gotten the idea that Ben is fraternizing with the coyotes.  That is a misunderstanding.  I intended to say that he and the coyotes are curious about each other rather than hostile.  I did say I couldn’t at this point rule out his trying something like Ginger did, but don’t really expect that to happen.  I also said that these two coyotes are probably the ones Ginger, Sage, Duffy and I encountered 2 ½ or 3 years ago; so they were used to seeing Ginger and Sage (whom I recently lost) and Duffy.  They were not used to seeing Ben (whom I received December 1st, 2013).  One of the photos I took recetnly is a rather blurry thing showing Ben chasing a coyote.  I doubt that anyone can look at that photo and suspect fraternization.  I don’t yell at Ben when he chases a coyote, but when he checks the brush for their appearance later on, I tell him to “leave the coyotes alone.”  That’s what I have done with all my Ridgebacks and they all gave up chasing coyotes.  Hopefully Ben will give it up as well. 

[See photos for yesterday’s hike at – the last hike mentioned in the March 2014 gallery in the “River Photography” folder.]

Others have said they wouldn’t do what I do, but I’ve heard that all my life in a manner of speaking.  I enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 during a war.  My graduating class didn’t follow my example but instead wrote in my yearbook such compliments as “jarhead” and “bullet-stopper.”  My favorite sport for years and years was “free-diving” which consists of diving without tanks and spearing fish.  Almost no one could hear about what I did without asking, “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?”  After the movie “Jaws” I had the entire ocean to myself, which I appreciated.

After Susan and I were married she developed some ailments that made it tough for her to make it to work on time.  We both worked at McDonnell Douglas; so I got a motorcycle which allowed us to dash down between the lanes on the San Diego Freeway in order to make it to work on time.  She sometimes dozed off on the way to work.  I would feel her helmet hit mine and reach back for her, pulling over into the right lane until she was awake again before speeding up.  When we got to work she would take off her riding trousers, pull her skirt down, put on her high-heeled shoes and rush in to work.  I got reams of articles on my desk over the years describing every motorcycle accident anyone read about.   Many people assured me we were going to die.  Obviously we didn’t.  Not everyone should ride a motorcycle just as not everyone should own a gun, but for some of us these things aren’t especially dangerous.  Still, people who hear what I do can’t resist telling me how dangerous it is.  That has been going on for 63 years (I’ll be 80 in October of this year). 

I must admit, however, that I like the coyotes being down at the river.  I try to treat them with respect because their presence keeps virtually everyone else from hiking down there; which is the way I like it.  Some people will walk or ride bikes up on the levee, but I haven’t seen more than a couple of other hikers on the river in the 15 years I’ve been hiking down there.  Probably the few who have tried it have been spooked by something they have seen, possibly coyotes.  Some people ride off-road bikes or trucks down there from time to time, but not often.  These things invariably stall.   I’ve noticed a few of these guys working on their bikes, staring about at the brush apprehensively.  Notice Ben looking into the brush in some of the photos I took this month, but he isn’t being “spooked” by anything – rather the reverse.

From my standpoint I appreciate having a dog-breed which was bred to do the very thing I’m doing.  I know most Ridgeback owners keep their Ridgebacks as mere pets, but mine at least have a taste of what their forebears were developed to do.  Worried about coyotes?  Pshaw. 

Elephants and local coyotes

The above article refers to the discovery that elephants can make useful judgments about people based on the sound of their voices and perhaps other indications.  The article suggests that perhaps other animals can probably make similar judgments.  While I’m not inclined to anthropomorphize coyotes, it does seem that my local coyotes treat me and my dogs in a non-hostile and non-threatening manner.  I should mention in this regard that on one occasion a coyote went on a hike with my kids and me. 

It occurred in the Angeles National Forest perhaps 30 years ago.  Susan, my kids and I parked our car at a trail head and started on a hike.   We saw a coyote hovering about and took a couple of photos of it.  It soon decided to join us.  It went on the entire hike with us.  When it was time to stop for a snack, it wanted its share, which we gave him.  At the end of the hike (which took most of a day) the coyote veered away from the parking lot and disappeared.  We later learned that one of the park rangers had rescued this pup after its mother had been killed.  That outing probably colored my attitude toward coyotes when we moved to San Jacinto.  I’ve never tried to befriend a local coyote but I’ve never expressed any hostility toward any of them; so the sound of my voice (per the article) might not have seemed threatening toward them.  Also, I have discouraged my dogs from chasing them when they gave me the chance.  They have all done it a few times but then gave it up, perhaps to some extent because I urged them to “leave them alone.”  Will Ben learn to “leave them alone”?  Perhaps, but the two coyotes I have seen with him don’t seem too worried about it.

As to those two coyotes, a while ago, I don’t recall the timing but I had Sage, Ginger and Duffy at the time and he will be four in a couple of months.  We were on hikes in the brush when two exuberant coyote pups dashed about near us.  One ran directly toward us. We all stopped in amazement.  It looked as though it was going to run right passed us, but it veered off at a right angle about 10 feet in front of us.  A few moments later the other coyote ran across our path.  They were chasing each other and our presence didn’t stop them from their game.   Are the two coyotes I’ve seen with Ben the same ones we encountered as pups?  This article says coyotes live 10 to 14 year:  I suspect that these two are the same ones, and if so have they drawn conclusions about us?  They would have seen Duffy and me fairly regularly and not needed to interrupt their morning naps to pay much attention to us, but Ben will be relatively new to them and may account for their curiosity about him. 

To the best of my recollection I’ve never expressed any hostility toward them with my voice or actions.  Ginger and Sage both chased coyotes as young dogs, but gave it up as they grew older.  Neither made any move toward chasing these current two coyotes and of course Duffy always allowed me to talk him out of chasing them.  So what do they think of Ben?  I don’t know.  He is not an aggressive dog.  He chases them but doesn’t seem to be doing it as a predator.  His hackles don’t go up so he doesn’t seem to consider them a threat.  They run from him but in a rather nonchalant fashion.   I’m going to try harder to get him to leave these coyotes alone.  They perform a service for me.  Their presence discourages the squeamish from hiking on the river bottom.   Also, they are purported to eat a variety of things including snakes.  I have never seen a snake in any of the areas we regularly hike.  Could it be that the coyotes have cleaned them out?  I don’t know.   

Hiking, cougars & guns

One lady voiced a concern about a cougar where she hikes and thought that she ought to carry a gun but then thought that if she did she might shoot her foot.  If I had to shoot a Cougar I would wish I had my 357, however the chance of that need ever occurring is pretty remote.  Also, I don’t really carry a 22 in order to shoot a coyote.  If Ben got in trouble I would shoot into the ground hoping the noise would discourage whatever it was, and in the meantime I would run toward whatever the trouble was.  The only time something like that actually happened was shortly after we moved to San Jacinto.  Trooper may have been nine or ten and there were feral dogs at the river back then.  I didn’t know what to expect and so carried a S&W Model 19 357.  I had just finished getting my knapsack on when I noticed that Trooper had run into the midst of a feral-dog pack.  There were quite a lot of them, perhaps 20 or so.  Some of the larger ones were trying to get behind him, and he was whirling to face each one as it did.  I hurried toward them.  My other dog was a German Shorthaired Pointer who was perhaps 12 at the time and nearly deaf and blind.  When she got a whiff of the dogs she got behind me.  As I got closer to Trooper the dogs began veering away until only one dog remained, a dog that looked like a cross between a malamute and an Akita.  Finally when I was a few feet from Trooper the last dog ran off after his pack.   Trooper apparently thought that was great fun and wanted to chase them.  I told him we were going hiking in a different direction and he reluctantly followed me. 

From what I’ve read the dogs that are most at risk from coyotes are back-yard dogs, dogs that don’t get walked much and so aren’t in very good shape, and dogs that can’t get into the house to escape a predator.  I worried a bit about Duffy when he was growing up – not because of coyotes but because of owls and hawks.  I’ve seen evidence in my back yard of birds, usually pigeons, killed by something.  And also down at the river when Duffy was younger I’ve seen hawks flying above him checking him out – whether as prey or not I don’t know. 

As to guns, yeah, if you get one you should spend enough time with it so that you are comfortable and know how to use it.  I was a rifle instructor in the Marine Corps years ago and then later in Engineering at McDonnell Douglas used to go out once a week to a police pistol range for target practice with a couple of other engineers.  I don’t really practice any longer since I’d rather hike or take photos, but I’ve practiced so much in the past that hopefully I won’t be totally inept if I ever have to use one.  On the other hand even if one is extremely well-practiced things can go wrong.   People very experienced with guns sometimes make mistakes.

We are perhaps entering more the realm of psychology than the true danger of guns, coyotes, and cougars.  People have relatively different views of risk, danger and prudence.  I used to ride a motorcycle back and forth to work when I worked at McDonnell Douglas and later Boeing.  I would ride on the San Diego Freeway down between the lanes day after day rain or shine.  I had countless people warn me of the risk I was taking.  Some assured me that I would definitely die on the freeway.  I gave my last motorcycle to my son when I retired.  He road for a few years but lost his after a divorce.  Now he drives an SUV and I drive a Jeep.  But if I collected all the articles about motorcycle deaths people put on my desk while I was riding I could have filled a very large scrapbook.  Does this have more to say about me, or the people who clipped out the articles for me. 

To avoid shooting your foot, just remember not to pull the trigger until you get it out of the holster and are aiming at something you really want to hit. 

Might coyotes lure Ben into trouble?

Several people voiced a concern about the possibility of coyotes luring Ben into the midst of a pack.  I’ve heard about coyotes luring dogs into ambush all my life but never seen it.  My son had an Airedale that used to chase after packs out in the desert and the coyotes ran from it.  Here where I hike the coyotes don’t run in packs.  That doesn’t seem to be the best way for them to hunt.  Also, they seem to hunt at night.  We are most likely to see them (and never more than three at a time) if we get there before the sun comes up.

At present we don’t have cougars where I hike.  Their primary food is deer and I’ve never seen a deer down where we most often hike; so this wouldn’t be good hunting territory for them.  Also, my experience with Ridgebacks while hiking is if they are in doubt about the smell of something, they like to be right next to me.  I suspect I’d be stumbling over Ben if he smelled a Cougar.  

I’ve hiked since the early 80s with Ridgebacks.  I like to expose them to a lot of different things and situations and allow them to figure things out for themselves.  Here where we’ve hiked since 1999, I only worry about Ridgebacks when they are too young (and then I have them on leash) or are too old (and then they no longer chase things).   Whether I carry a gun or a hiking stick is more a function of whether I need both hands free to take photos than of anything else.

Ben, Coyotes and a Cougar

How was Ben going to deal with the coyotes?  I wasn’t really worried.  He is an extremely competent dog, but his relationship with them seems to be developing differently than expected.  Two coyotes have shown a lot of interest in him and he in them.  When he sees them he chases after them, but I’m not sure what he is thinking when he does that.  His hackles never go up and he seems more curious than predatory.  I don’t think these coyotes are very predatory either.   I finally managed to catch a photo of one of them on the hike yesterday – not a very good one but you can see it at in the “March 2014” gallery in the “River Photography” folder.  I’ve noted the beginning of each hike.  The 3-9-14 hike begins with a lot of photos of the morning sky.  We got there before the sun was up over the mountain; so it was still pretty dark, even in the sky; so the photo of the coyote is fairly dark also.

Is Ben trying to make friends with these coyotes?  Unlikely but I can’t rule that out because Ginger tried it a few years ago and got bitten on the rump instead, but that was by a female that had pups on the ground.  The two coyotes Ben is messing around with may be young males. 

When Ben chases after the coyotes, Duffy chases after him, but I call him back.  I’m carrying a Walther 22 nowadays, just in case things turn ugly, but I’m not expecting them to.  My local coyotes have seen me and my dogs all their lives.  When the coyotes were young, they showed a bit of interest in us.  That was true of my Ridgebacks also, when they were young.  If a female has pups on the ground, she will howl when we are near and sometimes follow us to make sure we keep on going, but perhaps it’s her mate that is doing that.  I don’t know for sure. 

The local coyotes have never concerned me very much.  I take precautions and when my opinion is invited (as Sage and Duffy invited it) I tell them “leave them alone.”  Ben though hasn’t invited my opinion much so far.  He runs into the brush and is gone for a three or four minutes.  When I knew he was going in there after coyotes I expected to hear some snarling and barking, but I heard nothing; which is fine, but then he returned without his hackles up. 

I became a little more concerned about his safety when I read about a Cougar that killed a 100-pound German Shepherd a few towns east of me.  Apparently some policemen fired some guns in order to scare it off and it didn’t scare worth a darn.  When the animal control people decided to go after it, they couldn’t find it.   There are continuous mountains from Fontana to the area where we hike so a Cougar could travel the 42 mile distance if he had a mind to.  That is beyond the typical range of a Cougar, but if he were fairly young without an established territory perhaps he might decide it prudent to move out of Fontana.  I think we’re okay but I am considering taking a heavier gun than my Walther 22 on our hikes – just thinking about it at this point.  Since I’m leaning toward lighter-weight cameras nowadays, a heavier gun seems counter-productive.  I wonder what my coyotes would think about a Cougar moving into their territory.