Sunday, September 16, 2012

Close Encounters of the Wildlife Kind

Last week, while driving to work, I was saddened by the evidence of car-nage on the roadways--in other words, road kill.  On the 30 minute drive to work, I think I counted three dead raccoons, a couple of expired porcupines, and one unidentifiable blob with a few patches of black fur.

As someone who once had a racing rabbit run straight into the car, I know that it's not always possible to avoid hitting an animal while driving.  Nonetheless, I try to take what steps I can, and hope others do as well.  That being said, I thought it timely to share some insights I acquired while researching a column on this topic a couple of years ago.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation web site offers some good tips for wildlife avoidance.  According to the site, most deer-driver collisions occur between October and December, with November being the peak month.  The May-June time frame is also risky as various forms of wildlife are attracted to roadside ditches for the salt, and to escape black flies and other insect pests.

Regardless of the time of year, it’s particularly important to be watchful at night and particularly around dusk and dawn, as that’s when the deer tend to be on the move.  Although wildlife collisions occur in Ontario an average of once every 38 minutes, the reality is that many of them occur during the peak danger times:  5 a.m. to 7 a.m., and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.  At times when wildlife's peak travel times intersect with the main commuting rush, the risk is elevated.

The MTO site offered some tips on wildlife avoidance, so I thought I’d cross reference that with my own experience to see if it held up.

“Scan the road ahead,” was the advice, “and watch for glowing eyes”.  OK, I’ll go with that.   More than once an eerie glow by the roadside has given me the first warning of a potential wildlife encounter--and in fact just last week I saw several sets of eyes, in different spots, glinting in the headlights' beams.

“Never swerve suddenly.”  Uh-oh.  That one, I’ll have to work on.  My reflexes always seem to get the better of me and I’ve found myself taking evasive action to avoid dive-bombing birds, squirrels that can’t seem to make up their minds which of twenty directions they want to go, or blowing trash that I’ve mistaken for a small animal.

“Never assume an animal will move out of your way.”  Partly true.  I once had a stare-down with a moose on the way to Sudbury.  The moose stood.  I waited.  Eventually, he moved.  So I guess the point is, don’t assume they will move right away.

“If one animal crosses, remember others may follow.”  True.  I’ve seldom seen a lone deer crossing the road.  More than once, the follower has waited in the underbrush until the leader was partway across before revealing him or herself.  So I always try to watch for the second animal, or sometimes the third, to make an appearance. 

According to the web site, 89% of wildlife collisions occur outside urban areas, on two-lane roads, and 86% occur in good weather.

But I suppose it could be worse.  On its web site, British Columbia notes that animal hazards include not only deer and moose, but also bears, elk, and bighorn sheep.

So as the days get longer and my commuting hours start overlapping with dawn and dusk, I’ll remind myself to keep an eye peeled for deer.

And I’ll try to be thankful that, in the area I live in at least, I don't need to worry so much about bears and bighorns.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Paws for Appreciation

The other day, a friend posted on their Facebook page the news that their canine companion of over ten years had passed away that morning.

That post reminded me once again of my canine pal Jak, who left this planet more than two years ago but still frequents my thoughts.

My dog Jak whined his way into my life in 1996 as a scrawny, insecure mongrel pup of uncertain parentage.  His appearance and behavior gave evidence that his family tree bore no shortage of branches:  he sported the coat of an Australian Cattle dog, the speed of a Greyhound, and the general build of a German Shepherd, with the traits of a few other breeds thrown in for good measure.    

Jak was never a fan of water.  He tolerated baths with rigid distaste, and his first experience with water outdoors—a step onto the rain-soaked sidewalk the day after we brought him home—resulted in a quickly-raised paw and a distressed whimper. 

Never the model of “good dog” behavior, Jak viewed commands as something to be largely ignored, or, if obeyed, casually executed after some delay.  That is, unless the prompt of a dog biscuit was offered.  This was not a sign of stubbornness, nor, I think, of lack of comprehension.  He simply couldn’t be bothered.

He never did get to be “top dog” in our little household; bullied into second and eventually third spot first by my Border Collie cross Sneeks, and then by my purebred Border Collie Emma.  Not that he seemed to mind.  He didn’t have a burning desire to be a leader.

Overshadowed by the others in most respects, and possessed of many less than desirable traits, Jak nonetheless shone in one area:  his love for his people.

While Sneeks would greet her human companions with the air of a goddess graciously stooping to acknowledge mere mortals, Jak was visibly overjoyed when he saw us after even the shortest of partings, prancing to greet us with a flailing tail and a broad, toothy grin.

And, he was unquestionably loyal.  Each day, about half an hour before my usual “home time”, Jak would make his way to the edge of the concrete parking pad in front of our house, plunk his hind end down, and patiently sit gazing down the driveway, ears alert for the crunch of tires on gravel, until my car made its nightly appearance.

Somehow the years slipped away in the all-too-quick way they do for dogs.  As Jak’s health faded, it became clear that the time for a final drive to the vet was approaching.  On a sunny May morning, I found myself on the way back from that difficult trip, marveling at how quickly time rockets through the hourglass, and how easy it is to take our blessings—including those that come to us in four-legged form—for granted.

As the car proceeded through the springtime landscape, I pondered the possibility that I might have benefited over the past fourteen years by spending a little more “canine time”.  I thought about all of the evenings Jak had waited so patiently for me to come home—sometimes, only to be brushed off impatiently if I’d had a difficult day at work or was preoccupied by other issues.

Only then did I realize that I had taken Jak’s love and loyalty more than a little for granted. 

Perhaps it’s human nature that we are most prone to under-value those who do things for us in an understated manner.  When I find myself slipping into this pattern in future, I will try to remember that grey-and-black form sitting in patient vigil at the end of the parking pad day after day.  If nothing else, the memory may prompt me to be a little more appreciative.

I think Jak would like that.

Adapted from a column by the author that appeared in the Creemore Echo, September 24, 2010.