Wild things

Editorial Notebook

April 08, 2006|By ROBERT BENJAMIN

And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws. - Maurice Sendak, "Where the Wild Things Are"

Once or twice every night, even more as the weather warms, the small white dog rousts himself and tears toward one window or another, huffing at the darkness. It's a jungle out there - in the suburban night.

Something's stirring, passing along the brush on the yard's borders. Or something's issuing a high-pitched whine, sometimes apparently audible only to the dog. Or maybe - and this seems a long shot - there's a scent that's somehow wafted through closed windows.

These days, with housing rapidly spreading into animal habitats and certain species showing adaptability to humankind, anything is possible.

First, of course, it was mostly deer all over the place; verdant but densely settled suburbs such as Howard County have even brought in sharpshooters for culling. More lately, it's been foxes. Over the last two years or so, fox sightings have been so common as to be no longer a dinner-table topic.

In the spring, foxes are on the move, looking for places to birth their kits - increasingly in folks' yards or underneath their decks, prompting one of every eight calls to the state wildlife nuisance information line and lots of business for services such as Critter Control.

"This time of year, we're running as fast as we can," says Ben Fulk, one of Critter's wildlife removal specialists for central Maryland. Mr. Fulk has handled everything from a large caiman roaming a house to a python hiding under a porch. Mostly, though, it's problems with squirrels and birds inside houses, pesky raccoons, and more and more foxes.

Foxes drive the dog nuts. His 10 pounds notwithstanding, his ancestors must have been bred for this duty. The first time he encountered a fox - sleeping in mulch right by the back deck - he turned into an indignant pit bull, chasing the suddenly awakened animal several blocks. Who knew?

Nighttime is different.

Oh, there's growling and puffing. But once leashed and outside, courage wanes where the woods begin. The dog's no fool: It seems increasingly likely the suspected fox could be a different matter entirely, a coyote.

Coyotes now live in every county in Maryland, perhaps even in Baltimore, experts believe. A colleague swears he once saw one walking down a street in Roland Park (a tale made more believable by the coyote that recently turned up in New York's Central Park). They particularly frequent Catonsville, says state ecologist David Brinker, because of nearby Patapsco State Park. They prey on neighborhood cats and foxes, so a sign they're around is that other living things start disappearing.

Our coyote sighting, more than a year ago, seems typical. It was dusk. The animal - larger and grayer than a fox, with a different sort of head and tail - was 150 feet away in the neighbor's yard. The mind stumbled to compute: fox, big dog, what? Then it was gone, silently evaporated.

What else is coming our way? The Sun's outdoors writer, Candus Thomson, recently reported that Western Maryland's black bears are moving eastward, and some experts believe they'll eventually establish themselves in some of Baltimore's western and northern suburbs.

Actually, bears have already made it there - at least one or two every so often, says ecologist Brinker. They're usually 2-year-old males that have set out from Western Maryland or the Shenandoah region of Virginia to find their own territory and just kept going. In the 1990s, one errant male was finally caught near where the Baltimore Beltway meets Interstate 70.

So it's deer, foxes, coyotes, and now we can look forward to bears lumbering about. What's next? Bigfoot sightings? (Maryland already has had several.) In the meantime, we wonder if we'll ever be able to get that dog to settle down - let along go outside at night.

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