The View From Away: Let's talk turkey (and fox, and moose …)

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You don’t see a lot of wildlife in New York or Los Angeles.

Well, a lot of the citizens are pretty feral, like the kid at Macy’s in Manhattan who shoved in between Carol and me to steal watches from the display case where we were standing. When I threw him across the store aisle and told him to get the hell out of the store, all he said was, “You wouldn’t try that if I had my piece!” He may have been a thief, but he was a good judge of character. I hardly ever confront crazed gunmen.

My point is that in cities the people are wild and the animals are not. I’ve had seagulls and pigeons steal food out of my hands. On foot. They don’t even bother to swoop. With all the free food they probably can’t. City animals may not be domesticated, but they certainly aren’t wild. Or in shape. You shouldn’t be able to outrun a squirrel.

L.A. is built around mountains and borders a national forest, so occasionally you get to see something besides obese birds and rodents. Still not wild, though, just having to put up with us. I don’t blame them. By all rights it should be their territory, and no matter where they go, we won’t leave them alone.

I came home one day to find a bobcat perched on a fencepost in my driveway, driven out of the woods by drought, or burned out by fire. He was just sitting there sunning himself. I didn’t want to disturb him – i.e., I was concerned that he might jump me – so I parked on the street and waited him out. I looked at him. He looked at me. He gave me this look like, “You think I’d be here if I had someplace else to go? I should be up in the hills chasing rabbits, but some idiot with opposable thumbs threw a cigarette in a pile of leaves, and here we are.”

When I finally did get out of the car, he hopped down, stretched, and trotted off, shooting me one last resentful glance over his shoulder. I felt like I was rousting a bum.

I once ran across a couple of coyotes on a golf course. Not movie coyotes, the invisible ones that sent a chill through the settlers with their mournful cry in the night. These guys were just sauntering down the fairway, as if they were either buddies playing a quick nine before work or a couple of tired factory workers after the graveyard shift. They were used to being around humans, and long over the excitement of being the resident urban wildlife. When we made eye contact, they looked so bored, as if they’d been through the drill a million times.

“No, we’re not dogs. Yes, we’re coyotes. No, we don’t set Rube Goldberg-esque traps from the Acme Corp. for roadrunners.”

That’s the thing with big-city animals: they carry themselves with all the ennui of 19th century Parisian aristocrats. That’s what made the contrast so refreshing when I moved here. We hadn’t been in Maine a week when I woke up to see a family of wild turkeys in my yard. These birds clearly did not recognize the sovereignty of the homeowners on the cul de sac. Fences and yards were obstacles to overcome like too much underbrush or too little food. When our two miniature dachshunds came tearing out of the house after them, the mother squawked in what sounded like annoyance and hustled the little ones marginally faster.

The tom ran toward Blackie and Ruby, which sent them skidding to a halt at a respectful distance. I’ve seen them chase shepherds and retrievers off our property with no sign of fear, but they obviously knew a real wild animal when they saw one, even if it was a turkey. Turkeys have always been a punch line to me, but watching that tom in action, I could imagine why Ben Franklin wanted to make them our national bird.

I’ve seen a menagerie since then: larger flocks of turkeys, raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, deer. But I haven’t seen a moose. The Mainers I’ve met say a moose will mow you down without a moment’s remorse. Maybe they’re putting me on because I’m the new Guy From Away. I don’t care. It would be a great line for the obituary: trampled by angry moose. Beats the hell out of a drive-by.

My favorite sighting has been a beautiful, lean red fox that broke cover a few months back while I was out on a country road. He paced me for a half mile or so, loping along in some fields more or less parallel to the road. Maybe he was scared. He seemed to be running for the joy of it.

If all this meandering is going anywhere, it’s this. When you live in a big city, it’s easy to start thinking people are the only creatures on earth. It’s almost impossible to avoid thinking we’re the most important. Another of the long list of reasons I love Maine is how it reminds me every day that we’re just one of many species and that our lives don’t have a monopoly on value.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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