Our Wild Animals in California by Ella M. Sexton


Once upon a time, when the Spanish owned this state and called it their province of Alta California, there were great herds of antelope feeding on the grassy plains, and at every little stream elk and deer and big grizzly bears came down to drink. No fences had been built, and the wild animals had never heard a rifle-shot. Free and fearless they ranged valley and hillside, or made their dens in the thick brush, or "chaparral," as the Spanish called it.

Indian hunters watched the paths over which these wild creatures travelled to water, and killed deer and antelope with their arrows. But these hunters were afraid of grizzly bears, for an arrow in Mr. Bear's thick hide only made him cross, and with one hug, or even a light blow from his paw, he could cripple the poor Indian. So in those early days the old bears came year after year, and carried off sheep and cattle. The simple folks did not even try to kill them. Indeed, many of the red men believed that very bad Indians were punished by being turned into grizzly bears when they died, and they would not hurt their brothers, they said.

When Father Serra's Mission people were starving at Monterey, the Padre learned that at a place called Bear Valley near by, there were many grizzlies which the Indians would not kill. He sent Spanish soldiers there, and they shot so many bears that the hungry Mission family had meat enough to last till a ship came from Mexico with supplies.

Of all flesh-eating animals this grizzly bear is the largest and strongest. He can knock down a bull with his great paws, or kill and carry off a horse. He can live on wild berries and acorns with grass and roots he digs out of the ground, yet fresh meat suits him best, and he prefers a calf, which he holds as a cat does a mouse.

Nothing but stock was raised in California in those days so long ago, and cattle were counted by the thousands and sheep by tens of thousands. Then the grizzly and cinnamon, or brown, bear feasted all the time on stray calves and yearlings. Every spring and fall the cattle, which had roamed almost wild in the pastures, were "rounded up" by the cowboys, or vaqueros. After the work of picking out each ranchero's stock and branding the young cattle was over, the vaqueros thought it fine fun to lasso a bear,—some old fellow, perhaps, who had been helping himself to the calves. It is told that one big cinnamon bear, while quietly feeding on acorns, looked up to find three or four cow-boys on their ponies in a circle around him. They spurred the trembling ponies as close to him as they dared, and yelled at the tops of their voices. The great brute sat up on his haunches and faced them, growling and snarling. One vaquero sent his rope flying through the air, and the loop settled over a big, hairy fore paw. Then the bear dropped on all fours and made a jump at the pony, which got out of his reach. Another Mexican threw a lasso and caught the bear's hind foot; and as he sat up again a third noose dropped over the other fore paw. Then the poor trapped creature, growling, snarling, and rolling over and over, began a tug of war with the lariats and the ponies. Once a rope broke, and horse and rider tumbled in front of the bear. He made a quick, savage jump, but was pulled back by the other ropes. Then Mr. Bear sat up straight and tugged so hard that another lariat broke and sent the saddle and rider over the pony's head. With one sweep of his paw the bear smashed the saddle, but the cow-boy saved himself by running to an oak tree. At last Mr. Bear was getting the best of the fight so plainly, and had pulled the frightened ponies so near him, that the man who was thrown off ended the poor animal's struggles with a rifle-ball.

A Chinese sheep-herder tells this funny story about a bear: "Me lun out, see what matta; me see sheep all bely much scared, bely much lun, bely much jump. Big black bear jump over fence, come light for me. Me so flighten me know nothin', then me scleam e-e-e-e so loud, and lun at bear till bear get scared too and lun away."

A few grizzlies are still found in the Sierras, and black and brown bears are often seen with their playful little cubs. The small fellows are easily tamed and may be taught many tricks. They will live contentedly in a bear-pit, or even if chained up, and as most of you know, they like peanuts and pop-corn well enough to beg for them.

The panther, or mountain-lion, is another large flesh-eating animal which makes his home in the thick woods conveniently neighboring the farmers' corrals and pastures. Not long ago a boy in Marin County, who was sent to look after some ponies, saw a big yellow dog, as he thought, "worrying" one of the colts. When he came nearer he found it was a wicked-looking, catlike creature, and knew it must be a California lion. He had nothing with him but a heavy whip. The panther left the wounded colt and crouched ready to spring at the boy, but he was on the alert and struck it a terrible blow across the eyes with his whip, and then another and another. Half-blinded and whining with pain, the panther turned tail and ran away, while the boy's pony, trembling and snorting with fright, galloped home with his brave rider.

In one of the mountain counties a woman, hearing her chickens squawking one day at noon, ran out to find what seemed a big dog among them with a hen in his mouth. She rushed straight at him with a broom, when the animal turned. She found it was a great panther, who snarled and made ready to spring at her. As she screamed and started to run away, her foot slipped on a steep and muddy place, and she slid down the little hill right into the panther's face. He was so frightened that he jumped the fence and hurried to the woods.

This great yellow cat is both savage and cowardly, and he has been known to follow a man walking through the woods, all day, yet he sneaked out of sight at every loud call the man gave. He chases deer and gets many small and helpless fawns, hunters say.

Fur-hunting was once a profitable business for the Indians, who were clothed in bear and panther skins when the first white men came to California, and had many furs to trade or sell. The Indians trapped otters, beavers, and minks, and the squaws tanned the deer-hides to make buckskin shirts or leggings. Hunters and trappers still bring in these wild animals' furry coats after trips to the high mountains or untravelled woods, where the shy creatures try to live and be safe from their enemies.

From a photograph by
George V. Robinson.

In early days herds of a very large deer, called elk, fed on the wild oats and grass. These elk had wide, branching horns measuring three or four feet from tip to tip. Only a few of them now survive in the redwood forests in the northern counties. There were plenty of them once where San Francisco now stands. Dana in his book called "Two Years Before the Mast," tells us that when his ship dropped anchor off the little village of Yerba Buena about sixty-seven years ago, he saw hundreds of red deer and elk with their branching antlers. They were running about on the hills, or standing still to look at the ship until the noise frightened them off. At that time the whole country was covered with thick trees and bushes where the wolf and coyote prowled, and the grizzly bear's track was seen everywhere.

There are plenty of deer in the redwoods now, and in the high Sierras are black-tailed and large mule-deer. In the woods round Mount Tamalpais timid red deer live, too. In winter, when it is cold and snowy in the northern counties of our state, these deer often come into the farmer's barnyard to nibble at the hay.

There are still left in the mountains among the pines and snowy cliffs many mountain-sheep. These curious big-horned animals resemble both the elk and the sheep, and it is said they can jump from a high rock and land far below on their feet or heavy, twisted horns without being hurt in the least.

Of all the great herds of graceful, fast-running antelope, once the most plentiful of our wild animals, only a very few can now be found on the eastern slopes of the Sierras.

But Master Coyote, who might well be spared, so cruel and cowardly is he, still sneaks up and down the whole state, and his quick sharp bark gives notice that the rascal is ready to steal a chicken or a lamb if it is not protected. With his bushy tail and large head he is half fox and half wolf in appearance, and mean enough in habits to be both. He can outrun a dog and even a deer, and though he catches jack-rabbits and the Molly Cottontail usually for food, he would help his brother, the wolf, to kill a poor harmless sheep.

This gray wolf is a savage creature and hides in the thick forests by day, slinking out at night to the nearest sheep corral or turkey-pen if he can find one unwatched by some faithful dog. His friend and neighbor, the fox, likes fat geese and chickens as well as birds, squirrels, and wood-rats. The queer raccoon lives in the redwoods and is often caught and kept in a cage or chained for a pet.

Wildcats, both gray and yellow, are found in the thickly timbered parts of California, and the badger makes his home in the mountain cañons or pine woods. There, too, the curious porcupine dwells. He is covered with grayish white quills, which bristle out when he is angry or frightened. No old dog will touch this animal, for he knows better than to get a mouthful of sharp toothpicks by biting Mr. Porcupine, who is like a round pincushion with the pins pointing out. A dog who has never seen this prickly ball will dab at it, and have a sore paw to nurse for weeks after.

Two or three kinds of tree-squirrels live in the pines and redwoods, the Douglas squirrel being well known in the mountains. The ground squirrel, or chipmunk, digs holes in the ground, where he hides his winter's store of grain and nuts.

Three of our smaller wild animals are very common and very troublesome to the farmer. The skunk, which looks like a pretty black and white kitten with a bushy tail, and also the weasel, destroy all the chickens and eggs they can reach, and they are so cunning that it is hard to keep them out of the hen-house. That little pest, the gopher, we are all well acquainted with, since he gnaws the pinks and roses off at their roots in your city garden while his large family of brothers and sisters kill the farmer's fruit-trees and vines. The gopher digs long tunnels under ground, making storerooms here and there in these passages, which he fills with grass, roots, and seeds. In each cheek he has a pouch, or pocket, large enough to hold nearly a handful of grain, so the little rascal carries his stores very easily. The traps and poison by which the farmer is always trying to make way with him, he is sly enough to let alone. His greatest foe is the cat, which watches patiently at the hole where the destructive little fellow is digging and usually catches him. A mother cat will sometimes bring in two or three gophers a day to her kittens.