Embracing our Animal Companions

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2009 © Stephen Bruno

Several years ago, I was running an errand, when I decided to stop by unannounced at a new small service business in town that had recently opened. The owner was interested in my participating in the open house a week later. I had communicated by email about meeting with the owner, but we had not set up a specific date.

I drove to the address which was on a small residential street and looked like a home business. There was an ‘open’ sign on the outside near the front door surrounded by a delightful small courtyard. I pushed lightly on the front door which stuck a little, so I pushed harder to enter. It was common that time of year for doors to expand and require greater effort to move.

I walked into a quaint looking homey living room with cozy country style curtains, closing the front door behind me. I didn’t see any customers sitting on the comfy looking couches or overstuffed chairs. I noticed business cards and brochures on a round wood table in what would be the dining area.

After a few minutes of looking around the living room waiting for the owner or an employee to appear, I walked near the table in the dining room area and called several times toward the kitchen which was around the corner.

Since the kitchen area may be private, I stopped by the table and called out again several times thinking that they may be the backyard. There was no response. I turned to look once more around the living room to see if any new customers had arrived since a bell was not attached to the front door. No one else had entered.

I thought it was prudent to be patient. I walked away towards the middle of the room, and I heard something behind me coming from the kitchen.  I turned casually expecting to be greeted by the owner or employee.

I came face-to-face with a very large dog who came casually walking around the corner stretching and yawning from probably a long nap. Then, the dog realized I was standing there. I suspect that we both had the same expression being startled by each other’s unexpected presence. The dog raised one eyebrow up in bewilderment. It was almost comical to observe the gradual realization of its facial expressions. Time appeared to stand still while we both waited to see what developed. I almost bent down or kneeled in a greeting ritual in front of the dog, and then slowly extending my hand to be sniffed. Under the circumstance, I thought it wise to refrain from that behavior.

Then, the fur on its tail bristled with the tail held high in alertness with large, fast wags. It was inevitable that something was soon about to happen. The dog and I cautiously eyed each other as I began talking calmly, softly yet firmly in a positive voice.

And then, another even larger dog walked into the living room and stood slightly in front of its animal companion. We each stood motionless while the new dog began to process what was happening. Within moments, both dogs’ erect ears faced forward with attentiveness. A ridge of hair bristled down their backs. Their lips now retracted exposing glistening large, long and pointy canine teeth.

Viewing me as an intruder, I knew to prepare for an imminent attack, and without the business owner, I had to manage the dogs myself. Their size and desire to protect their territory suggested that it could be a rather tenacious attack in tandem.

I drew on my many experiences with wildlife including black bears and Mountain Lions as a wildlife photographer out in the wilderness where my process is to photograph them and not be intrusive. And above all, to leave wildlife unharmed by my actions of being in their territory.

I stood in the middle of the living room; the only exit was the front door behind me which the dogs could easily reach faster. They might also block my path to the door during an attack.

For survival, I glanced around quickly while the dogs were deciding what to do to see if I had any means of protecting myself using a kitchen chair, umbrella, walking stick or something. While finding a few objects that would work, I summarily dismissed this option as I wanted to leave without harming the dogs.

I knew an attack was nanoseconds away. Under the circumstances it was inevitable. This much I accepted. Just like with my experiences with wildlife in a threatening situation I was surprisingly calm and focused on how to get out the front door with minimum harm to myself and no harm to the dogs.  I stood slightly sideways making me a narrower target while keeping the dogs in my peripheral vision.

Both dogs began to emit deep, low growls and inched forward toward me.  I stood up straight to look as big as possible (something I learned with Mountain Lions in the wild), and I kept my mouth shut as bared teeth may signify aggression to a dog.

I began to slowly back towards the front door as the two dogs walked closer, each of them keeping a steely eye on me. I knew it was important to remain calm and to talk to the dogs quietly.

I was still away from the front door when the largest of the two dogs suddenly leaped towards me initiating the second dog to do the same. I was immediately bitten twice in my leg which was in front of me as I backed up towards the door. I could tell from the pain that each dog had taken bites which had punctured the skin through my jeans. I remembered to protect my face, chest, and throat and to keep my hands in fists to protect the fingers.

All I could think about was how to leave without harming the dogs as it was not their fault that they found me in their territory and they only wanted to protect the area. I was committed not to strike them with anything including my hands and feet. If only I could reach the door and somehow back out to the front yard, I could then safely close the door escaping with few further injuries.

The dogs continued to bite at my legs. Throughout the attack, I kept myself calm while not creating a sense of anxiety to minimize the dogs’ aggressiveness. I recalled an experience with a protective mother Mountain Lion and her two kittens at Lake Powell, Arizona on top of a ledge when I was jogging alone. But that’s another story.

Still talking in a relaxed, soothing voice the dogs crowded towards me and backed me against the door which opened inward towards the room. I grabbed the doorknob and pulled it in leaving me just enough room to slide out into the front yard and then I carefully closed the door.

I didn’t know where the owner was. It was clear that I needed to get to the VA hospital and have them inspect my lacerations and provide treatment which I quickly did.

I still have the physical scars of the dog bites but no emotional ones. I’m very pleased that my primary focus was to reasonably protect myself while not in any way harming the dogs which is what I accomplished.

One reason I decided to post this story now is that I have had numerous questions about my soon to be published personal and spiritual process book that discusses concepts including responding rather than reacting. I was asked to give an example of what I meant, and this experience came to mind.

 

 

 

 

Curious Naturalist: The Art of Observation

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle 2014 © Stephen Bruno

Over my many years of nature and wildlife photography in numerous locations, I have become a curious naturalist. I know a lot about birds and animals because I have studied them for years. Whenever I photograph something new, I return home to my study and thoroughly research them.

I find it interesting that frequently people are in such a hurry to walk through the forest, country, and desert that they appear to miss so many opportunities to observe nature and wildlife. Visit my photography website and view a slideshow of my photography. http://www.stephenbrunophotography.com/.

Once I was photographing a large tarantula when an older couple walked by and the man quickly took a twig and scooted the tarantula off the path and into a pile of leaves. The woman glanced at my raised camera and me and asked if I was photographing the tarantula. I lied and told her no, that I was just observing it. It did not seem to matter much to explain how he interfered with my observation and photography.

Another time I was photographing an Osprey that I had tracked around a lake to a tree high above a well-worn path. Just as I had raised my camera with a telephoto lens and was focusing in on the Osprey eating a rainbow trout, a family walked rapidly passed me talking loudly as they neared the large tree with the Osprey. Unfortunately, the bird became nervous and flew to the other side of the lake. Although disappointing that I had missed the opportunity to photograph the bird that I had pursued so vigilantly, I was amazed that the family never even noticed the Osprey.

There is so much to see when we are in nature if we have the patience and presence to observe. Most people now have a cell phone with reasonable photography capability or a compact camera. If you are not a photographer or prefer to draw, sketch the wildlife that you see and note the location.

Walk with someone who can point out things of interest in the field and explain simple, useful identifying characteristics.This is one reason why I offer photography workshops. http://www.stephenbrunophotography.com/Photography-Workshops

People who view my wildlife photography frequently ask how I get so close to photograph wildlife.

Below are a few of my approaches to photographing wildlife close up:

  • Shifting between my vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
  • Stopping at the nearest desert, forestry office or interpretive center to pick up brochures, trail maps, and wildlife checklists. Asking about any recent wildlife sightings.
  • Following my intuition. If the hair on the back of my neck stands up, wildlife could be near!
  • Being mindful of recent weather and knowing that temperature, sunlight, and precipitation all factor into reading tracks and wildlife behavior.

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Endangered: Western Lowland Gorillas

Female Western Lowland Gorilla 2014 © Stephen Bruno

For many years, I have enjoyed watching and photographing Western Lowland Gorillas.

The Western Lowland Gorilla is not the gorilla featured in the book and movie Gorillas in the Mist. That is the Mountain Gorilla which is one of the subspecies of eastern gorilla.

With the benefit of a super telephoto lens, I have learned much about their behavior.

When I have had the wonderful opportunity for closer observation, I value the intelligent interaction we share.

Western lowland gorillas are distinguished from other gorilla subspecies by their slightly smaller size, their brown-grey coats and auburn chests. They also have wider skulls with more pronounced brow ridges and smaller ears. Hands, faces, feet and chests are black and hairless.

Males are twice as large as females, often weighing over 350 pounds, and they have longer canine teeth. Females weigh about 180 – 200 pounds. On two feet, they may stand up to six feet tall.

Noses are the most distinguishing features on gorillas and are as individualized as fingerprints. Their eyes are small and reddish brown. Ears are small and set close to the head. Gorillas cannot swim and may drown in relatively shallow water

The males have a broad, silvery-white saddle as they mature, and are then, called “silverbacks.” Western Lowland Gorillas have many vocalizations, from hooting to pig grunting. They beat their chest and break vegetation as a defensive display against outsiders. They also communicate through facial expressions. Western Lowland Gorillas live about 30 to 40 years in the wild. They live about 40 to 60 years in captivity.

All gorillas are endangered. Western Lowland Gorillas are critically endangered. This is the highest threat category for a species. Illegal hunting of gorillas by humans, mainly for their bushmeat, poaching, mining, slash-and-burn agriculture, and war threaten the Western Lowland Gorillas. In addition, zoos and research organizations purchase some young captured gorillas.

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Cougars at Lake Powell

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Mountain Lion 2014 © Stephen Bruno

One summer during a spiritual and personal growth houseboat retreat, I was teaching at Lake Powell, Page, Arizona, I anchored a 50-foot houseboat near the sandy beach far into the lake at an isolated cove. Our group of 16 participants observed one very large pair of Cougar paw prints about 4 inches wide. This is about the width of an adult hand. There also were two sets of small kitten prints imbedded in the soft wet sand.

In the late afternoon, I was jogging at the top of a steep cliff and as I rounded a curve, I saw a large 100lb female Cougar sitting at the top off a bluff. Her torso was a cinnamon buff-colored contrasted by a white belly. She had two kittens with brownish-black irregular spots on the body and dark rings on the short tail.

I had read that they can jump as far as 40 feet in one leap and as high as 15 feet from the ground. This was disconcerting as I was only about 45 feet away below her. I figured one leap would bring us together.

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Black Bear Family

Black Bear 2014 © Stephen Bruno

At age seven, I encountered my first bears in the wild, in Yosemite National Park. I hiked away from my family’s canvas tent cabin at the Curry Village campground and walked down toward one of the many cold rapid moving rivers in the beautiful valley. I became lost that morning in the splendor of the Giant Sequoia trees and the lush green meadows in the valley floor.

I easily recall that when four adult Black Bears (actually more cinnamon) and three cubs strolled by me when I wandered off the path I was so captivated that I completely forgot about being lost. The bears were friendly, and remained comfortable in my presence. It never occurred to me to be concerned about my safety, or theirs.

I talked quietly to each of the bears, watching their curious expressions as they responded with grunts, and followed them the entire day through the countless blooming flowers and tall green grass. I watched the frequent Gray Squirrels running about and the occasional Mule Deer roaming near the riverbed of the roaring Merced River.

Sometimes I watched as the cubs were wrestling, falling, and nipping each other. They were very playful and seemed curious about me. When the family of bears ate huckleberries, blueberries, or other berries, I ate berries. When they rested, I rested. When they looked for other areas to forage at wet meadows along creeks and river, I walked along with them.

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