Ah, springtime, the time of year when a young dog’s fancy turns to thoughts of…hunting down wildlife in the yard.
If you have a dog who is prone to pester or harm wildlife, I can empathize. I am pretty sure one of my dogs, who came to us when she was 18 months old and whose background is a mystery, is the doggie version of Jason Bourne: normally placid, fierce-looking, sociable, a quick study, a good sense of humor. And who, in a former life, was a trained assassin.
Today I was putting up some lightweight temporary fencing around a group of trees that are the home of a Northern cardinal family. There are three babies in the nest (eyes still closed), which I saw the day the aforementioned assassin pointed them out to me. So here I am, merrily erecting the barrier to give them a buffer zone in which to raise their young with a bit less stress, when I hear frantic barking about 100 feet away. It was my little hunter, making an unusual-sounding bark that was something between “I am really fired up and ticked off!” and “I am not sure what to do about it!!” I glanced over and saw her circling a particular spot. Uh-oh. Dogs in a predatory mode are typically silent. After all, hunters are more successful if they don’t advertise their intentions to their prey (there are exceptions, like some types of dogs bred to corner their prey for people). So the fact that there was a whole lot of yelling going on could only mean one thing…a confrontation, a stand- off. A snake.
I left my well-intentioned project without delay and arrived at the scene to find a black racer, tightly coiled, likely feeling quite scared and annoyed (they are known for being aggressive when trapped), all the while keeping a close eye out on little Jason Bourne as she circled him madly, barking in his face. When I called my dog from three feet away (I was afraid if I got closer I would startle the snake into doing something rash) she not only failed to come to me, but she gave me a quick look that seemed to say, “Hello, we have a situation here that I am trying to deal with could-you-please-get-up-to-speed?!?”
Now, despite her apparent former CIA activities I have managed to teach her to come when called, even in the presence of a squirrel, bird or a mole. In this case she clearly thought I was nuts, and was not about to leave that snake to his own devices. But I knew better. Black racers are not venomous, but a bite can become infected and is no doubt painful. The same goes for a dog bite to a snake. Oh, and did I mention that the dog in question weighs less than 10 pounds?
So I just reached in and scooped her up (the dog, not the snake), and took her inside. When I got back outside to see if the snake might still be there, he was about 15 feet off to the side, up against the house where the gutter downspout is. I snapped a photo just before he thrashed and disappeared into, well, I don’t know where, but that was that. I bet he is keeping our crawlspace free of rodents and thinking twice about where he should sunbathe next time. (Most snakes are helpful and just want to be left alone; see the NC Extension Service for information about North Carolina Snakes.)
As much as some people might say, “Well, it’s natural for dogs to chase critters, and besides, it’s my yard,” it wouldn’t be hard to argue that, while it’s normal for dogs to show predatory tendencies, it doesn’t make much biological sense for domestic dogs to kill and eat wild animals (and most don’t). After all, they are not using those calories (in most cases) to create offspring of their own. And as to the “it’s my yard” point of view, I am pretty sure the critters might well argue that we’ve built our houses in their yards.
Wildlife experts would list a host of reasons why dogs (and cats) should be kept from killing or disturbing wildlife, including protecting endangered and threatened species, of which there are several in our state. I have seen signs out west pleading with dog owners to keep their dogs on leash during hikes. One sign pointed out that a leashed dog can even enhance the humans’ enjoyment of wildlife by alerting them to it (such as when a dog raises his head and ears, letting the human know there is something worth seeing in the brush).
It seems that the neighborly thing to do is to strike a compromise. Here in suburbia, that is easily accomplished. If there is a nest of birds raising young, keep your dog or cat indoors while the fledglings learn to fly (little birds hopping around on the ground should not be bothered by well-meaning humans either; their parents are nearby, checking on them and feeding them periodically when no one is staring at them). Take walks instead of playing fetch that week. If you encounter wildlife you believe may need your help, before you do anything call (919) 572-WILD or visit the website of the Piedmont Wildlife Center. Get advice before you act to avoid unintentionally kidnapping babies from their parents or harming them.
As for our doggie Jason Bourne, she won’t be getting anywhere near the cardinal nest (or the snake if I can help it). But what that black racer has in store for the birds or their next batch of eggs is out of my hands…