My little piece of Yulee heaven is rapidly becoming part of the Jacksonville ‘burbs. Animals are being displaced and concentrated in small pockets of swamp or what’s left of private family land.
I never thought the day would come when I would become party to the problem I despise most. My interaction with wildlife has been live and let live, measured with a healthy respect for its survival.
It seems lost on many newcomers that living on the edge of rural areas has to come with consideration for their neighbors — and the wildlife.
Just up the road from this shrinking wilderness is a tightly packed new subdivision bursting at the seams with all manner of careless and disrespectful newbies. Not only do they heave their cans and bottles out of the windows of their shiny Escalades onto the property of others, they also create wildlife conflicts by allowing their inquisitive canines to roam day and night.
There’s nothing worse than having to listen to the agonizing sounds of a fawn and doe succumbing to marauding dogs in the thick brush near my home.
Little did I know on this Friday morning that I am about to unintentionally create my own catastrophic critter-vs.-canine encounter.
Steve Nelson’s Wild Life: Read and see more of Steve’s stories and artwork
I let my little pack of pooches out into the front yard about 6:30, and that’s when all heck-fire breaks loose. My two pit bulls are laser focused on the scent of a pair of deer bedded down 100 feet away. Both take off almost as fast as the deer — and over the fence they go. Heading them off in the overgrown pastureland across the road, I stop Betsy before she can fully navigate the pasture fence. I escort her back to the house while admonishing her every few steps for jumping the fence. In too much of a hurry, I throw on flip-flops, shorts and my “Be the human your dog thinks you are” T-shirt. And, yes, yes, yes … I know, flip-flops are the absolute worst choice of footwear given what I know about the thorny terrain. I have run across more snakes while wearing flip-flops than stomping around in my boots.
My heart is pounding as I rush back to stop Blue, the Herman Munster of my hounds, from instinctively harming the deer. I carefully straddle the barbed wire at the north end pasture gate and scan the landscape for as far as I can see – no sight of dog or deer anywhere. There hasn’t been a cow grazing there in more than a decade.
The landscape is positively unadulterated.
The old cow pasture is shaped like a mile-deep slice of pie that someone has dug into. It is bordered by railroad tracks to the east and the marshy Nassau River to the west. This beautiful old-world grassland is covered with a smattering of live oaks, sabal palms, blackberry brambles and an occasional prickly pear cactus. Even though this is private property, I’m sure the owners will understand and cut me a little slack for trespassing, especially if they see me wearing flip-flops.
In our neighborhood, this happens to be the last sanctuary of open ground where the deer can thrive in relative safety. As of last fall, I determined this tiny land-locked herd had five or six animals. That’s when I quit feeding them for fear they might fall prey to free-range dogs and poachers. And now I am trying to prevent another deer from becoming a casualty of my making.
After walking more than a quarter mile through tall wet grass, carefully side-stepping the cactus for my toes’ sake, I see Blue about 200 yards away making a beeline across the field heading toward the railroad tracks. About the time he reaches the tree-lined track, I can see one of the deer in front of him has doubled back and is loping in the opposite direction. What a beautiful creature, bounding gracefully through the tall grass in the misty morning fog. Not far behind, I spy my dog emerging from the trees. This is going to be my best opportunity to catch the wayward pooch.
Swiftly lumbering after him, my eyes are scanning in front of my toes for cactus, gopher holes and any snake in the grass. (And, yes, I lumber swiftly!)
My runaway is only 20 yards in front of me and — I can’t believe it — I am gaining ground on this old boy. What a sight I must be, running after him and yelling for him to stop. Just like Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves,” only I’m not dancing. And Stands With A Fist won’t be waiting for me when I get home.
Just 10 yards away Blue is focused on the deer and disobeys my huffy commands. My dogged pursuit is about to pay off just as my left flip-flop flies off. I have to rein in my Shetland pony legs and disappointment overtakes me. Reluctantly giving up the chase, I retrieve my footwear.
And then it hits me.
Sucking wind, I can barely catch my breath. I am having one of those déjà vu moments. This is the farthest and fastest I’ve opened my dormant throttle since running from a Brahma bull in this pasture more than a decade ago.
I am in awful shape.
What was I thinking?
I may need a sick day.
I could be having a heart attack and nobody will ever know where to look for me.
No cell phone, no Life Alert and no common sense.
All that will be left will be a withered, hen-pecked corpse – in flip-flops.
Who was this idiot?
He probably is in witness protection, because he certainly is out of his element.
Silly city boy.
I wonder where he parked his Escalade?
On the verge of chucking my coffee, I get a glimpse of Blue vanishing into the distant trees.
It’s said that owning a dog can make you live longer.
Uh … NO!
To add insult to injury, the deer flies have discovered me and are feasting on my exposed parts. I resume my wheezing pursuit in squeaky wet flip-flops that won’t shut up, all the while trying to see through fogged-up glasses.
No longer able to swiftly lumber, I catch my breath over the next hundred yards or so. I can hear Blue faintly barking in the distance and it dawns on me that I may have another opportunity to corral that mischievous mutt. After slogging another quarter of a mile, I pinpoint the familiar barks and head to the western edge of the bluff. My view is filled with an endless sea of tall brown marsh grass and out there somewhere, is a yapping, mud-covered canine. After smearing my fog-covered glasses I try to get a visual on the boy, but the marsh grass is too tall (or for the pessimist in me, the dog is too darn short.)
I use my absolute best line to command his attention. “Come on Blue, let’s go get a cookie.”
He hears me.
He gives me the silent treatment.
After more unsuccessful attempts to lure him from the mire, I figure I’ll have to wait him out. Plopping my aching fanny on an old oak log near where he entered the marsh, I try to enjoy the pristine scenery while fighting an onslaught of deer flies and monstrous salt-marsh mosquitoes.
It is a Yulee standoff. Not once — for a full hour — did that pooch even twitch or bark.
I comforted myself by thinking, “I bet he’s as miserable as I am right now.”
The morning shadows grow shorter as I realize I very well may be late for work. It’s time to give up this unproductive waiting game and make the mile-long trek back to the house.
At least Blue isn’t going to catch the deer and he will find his way home.
Soaked from head to toe from my morning excursion, I climb back over the gate, careful to avoid broken beer bottles that have been cast aside right there. After crossing the road, I leave my gate open as I look back, hoping to see Blue following me home.
No such dumb luck.
I consider it a moral victory that I didn’t stumble upon any early rising rattlers, nor did I step on a thorny cactus. And, I wasn’t having a heart attack while not-so-swiftly performing an unscheduled morning workout.
Upon reaching the house, I quickly shower and prepare for work.
That’s when I hear a voice.
Blue’s clueless voice.
Guess who was on the other side of my glass bedroom doors.
Covered in mud from nose to tail, Blue was looking decidedly more hog than dog. While I can’t really fault him for following his instincts, at least he came through his unscheduled romp unscathed and unbowed.
I gave this wayward mud puppy a quick bath with the garden hose and he repaid my love and affection with another shower from his unending shakes.
En route to work, surrounded by more and more Escalades, I begin to smile when I realize that my alter ego — Wind In His Thinning Hair — had just survived another quiet, peaceful country morning in God’s little acre.
It was just a little bit different than most.