La Verne’s wildlife is plentiful. Residents are learning to coexist with animals large and small
by Nathan Keeler
photography by Maddie Ybarra
I sit outside, reading my English book at dusk on my porch 50 feet from Baseline Road, in a quiet neighborhood at the base of Live Oak Canyon. I hear approaching footsteps crunching the fall leaves scattered on the ground near me. At first, I don’t look up thinking that it is one of my family members approaching. I am also blocked from seeing what is approaching by the porch rock wall. I am at ease, knowing that nothing ever out of the ordinary happens in my neighborhood. Then, the footsteps stop in front of me. I look up into the yellow eyes of a huge male black bear. We lock eyes at four feet as he studies me. I feel a sense of shock and freeze in place. Then the huge black bear breaks its stare and slowly walks away, continuing his circle around my house.
The encounter was not my first. It was just my closest. Usually there is a glass window between me and a bear. My family has had similar encounters. We have a saying, “Who needs to go to the zoo when the zoo is in our backyard?” And while I am still wary of bears, I am no longer frightened by them. They are frequently in my yard, especially when the locquat tree is laden with fruit in early May. I show them distance respect. None has ever threatened me. If I do have a chance encounter (usually from a distance but not always), they look at me, then ignore me as they continue marching through the yard. Some repeat their visits often enough to gain names: “Brownie,” “Bruno” and “Ted.” Most of my neighbors have also come to accept them in their yards. No one calls the police, at least not anymore. They are permanent residents in my neighborhood, as common as coyotes.
The bears frequent nearby Live Oak Canyon during the summer months. In some of the canyon areas tucked away from high traffic areas, it is not uncommon to come upon a large bear sitting in the middle of someone’s driveway at dusk. David Bickford, an evolutionary ecologist, conservation biologist and herpetologist who lives in La Verne’s Live Oak Canyon, says that the local bear population has increased during the last decade. “There are many bears in the local foothills. They are attracted to fruit trees, water and trash cans holding food scraps.” Bears swim in residents’ pools and jacuzzis. Bickford says that even though the bears are a familiar sight, it is wise to avoid bear encounters. What do you do if you come face-to-face with a bear? “Bears are thinking only about themselves. Does the bear feel safe in its encounter with you? If so, then you will probably be fine as long as you are not aggressive toward it,” he says.
The dogs in the neighborhood do bark at the bears; nevertheless, none of my neighbors has ever had a bear attack a dog. I have read of encounters, but in those instances, the dog has charged the bear and engaged it. The bear is just fending the dog off so it can escape. The bears have always left my cats alone. I have been outside when a bear is in the yard and noticed that my cats just stare at the bear but do not run. I cannot say the same for the coyotes. They kill any hapless domestic pet they can catch. In my neighborhood, they are the ones to fear.
Bickford says the La Verne foothills support bears well. “They have immediate access to the canyon areas, but can step out of it to backyards containing food and water.” He notes that bear populations are expanding their range. “The young cubs do not know the mountain areas. Unfortunately, the new bear generation just knows that food is associated with human habitation, and that is where they will live.”
Marshall Canyon Golf Deer
Bears are not the only exotic wildlife in La Verne. Those who play golf at Marshall Canyon Golf Course know there are deer herds that prominently roam the grounds. An encounter with deer is predictable and certain. The golfers take pictures of them but otherwise ignore them. At most, play is sometimes stopped to gently shoo them out of harm’s way. I have played around the deer many times. I do that because I am confident I can control my swing. I have found that the deer don’t move unless you are about six feet from them. Then they slowly walk away. It is rare to ever see a deer running on the course. During the hot afternoon, they rest under the shade trees. As the evening approaches, the deer predictably migrate to the practice putting green area, just feet from the snack bar and pro shop.
They have learned to coexist with humans. And they have been there for years say long-time Marshall Canyon golfers. Jeff Burkhart, professor emeritus of biology at the University of La Verne, says the deer are black tails, a sub-species of the mule deer. “They are active in areas where you have an overlap between forests and open areas.” Hence, they call Marshall Canyon Golf Course, with its wide open foraging grass area and immediate access to canyon forested areas, home.
Veteran Marshall Canyon golfers pretend to ignore them, just as they pretend to ignore the spectacular picturesque mountain hillside views. In reality, these golfers play at Marshall Canyon because it is a beautiful place. They aren’t tourists, but they do feel really connected to nature on this course. And beware where you step. Rattlesnakes play the course too. Course signage warns you of them. There is no signage regarding the deer; they are permanent residents to be treated with respect. I used to take golf lessons with Kenny Murray, former Marshall Canyon golf course manager and golf professional. He told me that while there are no “official” rules on how to deal with the animals, there are five unwritten rules for a round of golf at a course where the deer experience is part of making par: “Don’t touch them, don’t try to pet them, don’t hit them, don’t kill them, and don’t take them home.”
La Verne’s Mountain Lions
While Marshall Canyon may be a safe haven for the deer as far as human encounters go, their main predator roams close by in the foothills. And while the Griffith Park area in Los Angeles gains much news attention for mountain lion sightings, cougar visits are also frequent in La Verne’s foothill neighborhoods. Some wildlife biologists say they have gone an entire career without seeing a cougar in the wild. I have seen three in four years, all in my La Verne neighborhood. Two have been in my yard. One in retrospect was too close. About six years ago, when my sister Rebecca was in elementary school, my mother and she were leaving for school. In the driveway, near the parked motor home, was a rabbit, frozen in place. Unlike most wild rabbits, this one was not running away as the two approached. Just then, a mountain lion jumped out from under the motor home, pounced on the poor rabbit, grabbed it by the neck, and bounded away. It happened in a second and took place in front of them. It was unsettling, to say the least. “It is just not that unusual for mountain lions to be seen in La Verne,” says Bickford. Many of my neighbors have security cameras. Very recently, my across the street neighbor told me her security camera picked up a mountain lion in her driveway. I asked her how big it was. Her answer, “Huge!” I asked her where it went. “Into your yard.” All I could say was, “Of course. Everything lives in my yard.”
Coyotes in My Yard
These are the real neighborhood villains. They steal cats and small dogs from back yards, causing profound grief for people when their pets disappear. The coyotes are everywhere. I remember seeing them on the grassy areas of Pilgrim Place in downtown Claremont when my dad picked me up at 3 p.m. from Sycamore School in Claremont.
They roam in packs and have learned not to howl. They used to, but not anymore. They only break their silence when a fire engine races by on Baseline Road. It is then that I realize how very close they are in my yard. I used to be scared of them. My fear started when my dad caught three coyotes stalking me when I was a young boy. I was playing in my yard, and my dad thought he saw movement where our yard drops off to the canyon. There they were: three coyotes, hunched down, eyeing me from 20 yards. When my dad came upon them, they ran. Now, I am the one who chases them in a futile attempt to keep them away from our yard and to protect the feral cats that roam our area. My dad does the same, calling himself Don Quixote from “Man of La Mancha.” I hope they get the message to stay away. My dad says we are “tilting at windmills.” We are outnumbered.
Rattlesnakes in Plain Sight
There is nothing quite as unsettling as coming upon any snake in your yard, especially if it is a rattlesnake. In four years, we have had four rattlesnakes. On our first encounter, our outside cat “Hissy” had cornered a snake against our house. We discovered it when we returned from church and exited our car. The loud continuous rattle sound—from 50 feet away pierced the air. We thought it was a broken water pipe. Nothing was in sight; but the cat was like a sentinel in front of ground foliage. Behind the foliage, appropriately named, “Snake Grass,” was our house foundation. My dad shooed the cat away, took a hoe and gently parted the plants. There, in front of us, was an angry, coiled rattlesnake. He jumped back. My mom roused the neighborhood fire department. Two firemen came, armed with a snake pole. One deftly hooked the snake, all the while saying it was their third rattlesnake capture of the day. Then he cut off its head, putting the severed head in a can for safe removal to keep other’s from being harmed. Then the fireman extended the headless snake body to me. I guess he thought I would back away. Instead, I grabbed the still moving snake and proceeded to tease my sister. It was with me the rest of the day.
My dad said he didn’t feel right about the rattlesnake being killed. He ordered a snake catching pole for himself online—the longest one he could find. It came in handy for our next three encounters, the last being a four-foot rattlesnake that I came upon last year at the bottom of our porch stairs. It was stretched out right where I could step on it. It wasn’t moving out of the way. Its seven tail rattles, one for every year of its life, are etched in my memory. We thought a snake could be in the area; a feral cat had died from a mysterious injury that my mother thought was a snake bite. Also, a neighbor in an adjoining yard thought he heard a snake’s rattle. With these warnings, we were wary.
I’m the one who discovered the snake. I came bounding down the porch stairs and nearly stepped on it. My dad drove up just then. As he climbed out of his car, I handed him the snake pole. He studied the rattlesnake for several minutes. It was inches from entering our basement. If it did that, we feared that it could appear in the house through an opening that only a snake could find. My sister and mother stood way back from my father. No one said a thing. No one thought to turn on the phone video. We were frozen. Suddenly, my dad jammed the pole’s pinchers under the snake in the only exposed place it gave him. That resting snake instantly became a monster! It repeatedly bit the pole, but by then my dad had a firm grip on it and hoisted it up. From four feet away, I starred at it as my dad deftly lowered it into an empty green waste bin. My dad would not let my mother call the fire department, even though Engine 102, coincidentally, at that moment, was cruising up our street. He said he didn’t want to see another one killed. My mother symbolically put a heavy brick on top of the large plastic can.
My father texted biologist David Bickford, who immediately answered back and came to our house. He opened the green waste lid, and lovingly said, “Sweetheart.” So, the snake gained a name and a personality. Somehow, the name “Sweetheart” calmed my family members down. Bickford transferred the rattlesnake with his snake pole to a plastic crate and took it to a remote place to be released.
Every story seems to have a codicil. This one certainly does. At the October Claremont Village Venture, my father met our neighbor Corey Calaycay, a Claremont City Council member. The two started talking about neighborhood wild animals. Calaycay then relayed his August encounter with a person in an official capacity releasing rattlesnakes on Baseline Road in the canyon area. He told the employee the release of dangerous animals in residential areas was against the law. That time sequence seemed to explain how a 7-year-old rattlesnake suddenly appeared in our yard. The snake would have been released less than 200 yards from our house and would have sensed the presence of yard water in the hot September heat. I hope the Council member’s reprimand to this person is memorable to ensure that this catch and release action doesn’t happen again.
From deer roaming on the Marshall Canyon golf course, to mountain lions and coyotes in yards, to occasional venomous rattlesnakes lurking in residential areas, to black bears rummaging through trash bins and climbing fruit trees, wildlife can be spotted in northern La Verne and have become a normalized part of living near the hills. Biologist David Bickford says that the drought has caused animals to exit the mountain areas in search of water and food. Those resources are located in the area where the canyons meet the residential areas in northern La Verne. And while residents are accustomed to seeing rabbits, squirrels, skunks and possums in their neighborhoods, Bickford says, “I think people know now that there’s more than coyotes in their backyards.”