Thursday, April 7, 2011

Animals on the road

Probably since the invention of the automobile, and certainly since they have been able to exceed the pace of a running man, cars and trucks have posed a hazard to creatures trying to get-by on their own feet.  Even so, I have found that animals are much more nimble than autos, and the SAFEST course of action for a driver, is to maintain their course, and rely upon the animal to get out of the way.  Self-preservation is a strong motivator, the animals are (usually) more maneuverable, it is impossible to predict the animal's actions, and sudden changes by a driver create a hazard to other drivers.

A woman of Apache extraction had this view of auto/animal collisions:  You see, the highway department mows the grass from time-to-time, and rabbits love the new tender growth.  But, they are naturally nocturnal to avoid predators.  So, mother rabbits teach the baby rabbits where to find the tender grass, but to stay away from the roads.  Eventually, the young rabbit gets closer and closer to the road (helping himself to a tender meal), when suddenly there is a noise and a flash of lights in his eyes!  His body unleashes a load of adrenaline, and he runs back to safety thinking 'what was that?'.  But, also noticing that rush of adrenaline was pretty cool.  Pretty soon, he starts hanging-out near the road with other young rabbits, seeking another rush of adrenaline.  But, the rush just isn't as good, so they get closer and closer to the road.  Eventually, they take turns running in front of the cars to get as close as they can, so they can get ever-better "fix" of adrenaline.  Eventually, he gets too close, and doesn't survive the experience.  So, don't feel bad about hitting a rabbit on the road; it's just another junkie rabbit over-dosing.

As a young driver (about 17), I once drove a country road, early in the morning.  This particular day, cotton-tailed rabbits were extraordinarily abundant.  And every few feet, one would run across the road (another rabbit trying to get his fix).  Well, after a while, I decided to 'try' to hit one of the rabbits by swerving the car in the direction they were running.  There were no other cars on the road, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.  After a dozen or more attempts to hit one of the rabbits, I got tired of the game, and resumed driving safely in one lane.  Just then, a rabbit jumped out of the brush...and ran directly into the car.

Once, a couple of friends and I were driving, at night, in Brewster county.  Brewster County is huge, over 6,000 square miles.  And, it is very sparsely populated; about 9,500 people.  At night, the roads become playgrounds for hundreds of animals...but especially deer and rabbits.  We had cut-short a camping trip, and were planning to drive through-the-night to get home.  My brother-in-law was on the floor of the van in a sleeping-bag planning to catch a couple of hours sleep before taking-over as driver.  I was navigating from the passenger-seat.  A jackrabbit ran in front of the van...the driver hit the brakes hard.  Have you ever noticed how nylon has a certain "slippery-ness"?  Well, the above-mentioned sleeping-bag had a woven nylon outer shell.  And poor Lee might as well have been lying on Teflon, as he came sliding forward at a high rate of speed.  The "dog house" (an enclosure over the engine on front-engine, rear-wheel-drive vans) did nothing to slow him, in fact, it acted as a ramp, and he didn't come to a stop until his feet were on the windshield (good thing he wasn't laying with his head facing forward).  We pulled off the road to survey the situation, and get everyone back where they belonged...and quickly learned that life-threatening desperate measures still had not saved the poor rabbit.

If ever there was an animal that could out-maneuver a speeding vehicle, it has to be the Purple Martin.  The Purple Martin is the largest of the North American Swallows.  The feed on insects, and are amazing aerialists.  They can dive and change direction almost faster than the eye can follow.  So, it is no surprise that I gave little (if any) thought to a rather large group of (maybe 30) Purple Martins feasting on a mass of insects buzzing above a highway in Nebraska.  An unfortunately member of this group swooped in front of our car (apparently not wishing to lose a meal to our windshield).  There was a reverberating "bong" as the bird was knocked from the sky by our radio antennae!

There is not necessarily a correlation between an animal's brain size, and their intelligence.  Parrots, for example, are thought by some to have a cognitive ability comparable to a 3-year-old human...and parrots have a very small skull.  But, apparently, there is some significance to the size of the brain relative to the animal's body size.  Take, for example the Guineafowl.  These birds have a large body and very small head.  They mostly eat insects, but have a reputation for killing snakes.  Therefore, they are popular in some farming communities and are frequently allowed to run wild.  One day, while driving down a paved road at about 35mph, I saw a Guineafowl in the road in front of me.  Now surely, a bird capable of killing snakes is smart enough to get out of the way of an on-coming vehicle.  Unfortunately, this bird was what we used-to-call "slow".  It apparently didn't notice the car until it was too late.  Just as I lost sight of it behind the hood of the truck, I saw it raise its head, its eyes as large as an Anime I'm confident that it at least saw what hit him.

On rare occasions, it seems that the animal wins.  Back in the 1980's, Dad was living in California, and driving one of the earlier (small) Toyota Corollas.  He would frequently take weekend trips to Yosemite, or Yellowstone.  On one of his trips, he found himself leaving the park after dark.  As he rounded a corner, he encountered a herd of Bison (Buffalo), standing in the road.  He slammed-on his brakes to stop as-quickly-as-possible, and found himself sliding into a very large bull.  The animal seemingly aware of the car, lifted its hind foot, and the car came to a stop partly underneath (but not touching) the bull.  As if pronouncing some kind of judgement, the Bison forcefully put-his-foot-down...onto the hood of the car.  Then, the entire heard sauntered away.