Memphis Downtowner - March 2009

Wild About Downtown

Devin Greaney 0000-00-00 00:00:00

Iit’s a cold, drizzly January day on a nice residential street in Memphis. The rain picks up, becomes a torrent, and people take cover. When the rain calms, they step outside and are greeted by … snakes — thousands of them — which appear to have fallen from the sky. People look around in disbelief as the tangled snakes slither around. One man gathers some up in a bottle for future proof of this unexplainable event. It seems a great premise for sci-fi, but on Jan. 15, 1877, this reportedly happened in a two-block area on Vance between Orleans and Lauderdale and became part of Memphis lore. A bottle of snakes described as dark brown — almost black — and 12 to 18 inches long were delivered to the Weekly Public Ledger newspaper office. Soon the story was picked up by Monthly Weather Review, The New York Times, and Scientific American. Did a tornado scoop up a bunch of snakes from a swamp and drop them? Sounds plausible, but this was January. Who knows? As strange as that story is, perhaps more unusual is the wildlife that lurks in the shadows of Downtown Memphis. No, not the same biodiversity as in, say, Meeman-Shelby Forest, but the area is home to a menagerie of critters that goes beyond the grizzlies and tigers that inhabit FedExForum. Through the passage of time, animals have appeared and disappeared. The Memphis Pink Palace Museum displays the remains of an Ice Age mastodon discovered in the 1970s along Nonconnah Creek between Perkins and Getwell. And when was the last time a wolf walked along the banks of the Wolf River that empties into the Mississippi just above Mud Island? “Wolves were extirpated from this area probably in the 1800s,” says biologist Cathy Justis, education director of the Wolf River Conservancy. “They used to be here along with bears, elk, and bison, but there was a bounty on wolves until the 1940s. Today, the last wolves in the lower 48 live in the West.” Old Memphis newspaper articles warned of panthers and bears terrorizing residents just outside of town. One article even suggested using Gatling guns in case of a panther attack. Justis, in addition to teaching about the ecology of the Wolf River floodplain, has an M. S. in zoology and answers hundreds of wildlife calls each year. She is among a number of people in the area — including professors, wildlife officers, and wildlife rehabilitators — with a good feel for wildlife species that make Memphis home in spite of — or in some cases because of — urbanization. Take the raccoon. The state animal of Tennessee is at home among people and their garbage. They move catlike, backs arched, along city streets, alleys, and drain pipes. Is there anywhere they don’t go? “I’d be surprised to see them riding the elevators of The Peabody!” Justis jokes while acknowledging that raccoons are quite at home in urban environments. “Coons and opossums are secretive and nocturnal. They and gray squirrels are very intelligent, adaptable, and not too picky about what they eat. They are called generalists. Raccoons and gray squirrels are cavity-nesters. They often seek hollowed-out cavities of dead trees in old-growth forests to make homes. Because Downtown is lacking in dead trees, attics can be the next best thing.” Grey squirrels are the easiest wildlife to spot Downtown. Just head to the parks and meet them. The story goes that they were brought to Court Square Park in 1842 from Bolivar, TN, in an effort to “add animation.” From Bolivar? Weren’t there squirrels in Memphis? Evidently not. From wherever their ancestors came, today’s squirrels clearly do add animation to the park, scampering up trees, eating food thrown by people, and chasing each other over grass and concrete. Believe it or not, they even had their moment of controversy. Architect Gene Strong toured Court Square in June 1972 and remarked to a newspaper reporter that the park had become a “cesspool.” Among other things, Strong suggested removing the squirrels along with the pigeons from the park. A trip to Martyrs Park on a summer evening reveals a home to red foxes, which have also been seen lurking after dark in the South Main district. “Foxes are looking for garbage and rodents,” says Justis. “They also love persimmons, which grow well in Memphis. Animals that are ‘generalists’ — that is, the less picky eaters — tend to fare better than ‘specialists’ under the various stressors of an urban environment.” Martyrs’ foxes seem fairly comfortable living among people — and especially comfortable with the man who brings them chicken each evening as the sun sets on the Mississippi River. It may seem a strange place for the bright-red canines to call home, but the river is actually one of wildlife’s best friends. “The woods along the Wolf River and the Mississippi are wildlife corridors,” Justis says. “If you add water — even if it is just a bird bath — you’ll get wildlife.” The banks, trees, bushes, and dense undergrowth provide a near-perfect home for the mammals and reptiles that do just fine without human intervention. Herbivores can hide from carnivores. Both can hide from humans. Of course when “prey food” such as squirrels and mice show up, predators such as bobcats, foxes, and coyotes soon get the message that food is at the ready. A lot of garbage and overgrown yards attract rats and mice. And if the garbage and overgrown yards are near green spaces such as creeks, woods, or fields, snakes take notice. “Snakes will be found wherever you have a big rodent population, such as in a vacant house or lot near any kind of natural habitat,” Justis says. “But snakes do us a favor by keeping the rodent population down.” As for venomous snakes, the Midsouth has four species: water moccasins, copperheads, timber rattlers, and the rarely seen pigmy rattlers. Even inconspicuous green spaces can be wildlife havens. “If you look at an aerial photo of Downtown, anything shaded green can be a habitat,” Justis says. She points to 10 acres of woods near her office at Walnut Grove and Tillman. “Foxes like to den up in places like this. These areas can also be homes to feral cats, a big problem, especially when they are living in a wooded area. It’s a hard existence for them, but they are very efficient predators of any ground animals and birds.” Whenever man and beast interact, there is potential for conflict. Three years ago, alligators were spotted at McKellar Lake in South Memphis. Certainly gators make for an interesting sight — but not to water skiers! Rabies is rare but still a public health concern, and any mammal is a potential carrier. In 2008, the Tennessee Department of Health recorded two rabid bats in Shelby County. Dogs and cats are part of the human versus wildlife conflict, too. Like people, coyotes are cat lovers. They just love them in a different way. For many homeowners, there comes a time to call the likes of Alan Adams, owner of American Wildlife Removal. Licensed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, his team of specialists humanely traps and removes unwanted or potentially dangerous raccoons, squirrels, skunks, snakes, and other small animals that pitter-pat and scratch in the attics, crawl spaces, and basements of Memphis while attempting to make your home their home. His motto: If wildlife gets too close for comfort, call us. His bright green truck makes great marketing, but he says animals are starting to recognize his truck and will hide when he pulls around. “They are smarter than people think!” he says. “We used to have a lot of nutrias here,” Adams remembers, referring to the cat-sized rodents. “I don’t know where they went.” Today, he’s beaver hunting. He pulls around to a pond in the middle of Harbor Town, gets out of the truck, and looks for telltale signs of beavers, such as the gnawed trees he sees along the pond. He Finds a hole about the width of a grapefruit behind the manmade pond where beavers once lived. Stomping his foot on the hollow portion of earth sounds like a base drum. Beavers are not out to attack people or eat their pets; they are strictly vegetarian. The problem comes when the large rodents burrow tunnels from the pond. The tunnels eventually cave in, undermining banks and causing costly repairs. Adams also remembers beavers chewing through wiring at the boat docks on Mud Island. The idyllic image that comes to mind when it comes to urban trapping is: Trapper takes animal out to the country, opens the cage next to a gurgling creek by a country road, and the animal scampers off to a bucolic playground in the woods never to see a human again. And that is the case with squirrels. Adams takes them at least 10 miles from where they are captured and lets them go. Snakes get sent into the wild, too. “In Tennessee, it’s against the law to kill snakes,” Adams notes. “Personally, I like them.” But there is a darker side. “Beavers, foxes, and skunks have to be euthanized,” he says. “The danger of catching a rabid skunk and letting it loose into a healthy animal population is too great. Besides, it is state law. Any trapper who says he doesn’t euthanize any animals is ether lying or breaking the law.” In 1989, residents of Central Gardens had a coyote and her pups running through the neighborhood. An interesting conversation topic amongst neighbors, but the coyotes were becoming too familiar with people and their pets. Yes, coyotes eat rats — but also toy poodles. That year, the pups were found by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and euthanized. The following February, the mother coyote was shot on Harbert Avenue while her pup got away, making some people happy that their pets were safe, but others upset that this noble creature was killed in front of her pup. Dave Gabbard, Information and Education Coordinator for TWRA Region 1 Office in Jackson, TN, says there was no way to make everyone happy. But TWRA does strike a balance between killing Animals that may come into human contact and trying to calm residents’ perceived dangers about wild animals. “We get a lot of phone calls that there’s a fox, bobcat, or coyote in the area, and the caller is afraid,” Adams says. “Foxes don’t attack people; bobcats don’t attack people; and there is one record of a coyote attacking a kid in San Diego, and that’s it. They are generally okay as long as you leave them alone.” The largest of the native animals that still roam the Memphis area are the deer, replacing elk, panther, and buffalo of days gone by. Chad Harden is a deer biologist at TWRA’s Jackson office. “Even in urban settings, we prefer to leave deer alone and let them fend for themselves unless there is a public safety risk or damage to property,” he says. “In those circumstances, we may immobilize and relocate the deer using a chemical dart gun. I also want to emphasize that ‘orphaned’ fawns are very rarely true orphans. A doe will routinely leave her fawn while she feeds. When someone ‘rescues’ a fawn, most of the time they are actually kidnapping it from its mother.” In Shelby County, Andy Tweed is one of three county wildlife officers with TWRA. “Recently, there was a deer at South Bluffs between the gates,” he says. “Several years ago, we had one jump onto the loading dock at the Main Post Office at Third and G.E. Patterson. Employees locked it in a janitor’s closest.” And he remembers one reaching the third floor of a parking garage Downtown. Depending on where in Shelby County deer are captured, they are taken to either Presidents Island — most of which is undeveloped — or Meeman-Shelby Forest. Some millennia ago, our ancestors were no doubt sitting around the fires telling animal stories. Despite the change in culture and landscape over the centuries, the love for swapping animal legends has not changed. Justis has heard just about everything, including anecdotes about mountain lions living in the Midsouth. She takes a zoologist’s objective eye and points out that nothing has been confirmed, nothing has been documented. Adams has heard those anecdotes, too, but his objectivity is tempered with a bit of doubt. “I have heard too many stories!”

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