TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Disclaimer: This week’s column is slightly more about reptiles and slightly less about horses.
Reptiles are kinda low on the scale of animal intelligence. You wonder how much they perceive of their world. Are they aware of, say, horses? Horses are surely aware of them.
Some years back, I was breaking a colt who was hyper-aware of every potential horse-eating being on the road. Garbage cans? Possibly lethal. Large rocks? Obvious death traps. Anything moving? Run for your life! We almost came to grief one morning as we turned down the canal road, me, as ever, scanning way ahead to scope out the next looming catastrophe, when I spotted the ultimate scary scenario: a walking rock! Yep, a large slider turtle was creeping across the road. It would have absolutely blown my horse’s mind, so we quickly turned and went the other way until the turtle vanished.
Another time I was riding a reliable pony along a different canal, bareback, just enjoying the day, when we suddenly surprised a gator sunning on the bank. We were all three equally startled. The gator flipped into the canal, the pony fell to his knees, and I grabbed mane. We all took a collective deep breath (except the gator, who was underwater) and went on with our lives.
Recently I housed some large sulcata tortoises in a pen next to my horses’ pasture. The horses enjoyed spending time watching them creep about. Did the turtles watch them back? Not that I could see.
And then this.
Some weeks ago, a friendly neighbor called.
“Did you know there’s a gator in your pond?” he asked.
A gator? In my pond? How could a gator get into my pond? He’d have to climb two fences. How big of a gator? “Just a baby,” FN said. “About two feet long.”
I walked around the pond. No gator. I told my friend Bobbie about it, so every day when we rode, we studied the pond. No gator. One day we went out with bait, a line, a hook and a net.
“Here, gator, gator, gator,” I called, throwing out the line and slowly reeling it in.
Nothing. A Loch Ness monster of a gator.
And then, one day, we spotted the gator, swimming on the far side of the pond. The geese were out of the water of course, making a fuss.
“I saw it,” I told FN. “How do you go about catching a gator?”
“They’re afraid of people,” he said. “I’ve seen him sunning on the bank, but when I walk over, he runs back into the water. You need to go out at night with a flashlight. They’re curious about lights at night.”
No way in heck was I walking around my pond at night with a flashlight trying to catch a gator. We scanned the pond.
“That’s him,” FN pointed at an inch of something sticking up. “Those are his eyes.”
It didn’t look like anything. The horses stood just on the other side of the fence, eating green palm fronds. The gator watched them. When they moved, he shifted his position. They didn’t notice.
I grabbed my long net on a pole and walked around the pond… very slowly. As I neared the inch of maybe-his-eyes, they vanished.
“There he is,” FN pointed.
Sure enough, the gator was now further out in the pond, definitely a gator, his whole head on the surface, watching… me!
“Here, gator, gator, gator,” I coaxed.
FN’s wife came out to watch. I told her, “Get me a baggie of dry dog food.”
I stood still and watched the gator. He floated and watched me. I tossed bits of dog food onto the water. He seemed interested. I threw them closer to shore. He followed. I threw them on the edge of the pond. He lunged up a couple of times, then dodged back into the water. I was afraid to try netting him, because if I missed, I’d scare him away.
“You’re sure he can’t bite my feet?” I asked FN.
“His mouth’s too small. He probably only has baby teeth,” he replied.
Still, baby gator teeth were probably pretty sharp.
“I have a cast net,” FN said, and left to find it.
His wife left to get more dog food and also some leftover cooked chicken from a few days ago. Gator and I watched one another. He seemed to like me.
“Here, gator, gator, gator,” I crooned.
FN climbed over the fence with his cast net. His wife handed me a new baggie of dog food and a soggy paper towel with small pieces of chicken.
I threw dog food. Gator watched. FN threw his cast net a couple of times, missing and scaring the gator away, but he kept coming back. Finally, the gator got closer to shore again. I lined up the pieces of chicken at the edge. He seemed interested, or maybe just curious. I stepped left. Keeping his eyes on me, FN edged in from the right, threw the net — the gator vanished.
But this time, he’d dodged backward right into the net.
“I got him!” FN hollered, reeling in the net.
Sure enough, the net came up wrapped around the thrashing gator.
Great. Now what?
FN knelt on the net and carefully got his hands around the gator’s snout. The gator grunted in distress. FN’s wife found some black electrical tape, and we worked our hands under the net. I taped the gator’s mouth shut, then got a towel to wrap around his head. He hissed. I gently stroked him, between his eyes, and he settled.
FN, his wife, the gator and I walked to the nearby canal. I unwrapped the towel, FN set him down on the edge and held his snout, I pulled off the tape, and the gator vanished into his new home in a flash.
“Have a nice life,” I called after him. “And don’t come back.”
“I’ve heard they come back in two weeks,” FN remarked.
“Nah, he won’t be back,” I said. “Why would he leave this great big canal to come back to my little pond? And he’d have to cross two roads. We’ve seen the last of Mr. Gator.”
Two weeks later, Bobbie and I were riding, I glanced at the pond. Sighed deeply.
I was going to need FN and his cast net again.