Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Coyote Beautiful

I work at Los Angeles Pierce College, a community college in Woodland Hills, California. We're near the western edges of Los Angeles County, but definitely in an urban area. Warner Center, with its high-rise office buildings and hotels, is blocks away. Various post-WWII neighborhoods surround us. But the school is on approximately 430 acres--that's a little less than a mile square. At least 2/3 of that is "The Farm" or undeveloped.

Pierce was founded as an agricultural college for men returning from World War II. Women were admitted years later. The bathroom facilities in the older buildings reflect this afterthought.

The amount of open land has a nice benefit: wildlife. We see hawks, rabbits and other animals in addition to the cows, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs which are raised here. I know that the Ag Department--particularly the sheep unit--wouldn't be thrilled with this, but I had a handsome coyote cross my path as I drove to work this morning and it made my morning. It trotted across Stadium Way to head up the hill to the Art Department. I noticed what looked like a well-worn path as I pulled my car over to watch. I couldn't get the camera out fast enough, or I would have photographed it as it headed through the brush.

When Ace lived on campus, we often would hear the coyotes sing in the evening. If sirens went off, there was a guarantee of harmonizing coming from the dark. Occasionally, I would see one stalking small mammals in the field with the cows during the day or catch sight of a small pack of them as I drove home after dark. Once, I was walking Ace out to the big field along Victory and he suddenly stopped, planting all four feet with his body slightly crouched--ready to spring away to safety if necessary--and he swung his head to see around me. From behind the round pen trotted a coyote. It was about 11 a.m., so I was surprised by the audacity of a mid-day stroll for what I consider a nocturnal animal. He moved right in front of us to the gate we were approaching and went on through to the field. For the entire time we walked the perimeter of that field, Ace kept one eye on that coyote. The coyote was stalking gophers, which is a useful occupation for a coyote.

I read recently of a town in Oregon which put a bounty on coyotes back in the 20s or 30s. It was then over run by rats and mice. If Pierce succeeded in getting rid of its coyotes, the campus would be overrun with mice, gophers, and feral cats. Although illegal, people dump unwanted animals here all the time.

Soon after I took the job I have at Pierce, I discovered that the school's namesake, Dr. Clarence Pierce, had been from the same small town in upstate New York where I was raised. Delaware County was one of the largest dairy producers in the state when I grew up and it would only have been a bigger farming area at the end of the 19th Century when Dr. Pierce and his brothers left for California. (The Pierce Brothers ran a successful string of mortuaries out here, some of which still bear their name.) The town I'm from had about 4000 people, about half of whom were in K-12 when I was going to school. It's much smaller than the population of the college which currently enrolls about 18,000 students. I'd say the odds of this connection across 3000 miles of country were fairly small.

While Pierce still maintains an agriculture and horticulture program, it is shrinking. Control of the farm is being frittered away to subcontractors who might bring in cash rather that implementing programs which would increase student experience on a working farm or ranch. A few years ago, there were proposals to build an office building or a golf course on the large piece of open land at the corner of DeSoto Avenue and Victory Boulevard. This was stopped, and I think a college president lost his position over it, but I believe it is only a matter of time before all farming operations cease and the land is leased or sold. It would be a loss to the community and to that family of coyotes which keeps the pests under control.

No comments: