Learning from Experience

The ability of an animal to learn cause and effect is astonishing.

Living along the edge of a national forest means that one often hears rifle fire or shotgun blasts. Not just during hunting season, but year round because people use the forest for target shooting.

When I first moved here, target shooting nearby was minimal. I heard it only when outside on my deck or in my yard, and usually just before hunting season in the fall. My dogs at that time – Alaskan Malamutes Maia and Meadow, and eventually Aussie Finn MacCool – would hear the shots, take note, but otherwise ignore them. I could tell they didn’t like hearing the sound, but they weren’t stressed or afraid.

This was also true of Conall when he arrived as a pup four years ago. Soon after, though, significant tracts of nearby timber lands were sold to private parties who quickly closed them to public access. No trespassing signs and fence posts painted with orange appeared almost overnight. Suddenly the local gun-loving population, used to target shooting and hunting on those lands, had to look elsewhere for their sport. The edges of the Payette National Forest, where I and others live in the wildland-urban interface, became the go-to place for local shooting and hunting, just inside the forest boundary. Traffic into the forest swelled (fueled by growing numbers of ATVs), as did the target shooting. In addition to typical hunting rifles, today’s shooters are using high-powered rifles with scopes, automatic and semi-automatic rifles, and occasionally shotguns. The number of bullets fired, and the frequency of the target shooting just a quarter or half mile away increased significantly. So did all the litter – spent bullets and shotgun shells. None of us living so near the national forest thought we were moving next door to a shooting range.

Annoying to me, certainly, but thankfully not too stressful for the dogs.

Until last February.

That’s when a peaceful mid-afternoon walk with my dogs on a snow-covered country road in the middle of our valley was shattered by the pop of a high-powered rifle immediately followed by the crackle of the bullet whizzing past our heads. I was stunned; it took a couple seconds to realize what had happened. Someone was shooting illegally from a vehicle, across a road. But at what? Conall, despite his bright orange vest? Conall immediately tucked his tail and rushed to stand right next to me, nervous and watchful. Finn – shorter and hidden behind a snow berm – seemed unaffected. I quickly went from stunned to pissed, taking photos of the retreating vehicle, trying to chase it down to read the license plate. I reported the incident to the Sheriff’s Office but the shooter was never identified. I learned that shooting coyotes in winter, when they stand out against the snowy backdrop, is considered sport by many locals. I also learned that some ranchers hire professional killers to shoot coyotes they fear will take livestock during late winter/early spring calving and lambing.

Piecing various things together, including the appearance of nine dead coyotes laid out systematically on snow berms down the road over the course of several days, it appears this particular idiot was shooting at coyotes in ranchers’ fields. Sadly, in Idaho it’s legal to kill coyotes, anywhere, anytime, even at night using a spot light so long as you have the landowner’s permission. It’s not legal, however, to shoot from a vehicle or across a road, ever, precisely for the reasons that nearly led to me or Conall being accidentally shot.

What a fucking moron. (Just getting that off my chest. Sorry. It’s still upsetting to think or write about.)

I’ll never be able to erase the pop of the rifle shot and the electricity-like cackle of bullet speeding by our heads. Neither will Conall. Before, my confident, brave Malamute mostly ignored gunfire, although he clearly didn’t like hearing the rapid-firing automatic rifles. I’m certain from his body language that he knows guns are dangerous, deadly, bad, something he figured out instinctively. But now he’s a shaking, quivering mess anytime he hears rifle shots nearby. Not too long ago, a neighbor used a high-powered rifle to try to kill gophers in his field. (Another special sort of fucking moron, that neighbor.) The dogs and I were on the deck when it happened. Conall and I both instantly recognized the sound, the pop, from our close call in February. Conall panicked, retreating inside the house, pacing, drooling. I couldn’t comfort him. I couldn’t assure him we were safe. It took hours for him to settle.

I reached a whole other level of pissed. I could hardly contain my anger. Good thing I don’t own a gun, I remember thinking that night as I tossed and turn, a non-violent, non-confrontational person by nature fantasizing angrily about how I would hurt that neighbor. I cooled off and the next day demanded, by letter, that he stop violating the shooting restriction within our subdivision, getting the property owners association to follow up by issuing a warning.

But the damage has been done. Conall will likely never get past his fear of gunfire. His life, and mine, have been negatively changed by the selfish and negligent behavior of others and their guns.

As this travesty played out in my own life, I realized how similar scenarios must play out with wildlife in the forest. Locals who hunt love to claim there are fewer elk and deer in this part of the forest, blaming gray wolves who started appearing in the early 2000s. They don’t have any scientific research to back their claims. They prefer to rely on myths and hatred borne of fear. They never blame themselves or the increase in their own loud, violent and – to wildlife – frightening activities: firing weapons year round, speeding around on noisy ATVs and dirt bikes in summer and snowmobiles in winter, and more hunters concentrating in a small, easily accessible section of forest during hunting season.

No wonder wildlife have moved farther back into the forest, hiding. I’m sure that like Conall they’ve learned to associate the sound of gunfire with danger and death, the roar of engines with bad humans approaching. I don’t blame them. I wish my dogs and I could also get away from the noise and violence.

[Photo: That moment when the boys stop and listen warily to distant gunfire in the forest. May 2019.]

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