I’m moving to California next year and I’m worried. I’ve visited the US several times, and every time I get to confront a new kind of weird or dangerous animal. Last year I was driving through Northampton, Massachusetts, on a Tuesday afternoon, and I saw a bear crossing the road. A BEAR! On a Tuesday! Without even a glance at us it waltzed off through someones garden, presumably in a hurry to meet it’s date at the annual ball.
Where I grew up, in New Zealand, dangerous animals are not allowed. (They can’t get visas.) We have no native land mammals, no snakes, nothing poisonous (except for one tiny spider that no-one has ever seen) – it’s about the safest place on earth. Except for these terrifying insects called wetas. They have horrible great heads like hippopotamuses, and spiked legs and stripes like a tiger. They can grow up to 6 inches long. My mother, who could stare down a bear with no problem, once put on her boot without looking and there was a big weta inside. It’s the only time I ever saw her scream. My wimp best friend, who is now 60 years old, will not go to bed without stripping the bed of it’s covers to check for wetas. This savage creature haunts the dreams of New Zealanders. It even inspired the name of Weta Productions, the special effects company that made all the scary monsters for Lord of the Rings.
But there is nothing in New Zealand that can actually harm you.
Not so Vermont. There I was lucky enough to see a family of beavers living in a stream. Everyone knows that they like building dams, but I didn’t realise just how obsessive they are. Apparently they simply can’t stand the sound of running water – it’s like a neurosis. Every time a beaver hears a stream tinkling away, minding its own business, it feels compelled to bite down a whole forest and dam up the stream. When I hear a pretty little stream I feel like meditating. I don’t want to bite trees. I think there is something wrong with an animal who, every time it hears a stream, wants to bite a tree. Beavers are weird.
My friend who lives near the beavers told me that one night he saw a mountain lion at night just ten meters away from him, looking at him. He didn’t actually die of a heart attack, but he was younger then.
Speaking of mountain lions, I just read this amazing true story about an old guy with an incredibly plucky wife. They were walking in the woods in the national park when suddenly a mountain lion pounced on her husband and started chewing on his head. The wife didn’t run away or anything. She attacked the lion with a stick, trying to get it to let go of her husband’s head. But the lion wouldn’t let go. So the husband, from inside the lions mouth, started giving her suggestions such as, ‘take the pencil out of my jacket pocket and poke it in the eye – that might make it let go.” This incredible woman then attempted to poke a live and hungry lion in the eye with a pencil. At first it didn’t seem to be working but eventually the lion got the message that it wasn’t welcome and took off, and the husband later recovered.
I’m left with this image of this man with a lion chewing on his head, calmly explaining to his wife which jacket pocket she should look in, and saying, “now select the blue HB grade pencil, no on second thoughts make that green – it will go better with the lions fur. But then again you could use the brown one – that would look very chic.” I know some women who would pay good money to a mountain lion to bite their husband on the head. That couple must be very happy together.
When I lived in England, where all the animals are safely extinct, we didn’t have that sort of problem.
There still are a few scary places in Europe. In January I was staying in Norway with my guitarist friend and his house was full of wild animals. I was kept awake all night by the antics and growling of a savage hampster – small but fierce. I saw what he did to his breakfast and it was not a pretty sight. And in the living room there is a budgie that thought it was a pterodactyl. His name was Romeo and he enjoyed music, swooping about and talking to himself in the mirror. I understand he would like to meet an attractive girl pterodactyl, preferably a non-smoker with a good sense of humor. In the next town, just across the fjord, there were ravens. Thinking about them with their horrid flappy wings and croaking cry makes me come over all ominous. I can just picture them hanging out with the sinister one eyed God, Odin, looking up portents on the internet.
But none of that was actually life threatening. In America everything is so much bigger. One summer I was in Florida, paddling in a canoe on a beautiful lake. I wanted to see an alligator. I’d asked the park ranger if it they were dangerous. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend swimming”, he said. “If a seven foot alligator decided it was hungry and attacked you, you’d probably be able to fight it off, but we have alligators in this lake up to 13 foot long. If you found yourself in the water with one of those you might be in a lot of trouble.”
So we stuck to the canoe, and after half an hour paddling along the picturesque shoreline, we did indeed see an alligator – a very handsome one, about 9 feet long. Big enough to eat us, but not without a struggle – just the right size.
When I go to live in America I’m definitely taking my lion along for protection.