One-Eyed Pancho

Saw the fox again yesterday. It'd been, what? a year? less? Two foxes, really. A mama and her cub. The cub was no baby. When I saw them both running I thought they were two full-grown foxes. Mom went into the trees and the young one, as I now realized, hid behind a bush, checking me out. After a moment, it came out, curious. I called it in the dulcet tone I'd use on a cat or dog I was trying to befriend and it started to move toward me before it changed its mind and went looking for mom. The young fox was beautiful, a sweet baby face. And I wondered how people could "ride to hounds", which, I knew, beyond the pomp of the red jackets and the horns and the fine horses, ended with the dogs tearing the fox to shreds.

No one rides to hounds in this backwater, and anyone who dressed in proper hunting clothes would be the laughing stock of the region. Still, a neighbor shoots foxes he finds in his property because he fears they'd kill I don't know what -- he owns no more livestock than one chicken. We, on the other hand, are pleased to host them because they hunt rats and mice, same reason why we're happy a couple of hawks nest in our trees and feral cats visit our barn.

The beautiful fox cub reminded me that we live among predators. Alligators swim in the bayous nearby, I've seen bears in the woods, and the glorious Florida panther, which I've never seen and hope to one day as long as I'm not its designated lunch, roams in this, one of its vulnerable habitats.

Out west lives the local panther's highland cousin, the mountain lion. At a campsite in Grand Canyon National Park last summer, we learned the showers, which were open at night, were now closing at dusk because a mountain lion had shown up one evening and roared at the tourists, scaring them to death. We live among predators.

We endanger them, of course. Our hunger for land pushes them out of their hunting grounds. And our fear, combined with own hunting instinct, endangers them too. Not long ago, a bear hunting season was declared in Florida because the big guys were coming too close -- or, more likely, we to them. Bears are wonderful creatures and, yes, they are dangerous. All predators are -- bears are omnivorous but they do hunt and push come to shove they'll hunt us.

I've never hunted, though I have no qualms about eating game because it's usually delicious. Humans seldom eat predators, maybe a shark steak here and there. Mostly we join our fellow predators and eat what they do: herbivores. I think we all figured out in prehistory that they are the tastiest. And the least likely to turn around and try to eat us.

It's humbling to live among predators. I know I wouldn't have a chance if one decided I was a meal. Even the foxes, too small to consider me worth stalking, are creatures I must observe from a respectful distance. We can coexist but we're not meant to interact. That we did long ago with the tiny number of species humans domesticated. It amuses me to think my sister's small Yorkies, regular lap dogs, were once wolves. Or that a sweet kitten is related to not just panthers but lordly lions and tigers. On the other hand, no one domesticated alligators.

Actually, that's not true. Once in Colombia, where magical realism is alive and well in the evening news, I saw a TV item about an alligator who'd been raised for much of its life in the city of Barranquilla and roamed freely through the open air market. The camera, aimed at gator height, followed Pancho el Tuerto as he walked around the market, with human feet and legs quickly scrambling out of his way. He. Pancho was a male and he owed his nickname, which means "One-Eyed" to having lost the other one in a fight of amorous motivation, though whether it was competing with another male for a lady gator's affection or a fierce rejection by the lady herself, no one knew.

Pancho, however, was endangered. Someone had stepped on him and he had bitten back. They city meant to catch him, easy with a gator used to humans, and drop him off at a swamp. "He won't survive", said a local interviewed on the news. "He's an urban gator. He's used to eating chicken."

A couple of months later I ran into some journalists from Barranquilla in one of my Latin American assignments and I asked what became of Pancho el Tuerto. They'd heard of him but didn't know what had been his fate. Unlike most predators who share my earthly space, some, like the foxes and bears and panthers, not too far from me, this one I did identify with. I too am an urban gator, some predator blood in my veins but too citified to survive in the wild. I'd lose more than an eye out there. And I couldn't get a decent plate of fried chicken.