The Sonoran Desert is one of the most diverse deserts in the world, and its inhabitants must work to keep it ecologically balanced. Each mammal, bird, insect or plant has a connection to another for its survival in this harsh climate. The more knowledge you have about their habits, the better you can coexist with them.
As a pet owner, it is important to know that your pet could fall prey to desert animals, so diligence is key. The veterinarians and staff at Encanto Pet Clinic in Tucson, Arizona want to keep your dogs, cats and other animals safe, while still enjoying the beauty of our desert. We spoke to Dee Kidd, director of the Tucson Wildlife Center about things we can do to prevent dangerous encounters with wildlife.
• Keep pets on leash or inside. Kidd says, if pet owners have come from other places where they were able to safely have their dogs off leash or their cats, they must create a new mindset in the desert. “The [top –level] predators are looking for a free meal, so we ‘Zoners need to keep them out of the wildlife environment. Coyotes can jump up to 12 feet; they are unbelievable jumpers,” says Kidd. “Even if you have small dogs or cats in a fenced yard, they are not safe. Hawks and owls will swoop down to attempt to pick up an animal.” Expandable leashes are not as controllable – use short leads or harnesses. Consider keeping your cat on a harness, or creating a screened enclosure for outside play. However, supervision is a must – mountain lions and other predators have been known to rip through screened porches to get to a small animal. Birds should never be left alone in an open area. Kidd recalls one story of an owl snatching a parrot right off the shoulder of its owner.
• No bell prize. Those little bells are cute on the collars of cats or small dogs, and they let you know your cat’s location. But outside, it also lets predators know of your whereabouts and incites curiosity.
• Stop the attraction. Animals will seek out food and water sources. Your garbage cans are a smorgasbord for small creatures such as raccoons and skunks, but also can be attractive to bears and javelina. Pet food and water dishes, bird feeders, compost piles, recycling bins with unwashed plastic containers, and even the residue on barbeque grills can be a potential food source. “This is a big thing,” says Kidd. “When you are feeding the birds, the hawks and owls come in. The rodents come in, and they attract the snakes.”
• Stay secure. Cover water drain holes and the bottoms of gates with wire mesh to keep out snakes. Check routinely for signs of animals digging under fences. Keep doors and windows closed. Even a small crack can be enough for scorpions and poisonous spiders to enter your home and find dark spots to hide. Dogs and cats could surprise them by sniffing in corners, under furniture – or in the shoes you left by the door.
• During the monsoon season, pay particular attention to wet areas in your yard or on paths. Poisonous Colorado River Toads stay near these areas and can be a threat to inquisitive dogs and cats. Carry a flashlight when walking at night to watch for Gila Monsters, snakes and other dangerous animals.
• Remove poisons. If you have a rodent problem and leave out mouse bait or rat poison, it can have a devastating effect on wildlife – and perhaps your pet. Hawks, owls and other predators – including your dog or cat – could chew or eat a dying rodent, and ingest the rat poison. The poison can follow the food chain, involving larger predators or carrion eaters.
• Learn about them. Knowledge is power. Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to learn more about our animal neighbors. Teach your dog basic commands such as sit, stay and come, so you can call him away from a threatening situation. Teach him to avoid snakes instead of antagonizing them.
• Leave them alone. If you see an animal that might be a threat to your pet’s safety, put more distance between yourself and the animal. Pick up small dogs or cats. However, running away is usually not the best plan; it could cause certain animals to give chase. Some animals, like the javelina, are not aggressive, but will advance when they are trapped or if they have young ones to protect. Should a javelina or other animal become trapped in your yard or home, open gates and doors to allow it safe passage to the outside. “We are being watched more than we know,” says Kidd. “Many large predators hide away, and we can walk by them without knowing. We need to be aware.”