Hunting wild animals – with cameras

Paparazzi naturalists catch nature in the act with strategically placed motion-sensitive cameras.

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    Douglas Fox
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Reno Taini and Chris Wemmer wade through banks of fern and wild blackberry on this February morning. A crisscross of shadows, cast by gnarled oaks, sweeps over their gray heads and denim shirts as they move. They follow a faint trail, just the type that might lead to a stash of trashed beer bottles and Twinkie wrappers – but this is no human trail.

"These are all animal trails," says Mr. Taini, pointing to several tracks that snake across the steep slope. Deer, pigs, and the like have worn these trails – not humans.

Taini and Mr. Wemmer read the trails as they walk, choosing branches to follow. They've come to this wilderness area to trap the animals that travel them – not with snares, but with cameras.

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Wemmer has spent his life learning to think like animals, from Tasmanian devils to Burmese brow-antlered deer; he conducted research at the Conservation and Research Center at the National Zoo in Virginia until retiring in 2004. Today he and his friend Taini search for the right spot to mount a camera so that whatever beasts prowl these hills will voluntarily strike a pose for a photo. They'll leave four cameras here for a month; infrared motion sensors will trigger the shutters.

Biologists have used camera traps for decades to estimate populations of rare animals, such as Asiatic cheetahs. And in February researchers reported a new species of elephant shrew discovered by camera trapping in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania.

The technique has also gone mainstream: Hunters mount cameras on trees to scope out the movements of big-racked bucks months before shooting season starts, and hobbyists like Wemmer use them, motivated by a mishmash of animal voyeurism, artistic portraiture, and sport.

Wemmer and Taini pause where the trail dips into a stream. "This is such a busy intersection," says Wemmer. He holds a camera against the slender waist of a young redwood. "If you put [the camera] here, they're going to stop to drink water with their body long-wise."

After mounting the first camera, they wander in search of three other places to put cameras. At one site Taini marks the ground with a scent to lure animals – a dab of catnip oil. At another he deposits a pungent dollop of Mark June's Flattail Frenzy – beaver castor gland extract – from a brown-glass bottle.

"You can make [animals] go where you want them to go," says Wemmer as he pauses on a grassy slope. On his own land, he once placed a camera on the branch of an oak tree pointing inward toward the trunk. "I got pictures of a mountain lion," he says, "climbing, turning around, sniffing, maybe rubbing on the scent, then going back down."

But Wemmer's proudest "catch" was the mountain beaver – not a buck-toothed, granite-gnawing behemoth, as the name might imply, but an obscure rodent whose primitive kidneys compel it to guzzle water. Last year, Wemmer crawled on his hands and knees into a thicket of coyote brush and blackberry at Point Reyes National Seashore here in northern California to find hollowed corridors that the critters use as highways beneath the brush. Only there did his camera capture their nocturnal movements.

Mountain beavers don't range this far south, but as Taini and Wemmer return to the car, they banter about what else their cameras might capture: wild pig, wood rat, coyote – maybe even mountain lion?

• • •

Camera trapping connotes a look-without-touching ethic of exploring the natural world. But a string of blemished rifle shells that sit on a bookshelf in Taini's Woodside, Calif., home reveal a more complicated story.

Taini used those shells to fell songbirds on the slopes of 18,490-foot Pico de Orizaba in Mexico in 1965. He and Wemmer, both students at San Francisco State University, were working a research expedition organized by their zoology professor, Larry Swan.

The troop of youngsters explored Orizaba up to its summit, collecting wildlife every 1,000 feet. The fine powder shot in Taini's brass shells downed birds without damaging them too much for biological study. They were the first samples collected from Orizaba in a century. Conditions were primitive.

"I had a 5-gallon can of formaldehyde," says Taini. "I'd shoot birds, tag them, and put them right inside this ... can." They supplemented their rice by stewing the meat and bones of the rodents, squirrels, and rabbits whose hides they mounted. "And I think we might have eaten gophers, too," says Wemmer.

Wemmer's career in zoology later took him to Asia and Indonesia. And for 38 years Taini ran an outdoor education program for nearby Daly City's Jefferson Union High School District. He trained students to climb and rappel on ropes in fir trees that stand on the same plot of land where he and Wemmer are placing cameras.

They still carry the ethic that Orizaba distilled out of them 43 years ago, one drop of sweat at a time. "Kids these days don't know how to use their hands," complains Wemmer. "Put pliers or an ax in their hands and they don't know what to do." Taini grunts in assent.

• • •

"Hey, look at that road kill!" says Wemmer. He guides his sedan to an abrupt stop on the road's shoulder as he and Taini are returning, now in March, to see what the cameras have captured.

Wemmer glances at the deer sprawled in gentle repose. "That's been eaten out of the hind end," he says. "Let's go have a look."

What follows is a lesson in scavenger gastronomy. "The eyes have been eaten by owls," says Wemmer. "The entrails were eaten by vultures, and the haunches were eaten out of by coyotes or a bobcat," he says.

Twenty minutes later at the stream crossing, Wemmer and Taini open up camera No. 1. Its 96 photos, each with a time and date stamp, tell the story of who visited and when.

Shortly after 9 one evening, raccoons pick their way up the stream. As one animal walks centerstage, the eyes of another already shine in the darkness behind it. Several minutes later, at 9:20, the two turn back down the stream. A bobcat visits the stream both day and night, sometimes following the stream, other times coming and going from the side. Deer mice and wood rats come and go from the side of the stream.

The photos lend themselves to anthropomorphic interpretation. Here at the stream, two columns of traffic converge at a four-way zoological stop: Raccoons and bobcats travel east-west along the stream; mice, wood rats, and deer dart in from the sides. For rare simultaneous arrivals, right of way is determined not by rules, but by size, surprise, and superiority on the food chain.

"The bobcat was probably hunting," says Wemmer. "That area seemed to be right on its beat."

The photos also tell more subtle stories, which only a sitting Buddha might see if he watched this one spot of ground for a month. Pea plants inch upward through a series of 10 frames following a rain. The leaves of a six-inch nettle perk up between 6:58 p.m. and 5:18 a.m. – then droop as though heaving a sigh. Rabbits, wood rats, and bobcats appear and vaporize from one frame to the next, as though teleporting in and out of this living, growing diorama.

It's not bad for a first try – even on a piece of land that Taini has known for much of his life. "I've been here for so many years," he says, "and I continue to find out the wonders of this place."

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