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Hunting wild animals – with cameras

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

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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."