What is out there?
That question has dominated my interest in wildlife since I was a little boy growing up on the edge of the pineywoods and coastal marshes in West Orange, TX.
I can not remember a time I passed by a forest, marsh or pasture and not wondered what kind of wild creatures roamed there, hiding in the shadows, prowling after the setting of the sun.
No more than 100 yards past my office window is a patch of woods bordering Adams Bayou. This slow-moving stream begins with a small trickle near Mauriceville, starts opening up near Interstate 10, winds through West Orange and eventually meets up with the Sabine River near the Port of Orange. Even now the thought of the creatures that dwell along its corridors and similar areas in the region stimulates my curiosity and inspires me to seek them out.
My fascination with our local wildlife ran into some problems in its earliest years. Back in 1984, at the ripe old age of 11, I read an article in Outdoor Life about red wolves.
It illustrated how this once common species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the remaining few animals for a captive breeding program. What intrigued me most was the last ones came from just a few miles from my home in Orange County. I already thought wolves were great to begin with but this article helped inspire a lifelong love affair with them that burns as strongly today as it ever did.
Well, that and an encounter later that same year.
My little league baseball team the Bucs had its end of the year party at Claiborne West Park, a beautiful 500-acre wooded property on Cow Bayou near Vidor. As we were drinking Dr. Peppers, eating hot dogs and chips, I looked toward the edge of the trees and saw a reddish-brown, long legged canine.
“Dad, look at that!” I exclaimed.
“Is that a red wolf?”
“Yes it is,” he said.
I can still see the animal as plainly today as I did then looking and remember it had a thin summer coat, tall ears, and a broad forehead. The animal was also panting from the brutal heat and humidity as it slinked through the grass and disappeared into the woods but never from my mind.
This would be the first time I would learn that what I saw in the wild would sometimes conflict with official reports.
The red wolf was the first animal that inspired me to seek out mysterious animals and also the subject of the first story I wrote professionally. My very first newspaper column published in the Opportunity Valley News in Oct. 1992 was about a report of alleged red wolf sightings in Orange County and featured a photograph I took of a pair in the captive breeding program at the Texas Zoo in Victoria.
Since that first encounter, I have learned is that maps in most wildlife guidebooks are not always so accurate when it comes to animal distribution. Take for example, the road-killed porcupine photographed by Dean Bossert, manager of the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Sabine Pass in December 2009.
Why was there a porcupine in Sabine Pass? Could it be there are isolated populations of animals living far away from their supposed native range?
Similarly, jaguars are native to Texas and once roamed throughout most of the state but ranchers and government trappers allegedly eliminated them by the 1920s. Now jaguars have been verified by state-sponsored trail camera programs in New Mexico and Arizona and are believed to be coming in from Mexico. I first hypothesized jaguars were still moving into Texas in the early 2000s and have since spoken with a couple of witnesses who claim sightings along the border in South Texas.
How could this be?
If they are crossing into our two neighboring states, there is no reason they cannot cross into ours. Some argue that on the South Texas border there is too much development between the Mexican side and known jaguar populations in Mexico.
Well, there is a lot of development between Sabine Pass and Austin but somehow a porcupine (and I am imagine a few of his friends) made it down to the coast. Animals are extremely crafty in their migrations and in the case of the jaguar it could be possible they are crossing into the much less densely populate Trans Pecos region and traveling down the Rio Grande corridor toward the brush country. Or maybe there have been a few in Texas all along and we simply missed them.
After all, cougar sightings in East Texas have been controversial for decades but obviously someone did not tell the one that walked in front of me 20 years ago it was not supposed to be there. And there are hundreds of people with similar experiences in Southeast Texas and neighboring Southwest Louisiana.
The question I asked at the beginning of this introduction was “What’s out there?”
Perhaps more fitting would be, “What’s really out there?” because that is what we are asking. Anyone can look through a wildlife field guide or surf the Internet and come up with a pretty good idea of local animals. If you live on the outskirts of Beaumont and see a lot of rooting on your property and rounded-off hoof prints, there is little doubt feral hogs are nearby. Any official guide would tell you that.
However, if you see what you identify as a slinking dark-colored cat crossing in front of you off a dark secluded highway, the situation might be very different. This book will discuss these mysterious animals and give you a good idea of what is really out there.
At these wild crossroads be prepared to be surprised because our woods, marshes, prairies and waterways are truly where the wild things are.
Chester Moore, Jr.