Beasts of Connecticut Trails: Past and Present

Beasts of Connecticut Trails: Past and Present

When asked to describe the wildlife danger upon Connecticut hiking trails recently, I characterized them as being akin to the lane at the bowling alley that is padded with bumpers, ensuring that a ball cannot meet it’s peril in the gutter. This area of the Northeastern United States, while not devoid of poisonous or predatory creatures, nonetheless seems to be among the safest places to venture into the woods.  But a look back through time reveals that it wasn’t always this way…

No doubt, the occasionally harsh winters experienced by Connecticut residents pose a perennial threat to our safety on the trails.  Bitter temperatures and deep, wet blankets of snow can sap one’s energy and chill them to the bone if they take to the trails unprepared.  Though in the arena of oppressive weather, many other places in the United States can boast their own dangers.  Arizona and New Mexico are home to sweltering deserts, the American Midwest is no stranger the destructive force of tornadoes, and the South is routinely battered by hurricanes en route from the Gulf of Mexico.  So my focus here is not on the winds, rain, ice, and heat, but on claws, teeth, venom, poison, and brute force; the animals and plants that abound in the forests and hills of Connecticut.

Eastern Black Bears
Black BearBears are at least one predator that folks point towards when the topic of a “dangerous wilderness” hits the table.  Certainly, Connecticut’s Eastern Black Bear (Ursus americanus americanus) is more than capable of striking fear into the hearts of hikers.  Weighing in between 150 and 500 pounds, the Black Bear is an intelligent omnivore with long claws and keen eyesight.  The build of this sizable mammal bristles with the potential for effortless displays of strength well beyond anything that humans can muster.  And, despite its robust frame, the Eastern Black Bear can sprint at speeds of between 25 and 35 miles per hour… much faster than even the most masterful Olympic runners.

Anyone that pays attention to the news in Connecticut must be familiar with the steadily rising number of bear sightings that are reported every year.  But the facts about today’s bear population are much less intimidating than the bears themselves.  The Connecticut Office of Legislative Research released a report in 2007 that estimated the state’s bear population to be roughly 300.  These 300 individuals are responsible for nearly 2000 bear sightings each year throughout 75% of the towns and cities in the state.

Let’s put this into perspective, though.  In the state of Maine, for example, the bear population is at least 60 times larger.  Somewhere in the range of 18,000 – 25,000 bears roam the “Pine Tree State”, so sightings aren’t just common… they are practically part of ordinary weekly life for residents in less-developed areas.  Even if we were to take into account that Maine is roughly 7 times larger than Connecticut, the figures still speak for themselves.  Connecticut is home to about one bear for every 16 square miles of land (0.06 bears/mile²).  Conservatively, Maine boasts one bear for about every 2 square miles of its territory!

In the grand scheme of things, bears can hardly be considered a legitimate threat to Connecticut’s hikers.  Like humans, they generally don’t wander around looking for a fight.  Life is much easier for both man and bear alike if conflict can be avoided, so to think of the Eastern Black Bear as a maddened, slavering beast on the prowl for human flesh is pure fantasy.  In all likelihood, most Connecticut hikers will never encounter a bear on the trails… even in the Northwestern portion of the state where Connecticut’s sparse bear population is most dense.  I, for one, hiked about 100 miles through that area of the state in 2010 alone… I’ve yet to see the Eastern Black Bear in the wild even once in my life.

CoyoteIt seems that people don’t really know what to make of this predatory canine.  On one hand, we are well-aware that wild dogs are inherently dangerous creatures (wolves come to mind immediately).  On the other hand, though, the coyote isn’t exactly a particularly large dog and its occasionally scraggly, skinny appearance gives the impression of relative harmlessness… as if it were just a large fox.

Canis latrans, as the coyote is known to biologists, is a medium-sized canine weighing between 15 and 50 pounds.  In terms of size, it may not be a particularly imposing predator, but its compact build makes it a nimble, light-weight animal able to reach speeds in excess of 40 miles per hour and capable of leaping the length of a large car.  Their excellent sense of smell contributes to keen tracking abilities.  Much of the coyote’s diet consists of smaller animals like squirrels, rabbits, mice, and woodchucks.  During winter, though, roving pairs of these canines will target larger prey such as deer, a plentiful food source in Connecticut.

Interestingly, the coyote was not historically native to Connecticut.  During the 1800’s, the coyote became an icon of the Wild West and New Englanders had only heard stories about these animals throughout the mid-19th century.  As it would happen, though, the coyote actually began expanding its range from the American West, moving further and further east over successive generations.  By the mid-1950’s, the first reports of coyotes began surfacing in Connecticut.  Their numbers slowly began growing throughout the next two decades, but even by the time the 1970’s came around, few people considered them more than a rarity.  Today, roughly 60 years after the very first individual was spotted within the state lines, the coyote population has swelled and stabilized.  Like the European-imported dandelions that blanket Connecticut’s meadows each year, the coyote has not only moved into the state… it’s become a permanent part of the ecosystem.

Despite clearly having the capacity to take down white-tailed deer, the coyote is not much of a trail-side threat to adult hikers.  That doesn’t mean that small children aren’t at risk, though.  For instance, in two separate 2010 incidents in Rye, New York, children narrowly survived attacks by coyotes.  Coyotes have also been blamed for countless outdoor cats (even small dogs) never returning home, though these claims can rarely be substantiated and it’s unknown how many of those missing pets are actually killed by motorists.

Only one adult human has ever been killed by a coyote in North America’s recorded history.  In 2009, a 19-year-old folk singer hiking in Nova Scotia was ambushed by a pair of coyotes and died shortly afterward.  This news was shocking to retired biologist Bob Bancroft who knows that coyotes tend to be shy creatures, but who also had his own run-in with one in the past.  Bancroft resolved to stand his ground when charged by the animal and it ultimately backed down.  “…I think the fact that I didn’t act like a prey item convinced it to leave me alone,” Bancroft explained.  Take this to heart, fellow hikers!  If you do run into a coyote on trails, don’t turn tail and run.  That’s exactly what timid prey such as deer would do, so you’ll be more likely to trigger an instinctive predatory response from the coyote.

BobcatThe Bobcat, Lynx rufus, is something of a phantom in Connecticut.  Owing to its extreme reluctance to avoid places of human habitation, most Connecticut residents will go their entire lives without ever seeing one in the wild.  Indeed, it would be ludicrous to consider them a threat to hikers, even in the areas of state in which their thin population is most concentrated.

As far as Big Cats go, the Bobcat is a medium-sized specimen with smaller individuals weighing roughly 12 pounds and well-nourished, healthy adults reaching 30 to 40 pounds.  Just like our smaller house cats, Bobcats possess razor-sharp, retractable claws and can slink through the forest in near total silence.  Top speed is a trivial statistic for these animals, since they are most often capable of stalking their prey (usually Connecticut’s dense rabbit population) to within a couple dozen feet before staging a lightning-quick ambush that leaves little chance for escape.

Historically, Bobcats used to be much more numerous in Connecticut.  Their populations dwindled over the first centuries of human habitation in the state, though.  Forests were felled at incredible rates, displacing bobcat populations and forcing these animals to compete for prey and territory.  Some livestock farmers wanted them exterminated because they firmly believed that bobcats posed a threat to animals on the grazing pasture, while still others hunted the bobcat for its prized pelt.  The combined impact of these factors lead to a drastic reduction in Connecticut’s bobcat numbers.  Decimated but unwavering, enough individuals have always managed to evade human threat and maintain breeding populations in the state.  Now that they are a protected species, their numbers are relatively stabilized.

Hikers upon the trail need not be worried about these resilient big cats, however.  Attacks upon humans by bobcats are practically unheard of, both historically and in modern times.  The only notable exception concerns those rare individuals stricken with rabies, making them prone to entirely unpredictable and uncharacteristically bold behavior.  Nonetheless, this is one predator you need not fear.  If you ever do see one, and I doubt you will, you shouldn’t be afraid… you should feel privileged.

Timber Rattlesnakes
Timber RattlesnakeRattlesnakes are something that most modern New England residents associate with rocky deserts and Wild West films.  Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the native Timber Rattlesnake was considered “public enemy #1″ for more than a century in Connecticut.  Even it’s scientific name, Crotalus horridus, seems to suggest that this creature is nothing but trouble.

The Timber Rattler is a hefty snake, typically reaching lengths of 3 to 4 feet.  A keen sense of smell coupled with heat-sensing organs (located on its nose) more than compensate for its poor vision, allowing it to accurately sink it’s venomous fangs into mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and other small animals.  By its nature, this rattlesnake is generally shy and timid when confronted by larger creatures.  Venom may enact excruciating pain (sometimes even death) upon larger attackers, but it’s effects are slow to take hold when they must circulate through the bodies of animals that weigh much more than the rattler’s ordinary prey.  In the meantime, the snake would likely be killed despite delivering a poisonous bite.  Indeed, it is in the best interest of the Timber Rattlesnake to avoid contact with it’s own predators as often as possible, and it generally does this by hiding in dens, amongst rocky ledges, or under other assorted cover.

By the time settlers began arriving in Connecticut, the Timber Rattlesnake was a highly successful reptile that had densely populated suitable habitats all over the territory.  When land was being cleared to build houses, farms, and pastures, people were directly encroaching upon the rattlesnake’s sanctuary.  The stage was set for plenty of disastrous run-ins.  There aren’t too many reliable records that document the frequency of rattlesnake bites among Connecticut’s earlier residents, but we can form an idea of just how often rattlesnakes were encountered if you take a look at the old names of certain geographical landmarks around the state.  Just southwest of Hartford you’ll find “Rattlesnake Mountain”, “Rattlesnake Brook” runs through Windsor Locks, the “Rattlesnake Ledges” lie east of Cockaponset State Forest in Chester, and old “Rattlesnake Hill” lies within Devil’s Den Preserve in Fairfield County.  There is even the ‘Meshomasic State Forest’, a 17,000-acre tract of protected woodlands in Central Connecticut.  ‘Meshomasic’ is term a for the place which we’ve inherited from the Native Americans that lived there nearly 400 years ago when settlers first arrived; it is variously translated as “the great snake” or “land of many snakes”.

The “History of Norwich, Connecticut”, authored by Frances Caulkins and published in 1866, recounts that the town of Norwich employed “snake bounty hunters” to find and kill Timber Rattlesnakes.  The carcasses, or a specific piece of the carcass, could be presented to town officials whereupon the hunter would receive payment for services rendered.  Between 1720 and 1724, Norwich paid bounties on 428 rattlesnakes.  Nearly 700 bounties were paid out between 1730 and 1735!  By 1739, the bounty had been raised to ten shillings… the highest rice per head ever offered by Norwich.  But Caulkins writes:

“[The 1739 bounty] did not produce any large number of victims; the reptile race was evidently on decline.”

After 1764, the rattlesnake bounty was never again a topic of discussion during Norwich town meetings.  The fate of the Norwich Timber Rattlers was one shared by countless rattlesnake populations all over the state where similar inquisitions were held.  Sometimes “snake hunts” were even advertised as enjoyable town events, get-togethers in which friends and neighbors could excitedly set out into snake country en masse and merrily slaughter whatever hapless rattlers they found.  In this way, one of the most successful native reptiles of Connecticut was almost entirely exterminated before 1800.

It seems almost wrong to admit that the destruction of the Timber Rattler has probably made Connecticut’s trails safer for hikers.  The remaining  fragmented populations of these rattlesnakes, now protected as endangered species, are holed up in only few small areas in the state (one of which being the aforementioned Meshomasic State Forest).  By and large, unless you frequent these last vestiges of snake country, you’ll never run into the Timber Rattlesnake.  Should you hear their distinct rattling sound upon the trails, though, be sure to stop instantly and determine exactly where the noise is coming from.  Slowly back away and leave the rattler to its own.  The rattling mechanism is a defensive strategy used in the hopes that it will send a warning to approaching attackers: “I don’t want to bite you… but if you get any closer, I’ll have no choice.”

CopperheadCopperheads, the only other venomous snake that lives within the confines of Connecticut, are slightly different than rattlesnakes.  Generally, they are smaller, measuring 2 to 3 feet, and they lack the distinctive tail rattles so characteristic of the Timber Rattlesnake.  Known to biologists as Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen, the Copperhead possesses similar heat-sensing organs to that of the Timber Rattlesnake. It is widely understood that the venomous bite of the Copperhead is not as serious for adults as that of the Timber Rattlesnake, but the Copperhead garnered just as bad a reputation for itself by killing curious outdoor house pets and occasionally biting small children that are more prone to be over-taken by the poison.

Like many of Connecticut’s extant animals, Copperheads were once much more numerous than they are now. While there’s little question that, for centuries, Copperheads have been killed on the spot whenever they were found, they never received as much attention from human populations as the Timber Rattler. Instead, the Copperhead was mostly ignored, being pushed out of more and more habitat as land was further developed. Today, the copperhead maintains a stable, albeit small, population in Connecticut.

Connecticut hikers are probably just as unlikely to see a copperhead on the trail as they are to see a Timber Rattlesnake. While both reptiles undoubtedly still lurk in the rocky outcrops and woodlands, their numbers are too insignificant for sightings to be all that common.  I’ve only seen one Copperhead in my entire life, basking in the Sun beside a small pond at which I would fish as a child.  Even when I was young, I had familiarized myself with the appearance of the Copperhead and knew to keep my distance.  At all costs, I urge Connecticut hikers (and fisherman) to carefully avoid these snakes whenever you might happen upon them.  They pose no threat so long as you remain aware of your surroundings, and killing them is surely an unforgivable solution to a problem that could be remedied simply by leaving them alone.

Predators Long Lost
WolfModern Connecticut is quite a comfortable place to live… at least, that is, compared to the wild terrain colonists encountered when they established some of the earliest colonies there in the mid-1600’s.  For the first residents of what would one day become the State of Connecticut, theirs was a land of terrifying uncertainty.  Dark, old-growth forests enveloped much of the terrain, and as they looked upon the hills they could only imagine the horrors that lurked in the unknown.  Hostile Native Americans, possessing detailed knowledge of the land, gripped them with fear.  But the hostile “beasts” that they occasionally encountered were oftentimes just as foreboding.  In the early days, colonists didn’t just openly live on their land.  They farmed by day and retreated back to somewhat fortified enclosures at night… else, they feared, they may not live to see the morning light.  Black bears and bobcats were present at much greater numbers then, but the first settlers found other creatures in the area that may seem somewhat out-of-place to us today.

In the 1660’s, Englishman John Josselyn left London for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  He had been invited by his brother to come see the “frontier” of New England, and luckily for us, Josselyn planned to record his experiences while he explored the strange animals and native cultures that still abounded around the colonies at that time.  His final work, “New England Rarities Discovered”, is still in print to this day; not a bad run for a book published in 1672.

Inside, Josselyn meticulously describes animals he either encountered or learned of during his stay in New England.  Among them, he writes of a wild dog much more infamous than today’s coyotes.

“The Wolf is very numerous, and go in companies, sometimes ten, twenty, more or fewer, and so cunning, that seldom any are kill’d with Guns or Traps…”

Connecticut hikers haven’t had to worry about wolves for centuries now, for between intentional exterminations and reduction of habitat, they were entirely extirpated from the state.  At Mashomoquet Brook State Park  in Pomfret, there is  a small cave known as “Wolf Den”.  Legend has it that here, in 1742, a man by the name of Israel Putnam cornered and killed a wolf that had been harassing his livestock… the story relates that this had been the last “pesky” wolf left in the entire state.  Putnam was certainly a real individual, and he later went on to become a famous general in the Revolutionary War.  The account of Putnam killing a wolf at Wolf Den may perhaps be true, as well.  In all likelihood, however, the notion that he actually killed the final wolf in the State is purely a fantastic addition to the tale, conjured to make the famous general seem larger than life.

CougarBut it is no coincidence that people may have believed the tall-tale, because by the mid-1750’s… only 100 years after Josselyn described wolves roaming the lands of Connecticut in sizable packs… they had already become exceptionally rare, if not entirely extinct.  The Town of Norwich, for instance, placed a similar bounty on wolves as they did on timber rattlesnakes.  But after 1700, the bounty was only claimed once.  A July 1834 article in New-England Magazine laments the dying practice of hunting amongst New Englanders, pointing to the drastic reduction of wildlife populations as the cause.  The author writes:

“The Wolf and the Bear, which once harassed our men and terrified our women and children, are now never seen but in the cages of itinerant show-men.”

Cougars, too, once roamed Connecticut.  But they went mostly the same route as the wolf, being entirely eliminated from the state.  Interestingly, John Josselyn has less to say about wild cats than wild dogs.

“The Ounce or Wild Cat, is about the bigness of two lusty Ram Cats, preys upon deer and our English poultrey; I once found six whole Ducks in the belly of one I killed by a Pond side: Their flesh roasted is as good as Lamb, and as white.”

It’s not entirely clear if Josselyn is referring to cougars or bobcats. Regardless, this passage reveals a few reasons why both of these animals were to be decimated by encroaching human populations.  They were believed, perhaps legitimately so in some cases, to prey upon valuable livestock.  Further, colonists were in no way averse to eating these cats whenever they were killed… and, according to Josselyn, they were tasty.

These days, wolves and cougars are of no concern to Connecticut hikers.  Occasionally, there are unconfirmed sightings of both animals, though.  A few Connecticut residents are even indignant with the Department of Environmental Protection, claiming that it is irresponsibly “neglecting” to admit that cougars and wolves have returned to the state.  The fact-of-the-matter, though, is that it can be difficult to identify animals from a great distance, especially for individuals without even an amateur interest in wildlife.  Bobcats can easily be mistaken for cougars, and likewise, large coyotes might understandably be identified as wolves.  If a mere 300 resident bears result in over 2000 bear sightings per year in Connecticut… one would think that great enough numbers of either cougars or wolves to sustain a stable population would generate just as many sightings.  In fact, the sightings reported each year are considerably less numerous than those of bears, and the few claims made are always difficult to substantiate.

From Wild to Tame… Some Thoughts

With this talk of large predators and fanged crawlers, it becomes clear that they all share some common characteristics that made them targets of human fear and greed.  Bears, bobcats, cougars, and wolves stood out like sore thumb in the landscape… they could be hunted.  Even though John Josselyn mentions in “New England Rarities Discovered” that wolves were oftentimes too nimble to be shot by early, inaccurate guns of the time, that doesn’t mean that colonists weren’t looking for a better mousetrap.  Josselyn writes:

“…as of late they have invented a way to destroy them, by binding four Maycril Hooks a cross with a brown thread, and then wrapping some Wool about them, they dip them in melted Tallow till it be as round and as big as an Egg; these (when any Beast hath been kill’d by the Wolves) they scatter by the dead Carkase, after they have beaten off the Wolves; about Midnight the Wolves are sure to return again to the place where they left the slaughtered Beast, and the first thing they venture upon will be these balls of fat.”

The beasts that terrified the earliest colonists of Connecticut may have been bigger, stronger, and faster than man… but they were no match for the combination of human ingenuity and perseverance.  And when these otherwise venerable human traits are driven by fear, they know no bounds of reason, logic, or proportion.  As evidenced by the Salem Witch Trials, only 100 miles to the north in the Massachusetts colonies, even our own kind could not escape these senseless, maddened hunts for a scapegoat.

The demand for land to make room for human settlements widely and severely disrupted the lives of the individual predators that managed to avoid direct run-ins with people, and the desire for pelts pushed hunters further and further into the forests and hills in search of the dwindling survivors.

Timber Rattlesnakes, unlike wolves or cougars, have survived that early era.  But when you consider that they once numbered in the tens of thousands in our state (if not more), the remaining population could nearly be termed a “wild museum exhibit”.  Long ago, they lost their grip upon the lands of Connecticut… they once dominated this place, now they are merely trying survive.

For better or worse, one can hardly deny that Connecticut trails are some of the safest in the nation.  Not by coincidence, as if dangerous creatures never lived here, but by conscious design.  The early settlers of the state, cowering behind their enclosure at night, dreamed of a place devoid of hazards, where people could walk freely upon the lands without fear of “beasts”.  At a great cost to the animals that once flourished here, they succeeded in making this vision a reality.  We have inherited their concept of Utopia to this day… even if we now possess a better sense of the natural heritage that was destroyed throughout its creation… sometimes necessarily, oftentimes carelessly.

The Most Successful Attacker on Connecticut Trails
Poison IvyWhile we walk the forest paths these days, though, it’s clear that at least one humble attacker of Connecticut hikers still abounds.  It lurks beside the footpaths in every county of the state and it silently waits, sometimes only feet from trail, for passers-by to let down their guard.  It lacks fangs and claws… it cannot smell, see, or hear… and it has no intention of running away when humans approach.  Poison Ivy stubbornly stands it’s ground whenever confronted by man.  After all, it has little choice.

Known to botanists as Toxicodendron radicans, Poison Ivy causes painful rashes upon any exposed skin touched by its leaves or stems.  These rashes eventually become lesions, turning red and bubbling with blisters.  Our understandable reaction is to itch the sores, but this is always counter-productive, causing further irritation and tearing open wounds in the skin that become susceptible to infection by bacteria.  If the plant is burned (in a backyard brush fire, for example), inhalation of Poison Ivy smoke proves even more serious… inflaming the lining of the throat and lungs and potentially causing death.

Surprisingly, though, Poison Ivy is actually not poisonous, at all.  The offending chemical within the plant’s sap which causes such terrible reactions is called ‘urushiol’ and, unlike snake venom, it contains no chemicals that are inherently dangerous to the human body.  Our immune systems, otherwise well-honed for disposing of foreign invaders that enter our bodies, occasionally have some difficulty distinguishing threats from harmless substances.  When Poison Ivy sap is absorbed by the skin, our bodies summon the immune system’s equivalent of the “national guard” and urushiol molecules are attacked with reckless abandon.  The blistering lesions that we notice developing aren’t directly caused by urushiol… they are caused by our own body’s hyper-active response to the presence of this inert chemical.

That’s right… our problems with poison ivy are due to our own allergic reactions to its sap.  Just as some people are allergic to shellfish, cat dander, or peanuts, so too are many allergic to urushiol.  Roughly 70% to 85% of people are susceptible to urushiol, resulting in hundreds of thousands of victims in North America each year.  And before you begin bragging to your friends that you’re immune to its effects, understand that repeated exposure can, in time, sensitize your body to its presence.  There have undoubtedly been more than a few instances in which over-confident individuals have rolled in beds of Poison Ivy to prove their “invincibility” to astonished on-lookers… the results aren’t always so pretty.

One thing is for sure, Poison Ivy is here to stay.  We may have done away with all of the wolves and cougars, eliminated most of the bears and bobcats, and slaughtered the bulk of rattlesnakes… but the humble Poison Ivy is too wide-spread and too resilient to succumb to the same clumsy efforts of extermination to which other trail-side terrors fell.

Prior to the 1600’s, Native Americans had lived for thousands of years in the very same land that Connecticut’s first colonists would characterize as a terrifying, untamed wilderness.  These natives undoubtedly hunted some of the “beasts” we’ve discussed, animals which struck fear into the hearts of European settlers and, in time, drove them to exhaustive efforts of extermination.  By and large, though, tribes people had simply learned to live with them.  Perhaps today’s residents of Connecticut, especially those that frequently hit the trails, can take a lesson from those first people of our home, who themselves have largely gone the way of the bear and the rattlesnake.  Indeed, we will just have to learn to live with poison ivy… whether we like it or not.

References & Resources

Connecticut’s Bear Population

Black Bear

DEP: Black Bear Fact Sheet

DEP: Coyote Fact Sheet

Coyotes Kill Toronto Singer in Cape Breton

The New-England Magazine: Volume 0007, Issue 1 (July 1834);cc=nwen;q1=wolf;rgn=full%20text;idno=nwen0007-1;didno=nwen0007-1;view=image;seq=0060

DEP: Mashomoquet Brook State Park

DEP: Bobcat Fact Sheet

Damned Connecticut: Mountain Lions

DEP: Timber Rattlesnake Fact Sheet

Nature Conservancy: Salmon River

Caulkins, Frances Manwaring. “History of Norwich, Connecticut”.  Published 1866.

DEP: Northern Copperhead

Josselyn, John. “New-Englands Rarities Discovered”.  Published 1672.