I once walked into the mouth of an old railroad tunnel.
Covered in vines and decaying it looked a bit ominous, even from a distance.
Many years previous trains would cut through as they winded through the limestone encrusted hills of the Edwards Plateau in Central Texas.
Now the tunnel is home to more than a million of Mexican free tail baits.
Passing by during the day or even walking nearby one would never know of their presence unless they maybe caught a sniff of the guano (bat dung).
But at night, these bats exit the tunnel and travel into the darkness in pursuit of insects and they return before dawn.
In the 1800s, a network of safe houses and secret routes called the “Underground Railroad” saw thousands of African American slaves find their way to freedom out of states where slavery was legal.
Thinking about the tunnel reminded me there is an underground network of sorts for animals, paths in which they can travel without the system taking notice.
The animals themselves of course are not aware of it although by sheer instinct they use it to their advantage.
It is a mindset in the culture of wildlife viewing, academia, media coverage and the hunting and fishing community that things with wildlife are supposed to go “by the book” and anything challenging the official narrative is ignored outright assailed.
In 2002, I spent a day in the field in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana with researchers David Luneau and Martian Lammertink in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species at the time considered extinct. Zeiss Sports Optics sponsored a truly rare look at a species often reported but believed long gone.
We never saw any ivory bills but I saw two men intent on at least searching out what could be an incredibly important find.
In 2004, Luneau obtained a video in Arkansas that the US Fish and Wildlife Service itself considers to be an ivory bill-a previously though extinct bird.
It goes along with other recordings and research suggesting there are a few ivory bills out there. However, the official narrative is the species is still lost.
Many don’t want to touch the topic with a 10 foot pole.
Did they ever exist anyway?
That’s what many act like.
And its this very lack of “official” interest that allows such species to hide in the shadows beyond the attention of those who can verify and perhaps save certain ones.
Most scientists tow the line on mysterious wildlife because their careers are centered on grants and anything outside the norm might rock the financial boat too much.
The hunting and fishing community dodges controversial wildlife topics for fear of government intervention especially in relation to the Endangered Species Act.
Amateur naturalists are quick to skip over the mysterious for fear of public ridicule and loss of access to property.
And the media doesn’t really care unless they can spin it into the next viral story, often shaming those who are dare to question things or belittling the off the wall topics altogether.
I am too curious to ignore the stories that require stepping into the shadows. I crave the opportunity to pursue mysteries of the wildlife kind-controversial or not.
Growing up in the 80s, the intro to syndicated horror anthology series Tales from the Darkside used to terrify me.
That is terrify me enough to watch.
Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But… there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit… a Darkside. (Series Intro)
I won’t call the animal underground a “dark side” in terms of evil but it certainly not as brightly lit as what most see.
A couple of days ago I came across a project called “I am Somebody” from fourth grade.
It was an exercise in challenging us to state who we are and who we wanted to become in life.
I don’t remember this project and I have not seen it since I did it back in 1984 but what I found in it reminded me that a dream of working with wildlife that became a vision later in life started long ago.
When asked to draw a picture or cut out and paste of picture of what I wanted to be when I grew up I chosen article from National Geographic showing a researcher with a leopard seal.
I would like to be a scientist because I would like to maybe find a way to stop water pollution or discover a new animal. I would like to be a wildlife biologist.
I ended up studying journalist in school and later zoology and have since I was in high school pursued wildlife journalism. It’s amazing a little boy with a big dream got to live it in a little different way.
The assignment also had a section called “If I Were…”
If I were an animal I would like to be a grizzly bear so I could be the strongest animal in the forest.
Not much has changed on that front although I would probably tell you a jaguar for the answer now-the strongest cat in the forest.
The reason for this post is to inspire you to follow the vision you have for your life. My advice is to seek God, receive revelation on your life and pursue that with everything you have.
I am no one special but I have been able to do many special things in regards to wildlife. There is no reason you can’t do the same thing.
I plan on doing many more special things with wildlife in the next 25 years and beyond and want to inspire you to seek out your WILDEST dreams.
I will probably never become a grizzly but I just might get an up close and personal photo one of one of these magnificent creatures.
Besides the booze, the draw was a pair of Bengal tigers sitting on a small slab across from the bar.
It is hard to imagine that at some point, this was considered a good idea but it had been open for several years and by the amount of bottles in the trash can outside, they had a few patrons.
Our mission was to rescue a young black bear illegally imported into Texas and being kept in the bar.
A game warden had contacted Monique Woodard of the Exotic Cat & Wildlife Refuge in Kirbyville, TX to see if she would take the bear and she got my frequent cohort and wildlife photographer Gerald Burleigh and I to come along.
My job was to dart the bear if it got belligerent so we could put it in the crate to ride to Kirbyville in the back of my truck. Gerald was thereto document the day with his unique style of photography.
The tigers despite being in a small area looked healthy but the bear on the other hand was quite scruffy. Weighing about 80 pounds, she was probably around six months old and despite her small size she could have taken out all of us. Bears are extremely powerful.
We walked up to the enclosure and the bear stood up on its hind legs.
Before risking darting the animal, we put the extra large pet porter next to the door of the cage and Monique reached into her bag and pulled out a Twinkie.
She held it up to the nose of the bear which at this point was standing at the door and she had me open it. She then threw the Twinkie into the porter and the bear went right in.
On the way home, somewhere around Baytown on Interstate 10, the bear which at this point had been named “Gigi” pounded on the bed of my truck.
We pulled over to see what was wrong and Monique said she was hungry so she gave her a few more Twinkies from the box.
This happened three more times before getting to Kirbyville where she had the very last Twinkie in her big new enclosure.
Gigi was a real treat and ended up being a big draw to the refuge and a gigantic blessing to our lives.
Chester Moore, Jr.
For a moment, it seemed as if I were in a bizarre, fever-induced nightmare, descending deeper and deeper into murky blackness.
Life and death hung in the balance as I struggled to make it toward the light above but my captor was powerful. Effort seemed futile as it pulled with unbelievable strength until suddenly something gave and I broke free.
Rocketing to the surface toward the boat I was pulled from, I gave everything to get back in.
A huge beast with razor sharp teeth had just taken me on a trip into 40 degree, 50-foot deep water. Drowning, hypothermia and bleeding to death were all likely scenarios but an even stronger force led me to the light.
Back in 1997, I was running a trotline in a deep hole in the Sabine River. My cousin Frank Moore and I had trotlines about 200 yards apart and had been catching a few blue catfish.
This was in the middle of winter and we were targeting huge blue catfish. In previous days I had several large hooks straightened and had visions of 75-pound blues in my mind.
As I went to check my line, I noticed most it was not parallel to the shore but drifting out across the deep, instead of on the edge. The line had been cut (or so I thought).
Immediately not so kind words flowed through my mouth to whoever cut the line but then as I started to pull it in something happened.
The line moved!
I pulled in a little more and felt great weight at the end of the line and soon realized I had a seven-foot long alligator garfish on my line. In the Moore family, gar trump blue cats any day of the week so I was excited and even more so when I saw the huge gar barely moving.
Gar will often drown on trotlines (seriously) and this one looked a little worse for the wear so I though it would be easy pickings.
I pulled the line up to the beast, hooked my gaff under the only soft spot on the fish, which is directly below the jaw. I jammed it in there good to make sure it would hold and to see how lively the fish was. It literally did not budge. The fish was alive but did not seem lively.
I then took a deep breath, mustered up all the strength I had since this was a 200-pound class fish and heaved the gar into the boat. That is when the big fish woke up.
It pulled back with full force and all of a sudden I found myself headed down into 30 feet of water with the gar. In an instant I realized one of the other hooks on the trotline had caught in my shoe and I was now attached to 200 pounds of toothy fury.
I had just enough time to take a breath and went under.
All I could focus on was getting back to the surface and toward the light. I am not sure how deep I went but according to my cousin who was just down the shore from me, I did not stay under very long. A 200-pound gar and a 200-pound young man snapped the lead on the line but the hook amazingly remained in my shoe as a reminder I was very near death.
Bringing the line into the boat was a mistake on my part. Nearly a fatal one. They should always be checked on the side of the boat.
More philosophically, thinking back to that moment enveloped in a cold darkness and looking up to the light would foreshadow what would happen in my life in years to come.
There was much more living to do. I just had to reach to the light-the Light of the World to be set free.
That statement was among the first comments on the photo of a manatee stranded in Tampa Bay as Hurricane Irma sucked water out of that vast ecosystem.
It would be easy to pass that off as a typical Internet idiot stirring trouble but when you look at the profile and see it was an adult male who made the comment and followed up with other disturbing quotes you see something is very wrong here.
This was not a non-indigenous feral hog that displaces native wildlife or a game animal like a whitetail deer or wild turkey that are hunted and eaten by licensed hunters. It was a manatee-a gentle giant of the seagrass flats.
It was a manatee-a highly protected species.
The “kill the manatee” comments (and others like it circulating on the Web) are reminiscent of the dolphin shooting I covered in Texas in 2015.
Two teenage boys actually shot a dolphin, one that was disillusioned after wandering into freshwater nonetheless with a fishing arrow.
That killing probably made some of the people I dealt with in the Texas flounder regulation debate back in 2008 happy.
This is an actual regulatory suggestion I got from someone and my reply.
“They are always out there in the passes flipping those flounder out of the water and eating them. The dolphins are getting more populous and they eat more flounder than we ever kill, so we should enact some dolphin population control.”
“So, you’re saying we should shoot Flipper to save the flounder?,” I asked.
“Yes, pretty much.”
Somehow the idea of setting up dolphin sharpshooters in our bays and passes did not seem like it would fly with not only the public but wildlife managers.
“Come to the Texas coast where we blew away 500 dolphins last year!”
Not exactly good Chamber of Commerce material, is it?
Soon however, the tide turned away from dolphin eradication to redfish annihilation
“There are just too many redfish. They are eating all of the baby flounder. That is why flounder numbers are down.”
This is reminiscent of the late 1990s when commercial fishermen in Louisiana tried to get gill and strike nets legalized for redfish once again because the reds were “wiping out the crabs.”
A decline in blue crab numbers could not possibly have been related to the insane number of crab traps set in Bayou State waters but had to have been redfish, which as far as we know have been co-existing with crabs forever.
At the end of the day those who kill protected animals (or fantasize about doing so) do it because they want to.
They choose to do so.
But I wonder what contributing factors are at play.
Is it a rural version of the mall fights and other random violence we have seen in larger cities or some kind of other pent up anger?
Is it the hardened stance against anything labeled “green” or “environmental” or “endangered” that is pervasive in sectors of the hunting community?
I can’t tell you how many people have told me jokes about spotted owl and whooping crane gumbo I have been told over the years.
There is probably no way to tell but it needs to stop and a true respect for all wildlife needs to be front and center.
We need as a community of outdoors lovers to rebuild the platform by which we teach conservation to the young and instill pride in the fact that we have incredible wildlife resources here and that taking beyond what the law offers depletes them.
We need to use these shameful moments as teachable ones and talk about consequence.
I have swam with manatees in the Crystal River in Florida three times and they were some of the most amazing experiences of my life.
I also grew up deer, duck and hog hunting.
Yet somehow I have never wanted to kill a manatee or a bald eagle or a dolphin.
It is because I was brought up to respect the resource and only take what I could eat. The idea of someone chuckling at the plight of a manatee sickens me.
Part of it is because I love these great animals but even more so I am troubled over a public where comments like that end up turning to actions like the aforementioned dolphin shot by Texas teens.
We have to move forward with conservation and a deep respect for wildlife and shame those who want to destroy it.
Wise stewardship should be celebrated whether its enacted by Ducks Unlimited or the Save the Manatee group.
Wildlife needs our help and thankfully the stranded manatee got it.
The keyboard warrior who wanted to kill one was probably too busy surfing the Web in his mother’s basement, living the kind of pathetic life trolls live.
The average elevation of Big Pine Key off the mainland coast of Florida is three feet.
Early reports of storm surge from Hurricane Irma hitting Big Pine Key is 10 feet.
Big Pine Key is home to the majority of the federally endangered key deer, the smallest subspecies of whitetail and it is headquarters of National Key Deer Refuge.
Key Deer have had a rough go of it in the last couple of years.
“While there had been no screwworm outbreaks in the U.S. for the past 30 years, one began last July (2016) on Big Pine Key, which affected the Keydeer population,” said Dr. Roel Lopez, institute director and co-principal investigator for the Keydeer study, San Antonio, a project of Texas A&M University.
Last year screwworms infested the population, which is spread across more than 20 islands. It has led to 135 Keydeer deaths, including 83 that were euthanized to reduce the risk of further infection.
“This was a significant blow to a species of which is uniquely located in that area and has an estimated population of just 875,” said Lopez, who noted the mortalities were chiefly among adult males.
We will be contacting officials with the key deer study as well as at National Key Deer Refuge to monitor what is happening with the species.
A 10 foot surge could have serious consequences to all wildlife of the keys but the key deer is the most vulnerable. And they have already been hit by a severe (proportionally speaking) screwworm outbreak.
Mid-day Monday we found a report at the Miami Herald about the species.
Dan Clark superintendent of the National Key Deer Refuge, said his first priority as the massive storm approached was to evacuate National Wildlife Refuge personnel assigned to the area.
“After we receive information from Monroe County that it is safe to return and we can inhabit the Lower Keys, a post-storm assessment of our facilities and residences will be conducted to determine if we can operate,” Clark said.
Mountain Home, TX—Since she was two years old, giraffes have been my daughter Faith’s favorite animal.
It started when I bought her a gigantic plush giraffe on a road trip and she named it “raff raff” and has continued throughout the last eight years.
We jumped at the opportunity to let her meet giraffes in a safe, naturalistic setting and that is exactly what the wildlife tour at YO Headquarters provides.
Faith was nervous when the giraffe’s gigantic tongue reached out to grab the cookie she held but soon had a huge smile on her face and was as she said, “a bit of an expert” on feeding the animal of her dreams in short order.
“My dream came true,” she said.
You just can’t beat that kind of statement from your children.
“The giraffes are just amazing. They thrill everyone who visits them here in one of two huge pastures where we take our wildlife tours,” said Debbie Hagebusch, Director of Tourism for YO Headquarters.
Texas outdoors lovers know the YO Ranch for its exotic wildlife and Texas-sized mystique.
Steeped in history, the Y.O. Ranch remained the property of the Schreiner Family since 1880 when Captain Charles A. Schreiner began amassing the 566,000 acres of ranch land in the aftermath of the Civil War. From its humble beginnings as a vast ranch land, carrying through five generations, Y.O. Headquarters will continue operating as a premiere destination according to Hagebusch.
In October 2015, Byron and Sandra Sadler and their partners Lacy and Dorothy Harber purchased nearly 5,400 acres of the historical Y.O. Ranch.
A journey through the cedar and live oak thickets on the ranch is unlike virtually any other on the planet. On our first excursion we saw eland, the world’s largest antelope, a herd of gorgeous red sheep and a trio of zebras.
“We really have a lot to offer and it is in a part of the world that has a unique beauty. There is something special about walking outside of a cabin and looking out to the distance and seeing giraffes or Pere’ David’s deer and maybe get a glimpse of an eagle flying overhead,” Hagebusch said.
Since that first trip, I have returned three times, including taking a young boy from our Kingdom Zoo’s “Wild Wishes” program that grants exotic animal encounters to children who have a terminal illness or have lost a parent or sibling. YO Headquarters has welcome our wish kids with open arms.
The giraffe encounter was powerful for the young boy as was seeing a beautiful and rare white buffalo as we took the seven mile trek from the ranch house to the gate on Highway 41.
My most recent excursion involved returning with my wife and daughter and our young friend Demi who has served tirelessly in our ministry. She wanted to meet the giraffes and I needed some more wildlife photos so to YO Headquarters we went.
This time we got to see baby wildebeests born just a day before, view a super rare pair of white sika deer. I have seen thousands of sika and have never even heard of white ones until this trip.
And of course the giraffes were incredible.
Most that have never been to southern Africa don’t realize the Texas Hill Country looks very much like South Africa or Zimbabwe. That is why so much of the African game does well here.
And it is one reason why seeing a giraffe peek its head over the trees from a mile away in the huge enclosure is a special treat and it’s even more special when they come up close and you can see some of God’s most beautiful creations in living color, just a few feet away.
Even as someone who has had many tremendous wildlife encounters it gives me goose bumps every time.
My first encounter with a blacktip shark came while soaking a big hunk of cut mullet behind a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
I will never forget seeing the streamlined fish burst from the water like a wayward rocket and achieve an almost marlin-like tail walk on the sandy green surface. To my fishing hosts, this was just another annoying shark but to this young angler it was an amazing moment.
These sharks are popular and important for sport anglers on the Gulf Coast, yet they are greatly misunderstood.
For starters, all “blacktips” are not necessarily blacktips.
Young bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for blacktips by novice anglers due to the black markings on their fins but on closer inspection, the rounded nose and bulldog like appearance of the bull is a striking contrast to the sleek blacktip.
The spinner shark however is much more difficult to differentiate from blacktips. In fact, many veteran anglers and biologists have a hard time telling the difference at first glance.
They are very similar in body shape and size and both are quite acrobatic when hooked although the spinner twists like a tornado as the name implies while blacktips do more straight jumps.
The best way to tell them apart is the anal fin on the spinner is black whereas the blacktips is not. In reality, the spinner has more black on its tips than the blacktip in most cases.
If you were to ask anglers if these species were dangerous, most would answer with a resounding “No” since they are not in the lexicon of deadly sharks.
In fact, the Discovery Channel produced a highly rated program about the top 10 most dangerous sharks and neither made the list, while both the oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako did.
Those species rank far below both the blacktip and spinner in terms of unprovoked attacks on humans according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
ISAF data show blacktips are responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provoked attacks (think feeding, harassing, etc.). Spinners have been responsible for 15 unprovoked attacks, and one on the provoked side.
For comparison, the oceanic whitetip committed five unprovoked and three provoked attacks, while the shortfin mako dished out 8 unprovoked attacks and 15 provoked.
In the network’s defense, its list featured numerous factors, including fatalities, size, and likelihood to encounter humans, which would obviously put species like the great white above many other known attackers, but in terms of raw attack data, blacktips and spinners deserve our respect.
They are also species humans are likely to encounter in shallow water along beaches, where anglers tote stringers of speckled trout and other sport fishes, not to mention the scores of swimmers.
It is also possible blacktips and spinners are responsible for more attacks than ISAF can accurately list.
“Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult, since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the ‘heat’ of the interaction,” according to George H. Burgess of ISAF.
“Tooth remains are seldom found in wounds, and diagnostic characters for many requiem sharks (including blacktips and spinners) are difficult to discern even by trained professionals.
“Realistically, almost any shark in the right size range, roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) or greater, is a potential threat to humans because, even if a bite is not intended as a directed feeding attempt on a human, the power of the jaw and tooth morphology can lead to injury.”
This does not mean you should start worrying about becoming a blacktips next meal. After all, shark attacks are rare no matter the species. However, you might want to give them a bit more respect because the statistics don’t lie.
They deserve it.
Chester Moore, Jr.
Cutting-edge wildlife writings and investigations.