Benicia’s Wild Nightlife
There is a side of Benicia that few people see or get to experience: the wild side. While the city sleeps, as in a Maurice Sendak story, the wild things come out to play. Skunks and raccoons and opossums, oh my! Here is a brief look at Benicia’s wild nightlife:
“I get across the street pretty quick when I see a skunk,” says a woman we’ll call Gayle, a long-time Benicia resident who asked that her name not be used. But she and her friends walk the streets of Southampton and even downtown virtually every day in the very early morning before sunup. So she has firsthand experience on what it’s like to have an angry skunk jump out at you in the dark.
It happened to her on Panorama Drive. “We had four dogs with us, and we were walking down the hill and this skunk came out of a bush and started chasing us,” Gayle recalls. They made a clean escape but of all the creatures roaming Benicia’s sleeping streets, skunks are the ones she’s most leery of.
Cats are the most abundant night wanderers, the most common animal she sees. Gayle wears headlamps to light her way and to make sure the occasional passing car notices her in the darkness. They also help her identify which animal is which by the glowing eyes staring back at her.
“The good thing about headlamps is that it picks up their eyeballs,” she says. “You can tell it’s a cat by its eyeball spread.”
Racoon on branch. Lindsay Wildlife Experience
©Monte Deignan courtesy of the Coyote Project
One early morning in late October there was rustling in a tree above her on McCall Drive in Water’s End. She beamed her headlamps upward, revealing tiny points of light she thought at first were Halloween lights strung around the tree by a festive homeowner.
Instead, “it was a family of opossums. It was all these different eyeballs looking at me. That’s all I could see. These eyeballs lit up in the tree.”
Kindly cat owners leave food out overnight in their backyards for their little charges, but it is not always sweet Simba or Luna that eat it. Opossums, skunks and raccoons appreciate a nice free meal too.
“If you see something in a storm drain,” testifies Gayle, “it’s usually gonna be a raccoon. That’s their underground highway. They go from drain to drain. It’s warm for them down there.”
Barn Owl on Black. Lindsay Wildlife Experience
Deer like to come out at night because it allows them to feast on Benicia’s attractive landscaping without being bothered by any annoying humans. Gayle spotted one deer simply “trotting down the middle of the street, just passing through.” Another was walking straight up the three flights of concrete steps that connect Jack London’s playing fields with Hastings Drive. Another time a buck, with an impressive set of antlers, strolled by.
Owls may be the most magical of these nocturnal creatures. “They ghost by when they fly past,” she says, lyrically. “You can hear them, you sense them passing, but you never see them.”
Except for that one misbehaved skunk, not a single animal, not one, has ever bothered Gayle or her friends. “I don’t have any fear of these animals,” she maintains. “Nobody bothers us. All the critters go away from you. A coyote just stands there and stares at you. Then he goes off his way.”
One of their dogs may let out a yap or two, but they’re all on leashes—wearing LED collars to heighten their visibility—and it never amounts to anything. And even at that early hour, the dogs appreciate the fresh air and exercise, as do the humans who get to witness something every day that many Benicians also miss: the sunrise.
“We’ve got to see the sunrise,” says Gayle. “The sunrise tells you what kind of day you’re going to have. It’s a peaceful feeling.”
Images of barn owl, raccoon, and opossum courtesy of Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek.