Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

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6 comments on “Astronomy and Wildlife

  1. utena42 says:

    I had to look up “ringtail.” 🙂 State Mammal of Arizona! How awesome…. Thanks!

  2. I used to work at a hotel in Yellowstone. Not uncommon see bats hovering over guests while they were checking in. Bears on the grounds. and then there were those bison. And the pine martens would come inside and kill mice

    • Yeah, I’d imagine you’d see lots of wildlife working at a hotel in Yellowstone. I once had an observer call me about a mouse in the control room. It turned up it was a little bat curled up and getting ready to hibernate. I took it outside, so it could find a more suitable place to spend the winter.

  3. Sounds like maybe you need to put in an order for a wildlife biologist to look at your site and discover the likely access points. Then cover them with chicken wire!

    • From what I understand, it’s not quite so straightforward. Observatory staff does work with the Tohono O’Odham animal control, which is the local authority on the subject, to keep animals out of the buildings, but of course mice and lizards get in as mice and lizards are wont to do. Ringtails like to eat mice and lizards, so they find ways to follow them — and they’re good at finding ways to do so. What’s more, the buildings are good hiding places for the ringtails, who are hiding from bigger predators like bobcats.

      What’s more, we’re a site of big buildings in wild land without a lot of people to scare the animals away. Given those facts, encountering three ringtails and one bat inside the buildings in over a dozen years of observatory experience suggests we’re actually doing a fair job keeping wildlife where it belongs. But it is a little more of an issue for us than someone working in a more urban environment!

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