Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Scott Thybony Commentaries

Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Land of Flying Cows

Weekly World News

The Colorado Plateau is a place of "regional improbability" - where heat waves can create visions of crystal clear swimming holes and wind can make it seem like rain falls up, not down. That improbability is something writer Scott Thybony took for granted until he took a trip to Bryce Canyon. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Thybony tells us about the land of flying cows and Grand Canyon alligators.

We live surrounded by extraordinary landscapes with dramatic swings of weather. It's a land where mountains appear to float in the heat shimmer of midday and trees walk. At least that's how a young girl standing next to me on the rim of Bryce Canyon saw it. She kept staring at the gnarled and exposed roots of a juniper clinging to the cliff edge. "That tree," she finally said, "looks like it's walking." The canyon country can be a land of illusions and a place of wild surprises.

Two hikers were on their way to Keet Seel, a cliff dwelling in Tsegi Canyon reached by a trail threading between cliff walls. Rounding a bend they heard the cry of an animal in distress, but were unable to locate the source of the sound. Finally, they looked up and there it was - a calf caught in the highest branches of a tree, a flying cow. How else could it have gotten there?

Puzzled by what they had seen, the hikers continued down the trail until encountering a Navajo on horseback. He listened patiently to their report before responding with a simple, "Not again." It turned out he ran cattle on the mesa above, and one of his calves had gotten into the habit of walking off cliffs. Now he had to go and rescue it one more time. Out here, flying cows are just part of the scenery. And on another day it might be desert alligators.

In 1987 a rancher released a 16" gator named Clem in a remote spring north of the Grand Canyon. Somehow he was able to survive on bullfrogs and careless birds until the oasis became part of the Grand Canyon - Parashant National monument. After 18 years, he had grown to a length of 8 feet, leading the rangers to worry about an unsuspecting hiker stumbling upon the hungry alligator. So they brought in a team of gator wranglers to catch Clem and eliminate the hazard. Using traps baited with rabbit, they tried unsuccessfully for 2 weeks until hitting on the right solution. At night they played a recording of baby alligators in distress, their chirping cry being the equivalent of a dinner bell for a male gator. Clem came out of hiding and, catching the scent of rabbit meat, he let his guard down. As soon as he stuck his head through the loop of a snare his days on the loose ended. To wrestle the scrawny, 125 pound animal into the back of a horse trailer took 4 men.

These days, Clem the alligator resides at a wildlife sanctuary in Scottsdale, Arizona. the gator has made a remarkable adjustment to life in captivity, having grown to an immense 600 pounds. So big, in fact, he was moved last year to a larger pen with certain amenities unknown to the one-time desert hermit. Clem now has a girlfriend named Fluffy. But he hasn't lost his edge; step too close and he will bare his teeth with a hiss and give such a deep growl it's been described as sounding like a Harley in need of a tune-up.

So next time you're out walking in the desert, keep your eyes open for alligators. And while you're at it, don't forget to look up. You might spot a flying cow or two.

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.