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Wild Wild Life

The savage truth about UCSC: It's a jungle out there

By Sarah Phelan

SO, YOU'RE SITTING in your dorm wondering what to do on a campus that looks more like a state park. Which reminds me of when a good friend moved here from New York.

"At first I was really homesick and missing the galleries, the jazz, the cultural scene, everything that I call the genius of New York. One day I realized that to be happy here I would have to discover the genius of Santa Cruz," says my friend, who subsequently came to see that the ocean, the forest and their wildlife are the genius of Santa Cruz.

We're sure you'll soon be having your own wild encounters, but may we recommend the following three animals as examples of what's truly beastly about your new home.

Mountain Lions

Someone once said that a mountain lion is like a light breeze: if one is present, you know it, but though you can feel it, you can't see it. And despite all the signs posted on campus warning of these cats, they are very rarely seen--which is not the same as saying that they are not around.

Masters of stealth, these big, tawny-colored cats hunt at dawn or dusk when their coats blend with the parched pelt of hills. But don't expect to hear roars echoing across the hills, as mountain lions are known for silence--and the occasional eerie shriek, as captured once on a Lassie episode.

The original Greta Garbos of wildlife, mountain lions have an aversion to humans, but loss of habitat loss has forced them to dwell closer to us and led to an increase in attacks--75 percent of attacks in the last century occurred since 1970, with most of the victims being under 16 years of age.

That said, if you do encounter one of these fantastic creatures, resist the instinct to run or crouch, lest you resemble lunch. Besides, there's no way in hell that you are ever going to outrun one of these muscled beasts in a sprinting match. Instead, carry a deterrent, like a big stick, heavy stone, fanny pack or even your bicycle frame if you're out riding, so you can put up a fight, if necessary.

And remember in the case of a confrontation, stand up tall and open your coat or shirt--not to flash the unsuspecting puddy, but to give it an illusion of height and bulk that resembles the mountain lion's most feared enemy, Marlon Brando. I mean, the bear.

If you are one of the lucky few to view one of these beasts from a safe distance, consider yourself blessed. American Indians, in one of their many tales about this creature, posited it as the king of the dead, whose appearance signaled one of two things; death or return from limbo.

Great White Sharks

The chewed up surfboard at the Santa Cruz Surf Museum is a stark reminder that our local beaches lies within great white shark territory, a.k.a. the Red Triangle, on account of telltale slicks of blood on the ocean's surface during a shark attack.

A closer inspection of said surfboard reveals it was mangled like a rice cake by a set of scarily huge teeth. And then there are the photos of Erik Larsen, the victim of that particular attack, heavily bandaged, having suffered heavy blood loss and massive lacerations, the neoprene wetsuit he was wearing evidently failing to serve as a taste deterrent after the shark's initial exploratory bite.

If that isn't enough for you, check out the University Science Library, which contains many a gruesome shark factoid. Consider that sharks are the world's only intrauterine cannibals, with the unborn sharks devouring each other until finally one dominant predator emerges.

Appearing 350 million years ago, our modern great whites are descendants of 69-foot prehistoric behemoths and would sink if they didn't keep swimming since, unlike fishes, they don't have air-filled bladders.

Able to charge through the water at 40-70 knots, sharks have serrated fangs containing almost 30 spare sets of teeth. Records show that everything from goats and roosters to a reindeer and a headless human in a suit of armor have been found in their bellies. But what would we know? And hey, if you still feel like surfing, there are plenty of great spots that the locals will be only too unhappy to share with you.

Banana Slugs

Sitting under the redwoods, listening to the sound of condensed fog dripping onto the forest's needly floor, is an activity that will put you directly in tune with the your school's mascot, a bright yellow hermaphrodite known in common parlance as the banana slug, or Ariolimax dolichophallus in Latin, which roughly translates into "slug with enormous penis." No, that is not a joke.

Everyone knows that snails love moisture, and were there no fog catching on the redwoods' branches above and dripping to the floor below, these critters wouldn't be gliding across the trails by your feet, noisily engaged in the moment, as they scrape with their radula (a tongue coated with lots of tiny teeth) almost everything they encounter--except, of course, their shade-giving, moisture-collecting hosts, the giant redwoods.

Unique to Santa Cruz County, the bright yellow slug wasn't always the official campus mascot, that privilege being reserved in 1980 for the sea lion by an administration concerned that the slug's inherent sliminess and spinelessness, not to mention sluggishness, weren't traditional enviable academic and athletic qualities

But traditional is hardly the word that pops into our head when we think of UCSC's student body, which prides itself on being iconoclastic and environmentally aware. All of which explains why in 1986 the students voted overwhelmingly to replace those loudly barking sea lions with the gently gliding slug.

And now, more than just beloved, the slug has become prophetic, at least symbolically, as a metaphor for the potential and perils of universities, thanks to a condition known as gigantism.

In the slug's case, the problem is its male organ, which is often bigger than its body, meaning that sometimes it has to--ouch--amputate its mating partner's organ post-coitus.

(In UCSC's case, gigantism takes the form of unchecked student growth, which this year topped 14,000 students--a more than 200-fold increase since an original 65 knowledge seekers arrived when UCSC opened in 1965--but that's another story.)

These are the kinds of facts that will make you think twice about testing that campus myth that licking the celebrated yellow slug will numb your tongue. And definitely don't try it on a mountain lion.

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From the September 25-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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