Like June Cleaver, I am worried about the beaver.
There are six of the little buggers in three cages, stacked to the fore and aft of the Honda ATV that I am, at this peculiar moment, just learning how to operate. Two adults, two yearlings, two kits — more than 200 pounds of fur and orange teeth and enormous paddle-shaped tails, reeking of more musk than a fifteen-year-old boy after his morning blast of Axe. They smell like...well, like big, wet rodents drying in the sun.
Nocturnal by nature, my cargo is unaccustomed to the blaze of the midday heat. They are not happy about the lurching and pitching of the ATV as we negotiate the steep, rutted trail. They express their distress by shifting nervously in their cages, shitting copiously and looking for a way out. I am wondering how I will drive while fending off a crazed gang of giant rats on a prison break when I hear a soothing voice behind me.
"How are you doing, baby?" Sherri Tippie asks. "You are so beautiful!"
These endearments are directed not at me, but at the beaver, which must endure a few more minutes of this alarming final stage of their 200-mile journey to a new home. Tippie trapped this family in a desolate stretch of Sand Creek in Aurora a couple of days ago and has been chatting with them regularly ever since. People think it's crazy for her to talk to wild animals — and to urge other people to do the same — but she insists that hearing a friendly human voice helps to calm a beaver.
She ought to know. Over the past 25 years, Tippie has probably live-trapped, fed, cuddled, relocated, observed, defended, conversed with, serenaded and otherwise saved from annihilation more beaver than any person on earth. Her expertise has been achieved through long hours in muddy, trash-choked creeks and endless struggles with know-nothing bureaucrats, smug exterminators and homeowner associations that view beaver as an invasive species. In 1987, when Tippie first started Wildlife 2000, her grassroots organization dedicated to beaver rescue, she was ridiculed by wildlife officials as a rank amateur; now members of those same agencies seek her out for advice and beg her to conduct seminars on how to trap safely.
"Sherri's just an old hippie," says Shayne Clayson, a volunteer who's worked with her often in recent years. "She is so passionate about this animal. I used to think she was one of the best in the country, but there are people all over the world calling her."
Once slaughtered by the millions for their pelts and denounced as pests that gnawed valuable timber and clogged up irrigation ditches with their infernal dams, beaver have been virtually eradicated from many North American waterways. Killing beaver on private property in Colorado doesn't require any kind of permit — even though they are now widely recognized as a keystone species in the arid West, a species that plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining the conditions of a particular ecosystem.
Beaver dams improve water quality, preventing erosion, trapping silt and reducing downstream flooding. Their activities also create habitat for other wildlife, transforming a racing but lifeless stream into a tranquil, rich refuge for fish, birds and vegetation. (Their ponds even help cut down on mosquitoes by attracting birds, fish and other insects that feed on mosquito larvae.) Ranchers and wildlife agencies in several states are now seeking to reintroduce beaver to ailing watersheds in an effort to forestall drought and improve forage for wildlife as well as livestock.
Tippie's work has played a major role in reshaping public attitudes about the industrious creature. She began by rescuing beaver that would otherwise be liquidated. Now she relocates dozens of beaver every summer, moving them from unsuitable habitat, such as suburban drainage ditches, to high-country ranches and wildlife areas whose managers are clamoring for better water storage and wetlands. And she works with municipalities across the state, including Denver and Aurora, to try to find solutions that allow beaver to continue to operate in urban areas.
"I'll argue with God," Tippie says. "And I'll put my record as a successful live beaver trapper against anybody. These animals are being 'managed' — killed — by people who know nothing about them. It's so aggravating."
A crew shooting a documentary about beaver rescuers has dubbed Tippie the Beaver Whisperer, a term she loathes. She's also been described as the Jane Goodall of beaver, but that's not right, either. Goodall received formal training in primate behavior and has a doctoral degree. Tippie was trained as a hairdresser, and most of what she knows about Castor canadensis she learned firsthand, by trapping beaver and watching them at work.