Cathe Descheemaker learned how to identify the prints of local wild animals the hard way by living with them.
"I guess you could learn it in college, but I learned it cleaning up after lions and tigers," the ex-wife of longtime Payson Zoo owner Randy Ferry said. "I've also done a lot of rehab work on white-tailed deer and javelina. You might say I've had an up-close and personal relationship with the animals who live in this part of the world."
Descheemaker, currently a park ranger at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, will share her hard-earned expertise with bridge visitors Saturday, Oct. 27, when she presents "Who Made that Track" at 11 a.m. and then again at 2 p.m.
As you might guess, coming from someone who has spent much of her life with wild animals, she is not going to tell you to hightail it out of there if you come across the prints of a black bear.
"The purpose of the talk is to give people added enjoyment when they're hiking down along a creek," she said. "They can get a little excited when they see the prints being able to identify them and say, 'Oh, there was a bear here last night.'"
Among the props she'll use are sets of latex paws representing the wild animals most common at the park. Besides the black bear, they include the mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, javelina, white-tailed deer, and, believe it or not, the great blue heron "big, tall shore birds whose wingspans can reach 72 inches."
But don't expect to see elk prints.
"As common as they are in this area, we don't have any elk in the park," Descheemaker said.
Besides how to identify the prints of these animals, Descheemaker will talk a little about patterns of behavior and other characteristics that help identify the source of prints that are similar in appearance.
"I'll demonstrate how they walk because of the similarities in their prints," she said. "For example, javelina and white-tailed deer prints can look very much alike."
So can coyote and dog prints. How can you tell if the visitor you had last night was Fido from next door or a wild beast from the forest?
"It's very difficult to tell the difference, but a coyote will drag his tail especially when tracking prey and a dog doesn't normally," Descheemaker said.
The claws are also more pronounced in coyote prints, and because coyotes tend to leap more than dogs, their tracks can be 10 feet apart.
Another interesting fact that Descheemaker will point out is that almost universally the front paws of wild animals are larger than their back paws.
"The front feet are always larger because they carry the weight of the head," she said. The exception "the black bear, because he will stand up, has larger rear feet."
While Descheemaker's presentation is free, there is a $5 per vehicle admission charge to the 160-acre park home of what is believed to be the largest travertine bridge in the world. Park hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through October.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is located off Highway 87 about 10 miles north of Payson. The presentation begins at Cypress Ramada located at the south end of the parking area.