Strangers in Town
How the arrival of beavers divided the small California city of Martinez
This excerpt is adapted from Ben Goldfarb’s book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter> (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Heidi Perryman did not set out to change the fortunes of California’s beavers. When, back in 2007, the first pair began building in Alhambra Creek, she was simply delighted by the novelty. “They were adorable,” she told me, before revising her opinion. “Well, they were unusual. They were more unusual than adorable. Actually, they’re not really that adorable — but they were very cool.” Perryman was most enamored of the life that rode in on the beavers’ coattails: herons, otters, mink, muskrats. She and her husband Jon strolled daily down to the bridge that spans Alhambra Creek to film the frolicsome creatures. More than a decade later, she has external hard drives loaded with two terabytes of beaver footage — the equivalent of around a dozen MacBooks’ worth.
Photo by Yosemite Love / Flickr
The city of Martinez, however, was less enchanted. Alhambra Creek flows through downtown on its way to San Francisco Bay; during heavy winter rains, the stream is prone to rampaging through the streets. Although Martinez alleviated the problem with a ten-million-dollar flood control project in 2001, the specter of deluge still loomed large. The town wasn’t sure whether beavers represented a true threat, but creek-abutting business owners preemptively complained. The Martinez city council reassured its constituents that the beavers would be killed.
The announcement alarmed Perryman, who’d fallen head over heels. The beavers had recently birthed four kits, who actually were adorable, and who uttered the most beguiling squeaks and gurgles. “I remember thinking, do the people that want them killed even know about the sound that a baby beaver makes?” Perryman said, the silver beaver pendant on her necklace glinting in the sun. “And if I don’t do something, will I ever hear that sound again?”
At this point in our conversation, Perryman decided her story required a visual aid. “Jon!” she hollered toward the interior of the house. “Bring the scrapbook! Oh, and could we have more coffee? Some waitress you are.” A moment later, Jon, a genial fellow who wore a worth a dam tank top and his hair in a silver ponytail, emerged with a swollen scrapbook, its pages bursting with the paper trail of Perryman’s campaign. I leafed through the documentary evidence of her struggle: pre-stamped, pro-beaver postcards she’d handed out to pedestrians on the bridge; articles she’d written for the Martinez News-Gazette; lyrics to a Blue Oyster Cult parody song (“City don’t kill the beavers”). The San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times covered the quirky controversy. The city announced that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would live-trap the animals and relocate them to tribal land, assuming this would mollify the beaver freaks. The freaks were not mollified. Schoolchildren stood on the bridge and chanted “Leave her, leave her, save Ms. Beaver!” Even the city’s Wikipedia page became a hotbed of dispute, a battleground between editors praising Martinez’s beavers and anonymous trolls castigating them.
Martinez already possessed something of a split personality: Its two most famous landmarks are the former residence of John Muir and a foreboding Shell Oil refinery. The beaver brouhaha only deepened divisions. “It was a Hatfield and McCoy scenario — either you were totally for beavers or totally against them,” Mark Ross, the city council’s lone pro-beaver member, told me. Some of the community’s wealthiest and most powerful pillars were vehemently opposed. During one confrontation, a well-heeled businessman cursed in Ross’s face, their noses so close they practically touched. “I was thinking, This seventy-year-old guy is about to hit me!” Ross recalled. “Do I hit back against a senior citizen or not?”
At last, the worn-down city agreed to hold a public meeting. On November 7, 2007, two hundred people packed into a high school auditorium. Eleven police officers had been summoned to mind the restless crowd. The first person who stepped to the mike demanded the city remove the beavers. The next 49 demanded they stay. Tim Platt called the beavers the best thing to happen to downtown Martinez in years. Katherine Myskowski and Linda Aguirre said they were tourist attractions. Sheri-ann Hasenfus claimed they’d brought the city together. Charles Martin suggested the high school change its mascot from bulldog to beaver. The mayor read a comment card from a nine-year-old girl named Natalie who feared for the beavers’ future.
The city council did what city councils do: It created a subcommittee. Reluctantly, they gave Heidi Perryman a seat.
The battle lurched on into 2008. Perryman, finding the Internet lacking, scoured the country for beaver-smart professionals to advise the city, stumbling finally upon Skip Lisle and Beaver Deceivers International. At Perryman’s recommendation, the city spent $10,500 flying Lisle from Vermont to Martinez to install a Castor Master. The News-Gazette commemorated the event by running a front-page photograph of Lisle mucking around in the pond, bare arms rippling in the sunshine, below the headline “Burly Beaver Biologist Breaks a Sweat.” A yellowed copy of the article — signed BBB by the burly beaver biologist himself — is pressed into Perryman’s scrapbook. “I’ve never had media coverage like that,” Lisle marveled to me. “Every news outlet in San Francisco seemed to be there.”
Unlike so many beaver tales, Perryman’s concludes happily: The Castor Master worked. Alhambra Creek didn’t flood. The city never removed the beavers, but they never quite countenanced them, either. Skirmishes occasionally flared: When, in 2011, an artist named Mario Alfaro painted a beaver into his mural celebrating Martinez’s history, the city made him erase it, like John D. Rockefeller demanding Diego Rivera excise Vladimir Lenin. (Alfaro got the last laugh — if you look closely at the mural today, you can spot a little leathery tail descending from the final O in his signature.)
The years passed. The beavers stuck around, integrated into civic life, another ingredient in the urban melting pot. Even detractors moved on, though Mark Ross, the pro-beaver councilman, told me some business owners still don’t talk to him. Beyond its borders, Martinez gained a reputation for castor activism. “To this day, if you go around to obscure corners of the Bay Area and tell people you’re from Martinez, they’ll go, ‘Oh, how are the beavers?’” Ross told me. “‘I’m so glad you didn’t kill them.’”
The only person who continued to live and breathe aquatic rodents was Heidi Perryman: Once a Beaver Believer, always a Beaver Believer. In 2008 Perryman held the first-ever Martinez Beaver Festival, a quaint affair with eight booths and a few cardboard tails on which kids could glue stickers. “We thought it would be harder for the city to kill them after we’d thrown a party for them,” she told me. Within a few years it had become one of the most beloved events on the city’s social calendar. Worth a Dam, whose website she’d built with programming help from a local homeless man, took off, too. Every week, it seemed, another email drifted in from another beaver-lover seeking advice about how to save their local colony from heavy-handed managers.
In the decade after the arrival of the Martinez beavers, Heidi Perryman tracked them with the devotion of a proud parent. She learned to recognize them by sight, pieced together elaborate genealogies, and followed the drama as if it were a daytime soap opera. The year 2010 was particularly full of heart-wrenching plot twists: The colony’s matriarch died after she broke her upper incisors, forcing a two-year-old to assume the burden of caring for her younger siblings. The next year, the male vanished for a while before returning with a new mate. Perryman has watched twenty-five kits come of age in Alhambra Creek. “It’s all very As the Beaver Turns,” she told me.
In 2015 the Martinez drama entered its darkest season yet. All four kits born that year, along with one sub-adult, mysteriously died. State scientists necropsied the bodies and tested for contaminants, but found none. Whatever the cause of death, the parents, apparently having decided that Alhambra Creek was no place to raise children, skedaddled. Although beavers stopped by in 2016, they cleared out again well before August 5, 2017 — the tenth annual Martinez Beaver Festival, and the first ever held without its namesake animal in attendance.
The festival, held on a bright Saturday in the pocket park next to the Alhambra Creek bridge — hallowed ground for Believers — was a sweet affair: grown exponentially from its roots, still cute enough to charm. Although beavers were the honorees, it seemed to have evolved over the years into a general wildlife jamboree; my partner Elise and I saw booths focused on the conservation of seals, coyotes, native pollinators, and birds of prey. Rusty Cohn, a photographer from Napa who spent years shadowing a beaver colony in a concrete-lined ditch, showed off his pictures in a bound book. Esteban Murschel, the Portland-based founder of a group called Beaver Ambassadors, distributed hand-drawn flipbooks. Perryman, looking over-worked but happy, presided from a tent near the stage, trusty scrapbook by her side, dispensing nature tattoos and extolling the merits of her favorite rodent to the next generation of Beaver Believers.
Still, an air of loss hung over the proceedings. At festivals past, Jon had led tours along Alhambra Creek to visit the dams and lodges. Now the stream contained nothing but a green skein of algae and a couple of melancholic ducks. We tried to compensate for the absence of flesh-and-blood beavers by purchasing ersatz ones: At the silent auction, I placed the high bid for a beaver print and a beaver T-shirt, while Elise won a brass beaver bottle opener. I didn’t get the sense we had much competition.
What the festival lacked in live beavers, it made up in Bucky Beaver, a character of Brock Dolman’s invention. Dolman, an ecologist at a Sonoma County nonprofit called the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, took the stage at one thirty sharp, decked out in a head-to-toe plush beaver costume endowed with the bulbous oblate head of a Teletubby. A beaver hand puppet perched on one claw like Mini-Me. To warm applause, he launched into a dizzying spoken-word monologue about all that beavers do to combat climate change, his monologue packed with Dolmanisms like “oil-ogarchy” and “plantcestors.” We cheered on his spiel from beneath the shade of a live oak; in front of the stage, a volunteer ushered away a man attempting to light a cigar. “Right now, the planet is running a serious fossil fool fever,” Dolman continued, undeterred. “You know what I’m saying — due to your collective craze of carbonaceous combustion creating cacophonous climate chaos.” We whistled our approval. “Where we come from,” he went on, “we say, Where there’s a willow, there’s a way-o.” He blew the audience a kiss.
We found Dolman a few minutes later, back in street clothes, still flushed and damp. “Holy hell it was hot up there,” he said as we high-fived.
“I assume you made that costume?” I said.
He looked pained. “Nah, didn’t have time — I bought it.” He leaned closer. “Dude, you do not want to search for beaver costumes online.”
After the festival, we drove north along the Pacific for a few days, ending up in Olympic National Park for a backpacking trip. We didn’t see any beaver sign in the park’s old-growth rain forest, although our camp was invaded one night by a mountain beaver, Aplodontia rufa — an odd rodent, only distantly related to Castor canadensis, with the peaked face of a mole and the long, grotesque fingers of Mr. Burns. When we emerged from the backcountry, now eight days after the festival, I found, not to my surprise, that I’d received several emails from Heidi Perryman. The subject line on one message: “Are you sitting down?”
I clicked through to a YouTube video: the dark scrub of Alhambra Creek, its burbling the backing track to the swelling strings of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” I saw a familiar-looking pile of peeled sticks, traversed by a curious skunk. And then the camera zoomed in on a dark mound of fur dabbling in the shallow creekbed, hands curled to mouth, sitting upright within expanding rings of concentric ripples. They were back.
Note: Beavers were once prevalent throughout most of California until fur traders nearly wiped them out in the nineteenth century. Until very recently, it was thought that beavers had a limited range in the Golden State and had never inhabited much of the California’s coastal areas, including the San Francisco Bay Area or the Sierra Nevada mountains, but current research has upended that assumption.