LAKESIDE — Ticks and rattlesnakes are among Gerry Cosgrove's closest neighbors, and he thinks that's great.
Hundreds of people walk through his front yard every month, and that's OK with him.
His telephone rings almost constantly, and that--well, that drives him nuts.
Cosgrove is the resident manager of Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary, a rugged, 550-acre tract of chaparral and oaks a few miles northeast of Lakeside. The sanctuary, owned and operated by the San Diego Chapter of the Audubon Society, is truly a unique place in the county.
Consider that at Silverwood:
- If you're a snake, you'll never have to worry about being attacked with a hoe.
- If you're a manzanita bush, you'll never be scraped out of the ground by a bulldozer to make way for a housing tract.
- If you're a fox, no one will run over you or try to pepper your hide with buckshot. In fact, someone might even throw you a bone.
"There is a fox that comes right up by the house sometimes," Cosgrove said. "If I go inside, he'll wait there, hoping I'm getting a bone for him. And if I come outside and make like I'm throwing something"--Cosgrove paused and did a good imitation of Dan Fouts throwing a long pass--"he'll sniff around like he knows something is out there."
Cosgrove, 65, took over as manager of the sanctuary in July after the previous manager died. He was selected over more than 60 others who applied for the job.
An avid white-water kayaker and a physician, Cosgrove spent the previous eight years as head of the pathology department at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, performing autopsies on animals and studying their diseases and parasites.
When he retired in July, he planned on "just hanging around helping out at the zoo. But when I heard about the (sanctuary manager's) job, I figured what the heck--free rent. I didn't realize how much work is involved."
Leading Tours, Cleaning
Cosgrove lives at Silverwood in a one-bedroom cabin that he shares with a few persistent mice and rats that don't seem to realize they're supposed to be living in the surrounding chaparral. He spends 50 to 60 hours a week leading tours, cleaning bathrooms, filling bird feeders and trimming brush along the sanctuary's 10 miles of trails--some of them virtual tunnels through the dense growth.
"The trails closest to the house get the most attention," he said with a laugh.
The way he sees it, the sanctuary is "not unlike a zoo. It's main value is as an undisturbed area where wild plants and animals can live. But it also has an educational value. It's a place where we try to show people how interesting and entertaining chaparral habitat can be."
Several scientific studies have been conducted at Silverwood, too. In one, graduate students at San Diego State University have investigated plant growth and mineral recycling in patches of chaparral that had recently burned.
According to Harold Wier, a botanical consultant and president of the San Diego Chapter of the Audubon Society, the sanctuary is an excellent example of the chaparral plant community that covered much of San Diego County before the conquistadores arrived. Civilization, agriculture and livestock grazing have altered much of the habitat since then, but Silverwood is "about as undisturbed a place as you can find in the county. And the evidence of that is that there are very few non-native plants growing there," Wier said.
Away From Highway Noise
"Another thing about it is that very few places with this kind of environment have trails where you can get out and see the plants and wildlife. But Silverwood has trails that put you out in the middle of all this stuff, away from the clamor of highways."
The sanctuary is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and to groups by special appointment. Cosgrove said about 30 visitors show up on an average Sunday, but several hundred people visit the sanctuary each month, including students of all ages on field trips and members of organizations such as the Lake Hodges Native Plant Society and the Bonita Valley Garden Club.
"Only 25% of our visitors are Audubon members, and 80% have never been here before," Cosgrove said. "They come mainly to look around and learn about native plants and animals. Most of them take our nature walks--it's like going to the Wild Animal Park and seeing the animal shows."
He often personally leads visitors on tours of the chaparral, explaining such things as how the Indians used wild cucumbers to poison fish. "They ground up the roots and sprinkled them into ponds and pools, wherever they thought there were a lot of fish," he said. "It's a pretty potent poison--it would paralyze the gills of the fish and pretty soon they'd be floating belly up."
The sanctuary harbors nearly 200 varieties of native plants.