Atlanta wild: How to coexist with deer, coyotes and urban wildlife

By Thomas Bell for the AJC.
See the full story here.

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I first heard heard a rustling: unhurried, sustained and substantial. I was standing quietly by the creekside in Zonolite Park, a little patch of meadow and forest behind an old industrial park that now holds a Crossfit, a Pilates studio, an indoor gun range, and Floataway Cafe. The noisy rush of Briarcliff Road was two blocks away but lost in the water and breeze. The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping twigs came from the brush and trees on the creek’s other side, and they were getting closer.

And from the green emerged a coyote, and then another, the two walking atop the steep creekbank, assured and elegant. They paused and turned their heads across the creek to me. I was still. We looked at each other for a careful while, then they turned away, disappearing into the green.

It wasn’t my first coyote encounter in Atlanta, but it was the one that most vividly revealed to me a parallel Atlanta, one with many residents living in a wilder place. Such experiences are becoming increasingly common.

Scott Burland, a pharmacist and musician, sees that wild Atlanta when red-shouldered hawks hunting for prey descend to his deck in North Druid Valley.

Deborah Tawil, a neuromuscular therapist, hears it in the frequent fox cries that echo in the night in Pine Lake.

And many Atlantans experience that wilder world through deer. Filmmaker Kelly O’Neal finds them early in the morning in a neighborhood park off of Lawrenceville Highway. Marketing director Stacey Lucas sees them strolling down her street off of Briarcliff Road. And neuromuscular therapist Rebecca Leary Safon sees them in Morningside/Lenox Park.

Where the wild things are — now

When creatures with talons and fangs appear so near our strip malls and streets, it may sometimes feel like an invasion. But Atlanta was wild for eons before the first railroad spike or even the first Cherokee. We are the new arrivals, with our concrete and cars, and our encounters with wildlife are largely as trespassers surprised to find the residents still home.

“Over many decades now we have kept building and building, and we’re constantly moving people and homes and businesses into areas that were wild until recently,” says Scott Lange, executive director of the AWARE Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned wild animals and educates for the peaceful coexistence of humans and wildlife. “And so that has steadily increased the number of encounters that people have with animals.”

“The sheer numbers of encounters are increasing because of the expansion of the urban footprint,” says Drew Larson, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. For example, as metro Atlanta expands northward, it moves into stable black bear populations on the Piedmont, leading to a rise in black bear encounters over the last five years.

As we move into the habitats of native wild species, Larson says, “some don’t do as well in urban environs, and others do exceptionally well.” Deer, coyotes, foxes, and certain birds like mockingbirds and cardinals all thrive in Atlanta’s greener urban environments. Cliff-dwelling peregrine falcons even adapt to downtown skyscrapers. Wild turkeys and bobwhite quails do not adapt as well. Neither do black bears, but, says Larson, “that’s mostly from a human side where the presence of bears in and around those environments aren’t as welcome by the human inhabitants.”

The coyotes are somewhat new, at least on the scale of ecological time. “Forty years ago we wouldn’t have seen coyotes in populated or developed areas,” says AWARE’s Lange. “Now they are found in every neighborhood in Atlanta.”

“The coyote is here because we as humans wiped out the red wolf,” says Chris Mowry, founder of the Atlanta Coyote Project, which studies coyotes and offers strategies for peaceful coexistence. “It easily allowed the coyote to move into that vacant niche.”

Fear of fang and claw

Most of us encounter wildlife every day in Atlanta, without taking much notice of the squirrels and songbirds. More often the unfamiliar catches our attention: the erroneously perceived threat or the exceedingly rare occasions when the animals fight back.

“I was asked a few months ago about owls that had interacted with humans,” says Adam Betuel, conservation director of the Atlanta Audubon Society. “A couple had scratched the head of a passerby or gone after a pet.” The stories made the news in ways that the far more common “owl hit and killed by car” or “owl’s home cut down to make way for a condo complex” never would.

For an owl or other bird of prey to attack a human or pet is “very, very rare,” Betuel says. “It’s nothing really to worry about. We’re a huge and scary thing for most birds. … And the overwhelming majority of our pets are too large for raptors.”

Todd Schneider, an ornithologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says that most bird attacks are really just “bluff charges.” Hawks and owls might fly at a human or pet, then pull up, almost always because they’re protecting their nest or their young.

Atlanta’s great horned owls are large enough to view smaller cats or very small dogs as prey, but Schneider says that such attacks are highly uncommon. The largest of Atlanta’s owls, they typically weigh no more than five pounds, so even larger cats are more than a match for them.

Snake bites are somewhat more common, with Georgia Poison Control receiving a few hundred reports statewide each year. According to Larson of the DNR, only six of Georgia’s 46 species of snake are venomous, including the copperhead, which is the only one common in Atlanta.

“Out of the venomous snakes that are native to Georgia, they are the least venomous,” Larson says. And, while venomous snake bites can be serious medical matters, fatalities are extremely rare, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting a nationwide average of only five snake-related fatalities each year.

Even coyotes are no substantial threat to humans. Adult coyotes in Georgia generally weigh 25-45 pounds, about the size of a medium dog. While they are opportunistic omnivores, in healthy ecosystems they feed mostly on rodents and other small mammals, insects such as grasshoppers, and fruit. Some may eat fawns and, less commonly, adult deer. They will, however, take advantage of opportunities to eat food waste, roadkill, pet food, and — on rare occasions — outdoor cats and small dogs.

There are isolated reports of coyotes attacking humans, most of them in California. A report out of Ohio State University’s School of Environmental and Natural Resources documented 142 coyote attacks between 1960 and 2006 in the U.S. and Canada. That’s an average of about three per year. Contrast that with approximately 4.5 million dog bites annually in the U.S. alone, as estimated by the CDC.

The Atlanta Coyote Project’s website has a form for reporting coyotes. The form includes a choice to report a “sighting” or an “encounter.”

“An encounter is more of a conflict,” says Mowry, and “those are really rare.” When encounters do occur, “they don’t involve coyote-human conflict. They’re generally with pets, if and when they do occur.”

A peaceable kingdom?

We can, in fact, coexist peacefully with coyotes as readily as we already do with songbirds and squirrels. We can coexist with owls and hawks, with foxes and deer, with turtles and snakes.

“Very easily,” Mowry says. “It requires the desire to do so.”

AWARE’s Lange says, “It’s almost always possible and really the best course of action to at most deter an animal like a coyote from coming in your yard, but not to do more than that, not to take violent action.”

If you spot coyotes in your neighborhood, keep a respectful distance from them and leave them alone. Don’t threaten them, and they’ll almost never threaten you. If they come too close, make lots of noise, and they’ll likely run away. In the extremely unlikely case that a coyote becomes aggressive, enter safe shelter if immediately available, fight back if you have to (you’re much bigger than them), and call 9-1-1.

The best way for us to coexist without conflict is to preserve the unbuilt spaces and natural ecosystems in our city, so that wild animals have less reason to enter our back yards and roadsides.

“Maintaining greenspace is one of the best things we can do,” Larson says. “It can’t be all concrete and brick.” And avoid “providing any situation that would invite wild animals in to potentially cause a problem.”

Keep food waste in closed garbage cans or secure compost bins. Don’t overfeed your backyard birds, leading to excess seed left on the ground. Don’t feed your pets outside, where pet food may attract scavengers.

And as tempting as it may be, don’t leave out food, water, or salt licks for deer, which may become too habituated to human contact and reliant on the easy supplies. This may lead to more nuisances for humans and more car-related accidents for deer.

If birds attack, Schneider advises avoiding the area of the bluff charge and being patient while their young mature. “It’s just like people growing up,” he says. “When people are toddlers, we’re very protective of them. By the time they’re teenagers, you’re ready to get them out of there.”

And as for the safety of pets, don’t leave very small dogs unsupervised when they’re outside, and keep your cats indoors. This is not only safer for the pets, but, says Betuel, it’s safer for the smaller birds, which are being decimated by domestic cats hunting outside.

Keep Atlanta wild

In an ongoing study that the Atlanta Coyote Project plans to publish soon, Mowry says, “we’re seeing amazing biodiversity in parts of town where coyotes are found.” He explains that “a healthy ecosystem that has a top predator — which the coyote is filling that niche — now helps keep other species in check so that none becomes too numerous.”

Birds serve such purposes as pollinating flowers, spreading berry seeds and cleaning roadsides of animal carcasses. “If we didn’t have hawks and owls, we’d be overrun with mice,” Schneider says. “If we didn’t have songbirds, insects would just go crazy.”

“I would argue that every plant, animal, and microbe has a role in the environment whether we’ve identified that role or not,” Larson says. “They fill a niche and likely provide some ecological benefit.”

About 200 species of birds have been documented in Dekalb, Fulton, and Cobb counties.“We’re so lucky here in Atlanta because we have this amazing tree canopy,” says Betuel, “and we’re situated in this great spot just below the Appalachians … at the confluence of eastern fly-ways.”

And there are less tangible benefits too. Urban wildlife can delight and inspire us.

“We’re part of nature,” Larson says. “It’s one thing to go on a hike. It’s another thing to go on a hike and see some turkeys strutting or see a deer fawn nursing with its mother. Those are encounters that really enhance time in the outdoors.”

Singer-songwriter Kristen Englert-Lenz wrote to me about a late night when she returned home on the eve of her birthday. “After the car turned off, something caught my attention in the periphery,” she says. “I looked to my right. Sitting on top of the mailbox, about one foot away, was an adult barred owl staring directly at me. I started to cry. It’s one of the most powerful interactions with any kind of wildlife, let alone urban, I’ve ever experienced.”

Imagine Atlanta as the birds see it: the stretches of unbroken canopy, the lifeline of the Chattahoochee River. See Atlanta as the turtles do: a network of creeks and rivers, the summer sun quickening their hearts. Prowl Atlanta like a coyote or fox, on the hunt through patches of forest, traversing the bank of a creek one hot afternoon and coming upon a man. Atlanta is so much more than what we have built, more than how we fill our human days. Look to urban wildlife to show us Atlanta, the wild city.

Insider tips

If you see what you believe to be an injured or orphaned wild animal, contact AWARE or a similar wildlife rescue organization before intervening in any way. Humans with the best of intentions sometimes separate baby animals from their parents, who may simply have been waiting for the humans to leave. awarewildlife.org

For more ways to coexist with Georgia’s native animals, see the resources on the Georgia Department of Wildlife’s “Living with Wildlife” page. georgiawildlife.com/nuisancewildlife

Posted on September 10, 2018 .

Eagle Scout Projects Improve Zonolite Park

Robert Weimar Eagle Scout Benches 2.jpg

ATLANTA, GA (August 9, 2018) – Since 2014, South Fork Conservancy has been working with community partners to restore the woods and waterways of Zonolite Park, a former industrial site surrounding part of Peachtree Creek. The project has had a long list of successes, including the creation of a thriving meadow, a community garden, and numerous trails throughout the wooded park. Now the Conservancy has helped to bring another addition to the park: three cedar benches that offer views of the creek and meadow.

Built by Eagle Scout Robert Weimar, the benches are located at three key points throughout the park. The first sits by the park entrance, allowing for easy viewing of the meadow and community garden. The other benches overlook Peachtree Creek’s south fork at two idyllic spots further within the park. The benches, said Weimar, “provide an inviting atmosphere for this newly restored area as well as a practical place to sit.” 

Each bench is decorated with South Fork Conservancy’s distinctive chevron, with a color palette intended to reflect the dyes Native Americans made from the clay of Peachtree Creek. South Fork Conservancy hopes that these benches will allow people to sit and enjoy the natural world while also reflecting on the human and natural history that has made the creek what it is today.

Zonolite Park is named after the insulation company that once used the site for manufacturing. Abandoned by the company in 2009, the land was unused until South Fork Conservancy and local property owners contacted the EPA to clean up and preserve the future parkland. Following a $2 million settlement, the polluters paid for the cleanup and Zonolite Park was born. Since the successful restoration of meadow and riverine habitats, South Fork Conservancy has continued to spearhead efforts to support local wildlife and make the park accessible for everyone in the community.

 

 

Posted on August 9, 2018 .

South Fork Conservancy celebrates 10 years, looks to more creekside conservation

By David Pendered for the Saporta Report
June 3, 2018

The South Fork Conservancy has entered its second decade of protecting the natural environment along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek with plans for a new pedestrian bridge over the creek – and money in the bank to pay for building the bridge and other projects.
Confluence Bridge

The concept design for the planned Confluence Bridge shows a bridge covered by planks, with a safety rail to protect visitors. The bridge is to span the place where the North and South Forks of Peachtree Creek come together.

The project is another major step for a grassroots organization that was started in 2008, during the depth of the Great Recession. The SFC’s efforts represent a textbook example of taking many right steps to achieve an objective, despite an uncertain economy and the challenges it presents to non-profit organizations.

See the full story here.

Posted on June 4, 2018 .

South Fork Conservancy raises $74 k and unveils Buckhead bridge design at Creek Rising

By Evelyn Andrews for the Reporter Newspapers

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The South Fork Conservancy unveiled concept designs for the Confluence Bridge planned for Buckhead at its 10th-anniversary celebration and annual fundraiser.

The April 26 event held at Zonolite Park raised $74,000 for the nonprofit, which creates trails along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek. The South Fork runs between Buckhead and Emory University. The conservancy plans to link the trails with PATH400, which has already been completed near Peachtree Creek. It also plans to connect to the Atlanta BeltLine and Brookhaven’s planned Peachtree Creek Greenway.

Read the full story and see SFC's bridge concepts here.

Posted on May 7, 2018 .

South Fork Conservancy Surpasses $2 Million Campaign Goal

Atlanta, GA (October 2017) – South Fork Conservancy (SFC) is working to complete approximately five miles of creekside trails in the heart of Atlanta with funds donated to its capital campaign, Revealing the Creek.

Fourteen months after announcing a goal of $2 million for its first-ever capital campaign, SFC announced that it has surpassed that goal during a celebration on October 24. Campaign co-chair and Board President, Billy Hall said, “This is a milestone in our vision to connect people and communities and our natural environment.  The funds from this campaign will launch the effort to create 30 miles of trails connecting greenspace from Lindberg to the perimeter.”

To date, the campaign raised $2,041,000 and funds are still being received. Notable donations include a $500,000 gift from the Kendeda Fund and a $250,000 grant from Park Pride. Local business, Catalyst Development Partners and NewFields, contributed five-figure gifts.

Dozens of individuals also joined the campaign and the median gift was $36,400. Campaign co-chair, Joni Winston said, “Foundations, businesses, and our local community have all enthusiastically joined us and we are deeply grateful for their generosity. Their support shows a powerful connection to our mission of creating an urban oasis along Peachtree Creek.”

Campaign funds are already being put to work on six impactful trail projects. Once completed, these infrastructure improvements will connect the SFC pedestrian trail system to the Atlanta BeltLine, PATH400, and Peachtree Creek Greenway near the intersection of I85 and GA 400. This trail hub will eventually connect Buckhead to Emory University’s Campus. This connectivity to greenspace is designed to enrich the lives of community members, enhance the livability of Atlanta, and add to the city’s character.

“We hope that surpassing our goal in our first capital campaign will help more people learn about our trails and inspire even more community members to join us through membership and volunteering,” said Billy Hall. For information on donating, or visiting South Fork’s four completed creekside trails, visit www.SouthForkConservancy.org and check their Facebook page for updates.

Posted on October 25, 2017 .

South Fork Conservancy Named a Water Hero in Clean 13 Report

‘Clean 13’ lauded by environmental and conservation groups in Georgia

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By Kristina Torres

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution11:43 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017

The Georgia Water Coalition released a new report Wednesday applauding the “Clean 13,’” people, businesses, local governments and others from across the state that it says are working to make local waterways cleaner.  Read the full story here: http://on-ajc.com/2gP2Vha

Posted on September 14, 2017 .

The Coca-Cola Co. funds South Fork Conservancy’s efforts at Zonolite Park

By David Penderedfor the Saporta Report

The effort to improve Peachtree Creek now includes a $25,000 grant from the Coca-Cola Co. that was used to install a rainwater harvesting system at Zonolite Park, in northeast Atlanta.

South Fork Conservancy board member and NewFields Chairman Billy Hall presents a plaque to John Radtke, director of Coca-Cola’s Water Sustainability Program. The plaque reads: ‘This rainwater harvester is a gift from The Coca-Cola Company to the watershed and all the life it supports.’ Credit: Eric Voss

“We’re so grateful to The Coca-Cola Co. for this gift, and can’t wait to keep working with them to preserve the creeks and waterways of our city,” said Sally Sears, a founding and current board member of the South Fork Conservancy.

The grant speaks to the momentum gathering around the volunteer-driven effort to restore the corridor along one of Atlanta’s historic waterways.

Read the full article at http://saportareport.com/coca-cola-co-funds-south-fork-conservancys-efforts-zonolite-park/

Posted on May 30, 2017 .

Dave Butler's Fantastic Adventure November 19, 2016

Dave Butler has the calmest tone of anybody I know. Even, soothing, unflappable. Perfect for the green space restoration expert that he is, accustomed to working with deadlines measured in seasons and years. Nothing hasty. So I knew something was up when a voicemail came through recently. 

He was almost breathless.  I heard "amazing" and "fantastic." Dave? Was he smoking something?  I played the message again. 

 Dave Butler in his birding cap shares a tale along the Cheshire Farm Trail with South Fork Board Chairman Bob Kerr.

Dave Butler in his birding cap shares a tale along the Cheshire Farm Trail with South Fork Board Chairman Bob Kerr.

"I am out here at Zonolite...saw the folks working on the pollinator garden up front.  First time I've actually seen it.  Looks great. Nice to see that vision actually come out looking good."

He had run into the Floataway volunteers tending the six-month-old garden at the trailhead. After years of talking about attracting birds and bees, the blossoms in just six months were a bright bouquet.  And carefully tended and watered by people who love the new park.  For an experienced project manager like Dave, having volunteers actually performing what we all too easily promise to do, and don't,  can be surprising.  Maintaining something? Wow! 

Then he kept talking.  

"But also, more amazing is the number of birds out here in the wetland and field, because of the grasses and plants that have grown up over here. Literally hundreds of birds are out here this morning. Flocks flying over, some in the trees, but a lot in that growth."

Dave loves birds. I first saw him with binoculars in both hands, on a DeKalb County public school trip to Ossabaw Island. He really knows birds. Here he is, former Audubon Board member,  cooing over the bird habitat Zonolite's restoration created. "That growth" means the waist high wild grasses going to seed along the trail through the meadow. Some might see an un-mowed rough. I saw an orange band of broom sedge. Dave saw the homes and dining tables for birds. 

"Which is the perfect situation... I mean this is just a perfect example of what we are trying to accomplish."

I stared happily at my phone. Was this really Dave? Saying "Perfect example?" Then he topped himself.

"Fantastic to see this!"

It is fantastic these days when projects take forever to get approval, and cleaning up $2 million worth of asbestos pollution requires a bankruptcy judge to say yes. Then agreeing with neighbors on a best plan for a wildlife corridor that includes people. Of course, how often do volunteers consistently show up?  How carefully does the county actually mow the meadow? Dave Butler and dozens of other wildlife lovers from Trees Atlanta, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Audubon and Park Pride are steering the rare creekside woodlands in metro Atlanta back to a safe harbor. Even more rare is an urban floodplain meadow. Keeping it a meadow, and not letting kudzu and privet return? That requires persistence. 

"I just spoke to Adam from Audubon, and we had discussed before the cutting that may need to be done to keep the woody vegetation down. And when best to do that."

As the South Fork trails mature and connect, we will all have ideas about maintenance. When to mow? When to leave for seed production? How to keep sight lines open? Who will pay? These are the conversations we are beginning with all our partners. The answers will allow us to grow with grace and respect for our vision of connected corridors for people and wildlife, laying lightly on the land. All of that is ahead. Now, the thrill in Dave Butler's voice reminds me to pause and enjoy what we are already doing.

"Fantastic to see this!"

Thanks, Dave.

Posted on December 16, 2016 .

Julia Chandler Named South Fork Conservancy Treasurer

Atlanta (Nov. 2016) – Julia H. Chandler, CPA, has joined the board of the South Fork Conservancy as Treasurer. It’s the latest step forward for the nonprofit organization, which is restoring and conserving habitats along Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek, while building trails to provide more access to the natural environment.

Chandler is Vice President and Treasurer of the Carlisle Companies, a $3.5 billion multinational company. She recently relocated from Charlotte to Atlanta.

“The trails are very beautiful and the potential is exciting,” Chandler said. “I am very interested in the efforts to conserve this area within Atlanta and to create natural walking spaces in the city.  I’m also interested in contributing my background while learning from the rest of the board members about the many other disciplines that make this come together.”

Chandler’s responsibilities include monitoring the nonprofit group’s overall financial soundness, as well as helping guide its capital campaign, which recently got a $500,000 infusion of cash from The Kendeda Fund.

“After learning of Julia’s interest and reviewing her qualifications we were very eager for her to join the Board of Directors,” said Board Chair Bob Kerr. “She provides incredible financial and business experience and will fit seamlessly into the role of Treasurer. I’m eager for her to begin the process of adding more rigor and transparency to our financial management.”

Chandler earned her MBA from Carnegie Mellon University with a concentration in Finance & Accounting. She received her undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, from Amherst College.

For information on donating, or visiting South Fork’s urban wilderness trails, visit www.SouthForkConservancy.org. Check our Facebook page for updates.

About South Fork Conservancy

South Fork Conservancy is actively developing walking trails along Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek. Its goal is to conserve the urban waterway, connect existing and future trails, and restore the area’s natural beauty. SFC’s first phase is to create a trail system that connects Buckhead, Atlanta’s upscale business and residential center, with Emory University’s campus. Open trails include The Confluence, Cheshire Farm and Meadow Loop trails in Buckhead, and Zonolite Park in DeKalb County.  

Posted on November 28, 2016 .

South Fork with Sally: Teamwork Builds a Trail!

Co-founder Sally Sears reports from Peavine Creek, near the Emory University campus. 

At the Emory Village Alliance Streets Alive event, I made wreaths - from kudzu that South Fork Conservancy yanked from the creek - and decorated them with flowers.

I got so involved twisting them onto the heads of young boys and girls I didn't notice a young man studying the proposed trail maps on the poster behind me. At first, I thought he might be a little old for a wreath. But his comments were the crown of my day. 

He introduced himself as Lance Harden, cross country coach for Emory's runners. He says his team runs the trails along Peavine and the South Fork daily. And they'd like connections between the existing trails. He loves Zonolite, Herbert Taylor Park and Peavine's shorter trail. Could the trails connect so the runners could use them without having to drive? He offered an upcoming public service day for the team. Could they help?

COULD THEY HELP?

   Photo by South Fork Conservancy Executive Director   Kimberly Estep

Photo by South Fork Conservancy Executive Director Kimberly Estep

Two weeks later, with big approvals confirmed by David Payne, Jimmy Powell and others in the Emory hierarchy too high or low to name here, this happened. Notice Dave Butler, in the green cap on the right. Certified arborist, former Greenspace manager from DeKalb County, wise in the ways of volunteer management. He got the materials to the site, across the green space from 1456 Emory Road, NE. Note the shovels from the Tool Bank are Emory Blue. 

Lance Harden and some thirty of his finest runners showed up on the dot of 9:00 a.m. (College kids on the dot? Wow! What discipline!) And off they went, carving a good running trail from the privet along Peavine Creek, adding some 200 yards of green trail to the Peavine Trail already well used, and installing nine of the dozen expected steps to let the rest of us ease on down the slope to the trail.

 The Emory students opened the new trail with a ribbon-cutting using hedge clippers. 

The Emory students opened the new trail with a ribbon-cutting using hedge clippers. 

Curious neighbors showed up. They helped drag unwieldy litter out of the woods. Enthusiast and landscape architect Kit Eisterhold stayed with Dave Butler, Lance Harden and the crew for the morning's work. Now we have more trail, more trail users, and a well-done day of public service by a winning Emory team.

How great is that?

Thanks, all, for the opportunity provided by Emory Village Alliance Streets Alive to further the South Fork Conservancy's vision of connected creeks and neighborhoods. I'm cheering for the Home Cross Country Team!

Sally