New Dog in Town

Ketcham

WILD COYOTES HAVE SETTLED in or around every major city in the United States, thriving as never before, and in New York they have taken to golf. I’m told the New Yorker coyotes spend a good deal of time near the tenth hole on the Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course in the Bronx. They apparently like to watch the players tee off among the Canada geese. They hunt squirrels and rabbits and wild turkeys along the edge of the forest surrounding the course, where there are big old hardwoods and ivy that looks like it could strangle a man — good habitat in which to den, skulk, plan. Sometimes in summer the coyotes emerge from the steam of the woods to chew golf balls and spit them onto the grass in disgust.

They also frequent the eighth and the ninth and the twelfth holes, where golfers have found raccoons with broken necks, the cadavers mauled. At the tenth hole, a coyote ran alongside a golf cart last summer, keeping pace with the vehicle as the golfers shook their heads in wonder. “I stop the cart, he stops,” one golfer who was there told me. “I start it up, he follows. I jump out, he jumps back. I sit down in the cart, he comes forward. We hit for a while — we’re swinging, and he’s watching.” Here the golfer, an animated southerner named Chris, mimes the animal, following with his head the coyote-tracked ball’s trajectory up and up, along the fairway, then its long arc down. It was pleasing to Chris that coyotes like golf.

Until recently, I couldn’t quite believe that coyotes were established New Yorkers. Among neophyte naturalists, it’s an anomaly, a bizarrerie, something like a miracle. Coyotes, after all, are natives of the high plains and deserts two thousand miles to the west. But for anyone who takes the time to get to know coyotes, their coming to the city is a development as natural as water finding a way downhill. It is also a lesson in evolution that has gone largely unheralded. Not in pristine wilderness, but here, amid the splendor of garbage cans filthy with food, the golf carts crawling on the fairway like alien bugs, in a park full of rats and feral cats and dullard chipmunks and thin rabbits and used condoms and bums camping out and drunks pissing in the brush, a park ringed by arguably the most urbanized ingathering of Homo sapiens in America — here the coyote thrives. It seemed to me good news.

THE COYOTE, unlike its closest cousin, the wolf, is a true American. The coyote’s earliest relatives began evolving in the Southwest 10 million years ago, with Canis latrans arriving roughly at the dawn of the Pleistocene Epoch, when huge predators roamed the continent. I imagine the coyote in its prehistoric form as a thing small and weak and quiet, slinking in the shadows alongside the megafauna of American prehistory. The little dog had to deal with the appetites of cave lions, which weighed upward of six hundred pounds; the predations of the saber-toothed cat; the fury of the short-faced bear, which, at a height of fourteen feet and a weight of up to nineteen hundred pounds, was the largest bear that ever lived. It tried not to get stomped by the mastodon and the mammoth and the stag-moose and the elephant-sized ground sloth and the armored glyptodon, a turtle as big as a Volkswagen.

Then, beginning some twelve thousand years ago, the coyote got a break. In one of the great extinction events of prehistory, North America’s megafauna, these giants of the continent, disappeared. What precipitated the mass extinction is unknown, and is today the stuff of much speculation. The cause might have been climate change — the retreat of the glaciers, the warming of the planet — or perhaps it was a change in weather combined with overkill from newly arrived human predators who crossed the Bering Strait, armed with the technology of spears that the megafauna were not adapted to fend off. The coyote, fighting for so long in this hard world of giants, was among the few prehistoric American mammals to survive in the new environment. Other sizable fauna soon filled the extinction vacuum. But they were foreigners. Like the spear-chucking humans, the new mammals were descendants of Asia. They are the creatures that we know now as bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, grizzly bear — invasives that we generally find ghettoized in our national parks.

Another invasive species that crossed from Asia was the gray wolf. Fast-forward several thousand years, and the coyote and the wolf  have become mortal enemies. They have fought for space over the millennia, with the wolf claiming most of the American continent because the wolf is bigger, more aggressive, works in packs, and operates well in dense forest. Enter the white man, whose technology and avarice allowed for sweeping control over established predators. By 1900, white settlers had decimated the wolf population, which threatened their livestock and their children. This was accomplished not simply by unleashing gunpowder; the white man felled forests everywhere he went, which opened up the terrain and left no hiding place for wolves. The coyote, on the other hand, thrived in open spaces. It was adaptable as the wolf was not; it had been adapting to predation in America for 10 million years. So the coyote took over the wolf’s niche as top dog.

In the wake of white settlement, the coyote was reviled for its success. That we could not appreciate the elasticity of the native dog was fitting irony for the European species of human, so terribly successful at invading the continent and adapting to it ourselves (or, rather, forcing the continent to adapt to our new and increasingly invasive presence). Along with the Indian and the bison, the coyote was — remains — the pest par excellence of the American West, to this day classified in the law books of many western states as “vermin” or “nuisance” species. Tens of millions of coyotes have been slaughtered in the U.S. since 1900; federal and state governments over the last two decades have killed an estimated 2 million of them. This figure doesn’t incorporate the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of coyotes each year hunted, baited, trapped, snared, and poisoned by livestock ranchers and sport hunters who kill coyotes for recreation in contests and bounty hunts. The attempt at control has cost in the range of billions of dollars — no firm number is known — and it has failed spectacularly. Biologists note that the success of the coyote amid this carnage is largely due to a survival mechanism that renders the species impervious to the gun and the trap: when large numbers of coyotes are killed in any single ecosystem, the coyotes that remain produce bigger litters. The animal compensates for slaughter, in other words, by becoming more numerous, more problematic. I can only imagine this as a kind of Darwinian laughter: Kill more of us, and more of us will come. Perhaps to be killed. So that there will be more of us. Ha ha!

I FIRST HEARD THE SOUND of the eastern coyote in the sprawling Catskill Mountain range, a hundred miles north of New York City. The creatures screamed and shouted and yipped; I thought I was hallucinating. That was eight years ago. Only once did I get close, in October 2002, when a pack in fog yelled in my ear on a mountaintop. No sighting of the creatures that cold night, nothing to lay my eyes on. Just the high keening song, the crackle and whisper of my feet and theirs on the forest floor. Thereafter I made it a point to walk in the forest and climb the mountains at night, to listen for them, find their sign, their scat, their kills. Eight years later, I’ve found a lot of scat, many prints in mud, and no coyotes.

But the song — it hung in my head. I’d listened to coyotes in the American West, and the song in the East was different. In the red rock of the desert, it’s lone and sorrowful and begins with a bark (Canis latrans, after all, means “barking dog”). The pack sometimes — only sometimes — answers the loner, the voices clear and vibrant, like a Greek chorus. In the East, vocalizations never seem to open with the loner. The song instead begins with a scream upon a scream, followed by creeches, squeaks, eeks, heeing and hawing and ululations, dystonal and weird, that the western cousin can’t match. I could say I hear the gamelan music of Indonesia, the off-time rhythms of Turkic Bosnia, girls screaming rape, men losing testicles.

A few years ago, late on a summer night in 2004, I thought I heard a lone coyote singing in the Bronx. This was not long after the first reported New York sightings, which already had begun increasing in frequency. If coyotes were on the move in the city, marking terrain, naturally, I thought, there should be communication among them. What I heard, wandering Van Cortlandt Park on that summer night, was a short spindrift cry, like something heard underwater, distant and muffled and indistinct, and later I assumed it was the work of a dog pretending at wildness while slobbering over an owner come home. Or perhaps it didn’t happen at all and I imagined it because I’d been reading too many reports about coyotes. In the moment, though, I believed what I wanted, and I started howling. And waited. And howled. There was the hush of the city, the hoodoo silence of the buildings that surround the park, and in the silence I could hear the murmurs of men and women speaking in a thousand ways out of tune with each other, and finally, when I howled one last time, someone leaned out a window and cried, “Shut the fuck up.”

FROM CALIFORNIA TO MAINE, there are more coyotes than at any time since records have been kept, their territorial expansion unprecedented in speed and scope. “The coyote is the most successful colonizing mammal in recent history,” Justina Ray, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, tells me. They pressed eastward across the Plains and the Midwest. They went south into Alabama, Georgia, Florida. By the 1920s, they had arrived in New York State, where they advanced at a mind-boggling rate of 116 miles per month. By 1942 they were in Vermont; by 1944 they were in New Hampshire; and by 1958 they were in western Massachusetts. I recently found their tracks like a palimpsest in the tidal flats at Cape Cod National Seashore — the messages of their movements chasing crabs — and one homeowner on the Cape described a den in his wooded backyard, thirty feet from his deck, where the pups stared out from inside a tree trunk. I talked with a Connecticut woman who welcomed a wounded coyote into her car, thinking it was a bashed-up dog, and took it into her house only to discover the creature going wild in her living room as it matured — wanting to get out. By the 1970s, coyotes were arriving in the cold sea-country of the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, having become fully established in New Brunswick by 1975, reaching southwestern Nova Scotia by 1980, Prince Edward Island by 1983, and floating on sea ice across the Cabot Strait to the island of Newfoundland by 1987.

That the coyote has expanded his range does not surprise biologists. What does confound is the suggestion, hotly debated, that the coyotes now taking over the eastern U.S. in fact represent a new subspecies of wild dog on the continent, the Canis latrans varietas. The western coyote is a smaller creature than the eastern cousin. The westerner weighs in at perhaps thirty pounds, looking somewhat like a fat fox. The eastern coyote grows as big as sixty pounds at his heftiest. The tracks I found on Cape Cod and in the Catskill Mountains suggest a big dog indeed.

So whence the bigger muscles, the extra weight, the new song? Perhaps natural selection in the face of bigger game, or the higher snows and colder weather of places like Chicago and New York, sparked the coyote’s physical flowering. Perhaps coyotes in their dominance arrived at a sexual detente with the last wolves in the East and began breeding with their old enemies, which added to the girth of the eastern coyote and also gave him his new voice. Perhaps the wolves, in this same pivotal moment, realized they were outnumbered and preserved, in a copulative leap of hopelessness, what little remained of their genetic pool. I like to think that all these factors commingled and were further complicated by the reality of dealing with the human ecosphere — the byways and hidden passages of the city, the dynamism of interaction with cars, highways, apartment buildings replete with comings and goings, the all-night bodegas, the light of streetlamps, the conniving of rats, the surfeit of accident and possibility. I like to think the eastern coyote’s build, its behavior, and, not least, its song reflect this complexity.

So the coyote runs across schoolyards in Philadelphia; he hides under a taxi on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He is in Atlanta, and in Los Angeles, and Miami, and Washington DC. He follows into the cities our paths, our roads, our railways, our bike and hiking trails. In Seattle, a coyote ran into an elevator in a skyscraper for a ride, and another ended up in the luggage compartment of a tram at the SeaTac Airport. In Boston, biologists who radio-collared a female coyote during 2004 reported that the dog traveled freely across the towns of Revere, Medford, Somerville, and Cambridge, at one point crossing into Boston proper via a railroad line at three a.m. before bedding down in a railyard north of the Charles River. The dog, nicknamed Fog, had “little more than shrubs for her to sleep in.” Stanley Gehrt, a biologist at Ohio State University who recently spent six years tracking the coyote populations of Chicago, concluded that there were at least two thousand of them living in the Windy City, and they were growing in number. Urban coyotes, Gehrt found, live longer than their country cousins, their range per pack is more compact, much like urban humans, and they hunt more often at night, very much like urban humans. Gehrt also found that coyotes howl in answer to the sirens from firehouses — calling to the sounds of men. “Originally known as ghosts of the plains, coyotes have become ghosts of the cities,” Gehrt writes. “Coyotes are watching and learning from us.”

I GOT A BEER FROM A BODEGA in the Bronx and sat on a bench and thought about the ghost dog. To the American Indians, coyote is Trickster, the magician among the animals, the shadow creature, the player on the edges of human encampments. “Along the edge I am traveling, in a sacred manner,” goes an old Lakota song honoring the Trickster. Sacred manner? Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner comes more readily to mind. Chuck Jones, the animator, pegged the Trickster, in his cartoon Latin, as Eatibus anythingus. Which is true: coyotes eat garbage, darkness, rats, air — they’d lap my beer if I let them.

The Trickster in myth appears as rotten minded as Wile E., as creepy and ill reputed, as underhanded as Bronx rats. But in the system of native myth, unlike Wile E., unlike Bronx rats, the coyote’s lying and conniving and cheating is in the last act a leap of creation, bearing the new out of things that are busted down and old and not working. The cartoon hints at this: Wile E. falling off cliffs, born again from the smashed puffball of bones at the canyon bottom to try for a meal once more.

In the various coyote myths, the Trickster makes things happen by sheer pushy will and wackiness. He is a shape-shifter, blown apart, come together again. Coyote is sometimes the creator of the world itself in his tumbledown accidental manner; sometimes he brings fire to the hominids who are freezing in the cold; sometimes he gets the smartest and most beautiful girls pregnant when dumbstruck men can’t get it up to perpetuate the line; sometimes he makes sure that animals get anuses when the Creator, whoever that fool is, forgets to do so. The Trickster, in other words, is a teacher of possibilities, pointing humankind down new paths when the poor bummed-out hominids are stumped.

MY OWN AMATEUR COYOTE STUDY in New York’s Van Cortlandt Park last autumn went not so well. Day after day, I made the long trip by subway north from Brooklyn into the Bronx, my hopes up, maps out, binoculars in the backpack, notepad ready, boots laced high, a flashlight with extra batteries in case I found the creatures after dark. I got lost in the Van Cortlandt woods, scrambling near the border with Westchester. I got paranoid about muggers (who, like coyotes, never seem to show up). I got covered in mud tramping in washes looking for tracks. I got poison ivy up my leg and into my crotch.

The golfers at the Van Cortlandt Golf Course snickered at my efforts. “Saw more of your little friends just the other day,” they’d tell me. “Haven’t found any yet?” they’d laugh. “Coyotes don’t do interviews,” they’d tell me. They suggested I take up golf.

I took to wandering at night where I thought coyotes might be making their way into the Bronx. I imagined them arriving in Van Cortlandt Park via the Putnam Trail, a soil vein pounded smooth as glass, where I walked and walked. Or perhaps they followed the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, the outmoded passage for the Catskill reservoir water that keeps the city alive (the Croton Aqueduct has long been supplanted by more modern piping). From the Bronx, the passage south onto the island of Manhattan is more difficult. Perhaps they cross the Harlem River, swimming the water, or, more likely, they walk the bridges at night. It is only some five miles from the tip of Manhattan to Central Park, which is the place to be if you’re a coyote in Manhattan. On April Fool’s Day 1999, a coyote named Lucky Pierre led reporters, helicopters, photographers, cops, and tourists in a chase across Central Park before succumbing to a tranquilizer dart. Pierre got his name because for a time he holed up in a cave across from the luxe Pierre Hotel. In the winter of 2004, a coyote was seen bounding among the ice floes on frozen Rockaway Inlet in Queens, near the dunes of Breezy Point, twenty-five miles south of Central Park. The animal apparently had gotten across Manhattan, across the East River, either dog paddling in the water or hiking one of the bridges to Brooklyn, and thence across that borough to the shores where Brooklyn meets Queens and the sea. Cops in boats tried to capture the creature, but he dove in the cold surf, swam to shore, and was gone.

A coyote made it across Brooklyn? Incredible. I sometimes find it hard to cross Brooklyn.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2006, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a coyote was found smashed at the side of a highway. That same year, a second coyote was captured in Central Park. In 2008, a coyote appeared on the Bronx campus of the Horace Mann School, the New York Sun reporting that it was out for a “jog” with the students and “offered no resistance” when animal-control officers scooped it up. On February 4 of this year, a coyote, described as “timid and skittish,” stopped in the middle of a frozen Central Park pond long enough to be captured on film by a photographer. Three days later, a trio of coyotes appeared out of nowhere on the Columbia University campus in upper Manhattan, then disappeared as quickly. On March 24, a coyote was reported inside the Holland Tunnel, then it was sighted wandering Tribeca. “Manhattan’s coyote population continued its inexorable push southward,” concluded the New York Times. There will of course be many more of them, and we will welcome the romance of the wild dogs, until we don’t. The creatures will have to be hunted and killed once they hunt and kill one too many of our domesticated foot warmers (or, worse, the little ones in our own domesticated breed). We like our gardens in the East, we like our vines run amok, our tall trees in the backyard, the deer grazing on bluegrass, the pretense of wildness; we like our animals at home pretending at atavistic habits, but we don’t want a carcass at the door in the morning. In other words, let’s have gardens, but not nature. Herein lies the irony of the coyote’s arrival in the urban East. He does not represent wildness; he is an adaptee to the garden. Without us subjugating the land to the ridiculous extent that we have, he wouldn’t be walking alongside us.

MY GUIDE TO THE PARKS of the Bronx was a fifty-six-year-old New York City Parks Department wildlife biologist named Dave Kunstler, who gives the impression that he prefers the conversation of nighthawks and tree frogs. It was October, the days growing short, and we hiked the woods until dusk, looking for coyote dens where he suspected they might be, finding none. We searched under rocks, behind boulders, in tree trunks. We ended up purloining a golf cart at the Van Cortlandt Golf Course to hunt them on the fairway. Kunstler didn’t seem much interested in the quest. What he mostly talked about were invasive plants. Kunstler saw invasives everywhere pushing out the natives: porcelain-berry and Asiatic bittersweet and mugwort; the Ailanthus and the Norway maple among the tall trees; and elsewhere, whole stretches of forest swallowed in kudzu.

Many of the plants Kunstler pointed out could be classified as weeds. Coyotes, it seems to me, are also a kind of weed species. And their success is indicative of a larger problem facing the human race, the problem of weeds relentlessly encroaching, their effect the strangulation and diminishment of complex ecosystems everywhere. Weed species, writes David Quammen, “reproduce quickly, disperse widely when given a chance, tolerate a fairly broad range of habitat, take hold in strange places, succeed especially in disturbed ecosystems, and resist eradication once they’re established. They are scrappers, generalists, opportunists.” The coyote, exactly. Also, black rats, cockroaches, crows, kudzu, raccoons, the white-tailed deer, ragweed, Russian thistle, feral cats, feral dogs, squirrels, wild turkeys — all of them weed species, all exploding in number across the country, but especially along the suburban-urban gradient. In his essay “Planet of Weeds,” Quammen singles out another spectacularly successful weed species, Homo sapiens, and notes that other weeds down the food chain tend to follow where human beings tread. The planet of weeds, as Quammen describes it, is an impoverished place in its abundance because it heralds the end of diversity. And it is likely our inexorable future.

Kunstler and I rode around on the cart like a pair of tin cans, driving away beautiful geese, hundreds of them fleeing on the fairway — weeds with wings. We rode and rode.

Eventually, we stopped a young man who was tending to the carts. “Sure, I seen one just yesterday.”

I threw up my hands.

“They’re probably watching us right now,” Kunstler shrugged.

Not finding a single coyote suddenly made me depressed.

Where is Trickster? We need him. The hominids are screwing up and don’t have a plan to fix things. We’ve got global warming and rising seas and peak oil and fish dying off and deserts spreading. We’ve got a planet of weeds, and we seem utterly incapable of adapting to forestall disaster. The coyote survived the great Pleistocene extinction, and may very well survive the present one, the planet’s sixth great extinction, an event that has been greatly accelerated by the industrialization of Homo sapiens to the point that many thousands of species have disappeared in the last century alone. One wonders whether, before it is all through, Homo sapiens might be among the deceased. Perhaps the message that Trickster brings to us is this: The more of us you see, the more impoverished the world will be.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about our connection to the animal world, are collected in a new anthology, Animals & People. Order your copy here.

Christopher Ketcham writes for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, and GQ. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and Moab, Utah, and is currently writing a book about secession movements in the Northeast.

Comments

  1. “Trickster”, ha that makes me laugh. Coyotes are as stupid as any other animal. Three will come into a wounded rabbit call in one afternoon. They trot up then you blast them like anything else. Animals are such easy prey.

  2. @anon: “Coyotes are as stupid as any other animal.” ? Classic pot calling the kettle black lil darlin.

    How timely I should find this wonderful article by you Christopher, Thank you!

    You made me laugh (after howling neighbors yelled “STFU!”) LOL! (and did you REALLY get poison ivy you-know-where?)

    We have packs of coyotes on the 6,000 open acreage adjacent to our back yard, and I howl with them every chance I get. I have found it to be very therapeutic!

    You gave me hope in relating the truth of homo sapiens being a ‘weed species.’

    I am about to put the finishing touches on a 2011 wildlife calendar that I am designing and dedicating to the coyote. I want to end the calendar with a fictitious coyote story, (loosely based on facts) with a father coyote talking with his son while stretched out in the tall grass, waiting for the night to fall.

    This was a bad year for coyotes in the western suburbs of Chicago.

    The uneducated citizens of (at least) 2 towns demanded that coyotes be trapped and killed due to 1)numerous sightings and 2)a ‘foot warmer’ dog was fatally harmed in someone’s back yard.

    I volunteer for a wildlife center that not only educates the public, but rehabilitates orphaned and injured wildlife and releases them back into the wild. (Willowbrook Wildlife Center is no stranger to Stan Gehrt.) I am also a graphic designer by trade and donate what I can, graphically, to help raise funding, hence the calendar.

    But more than that, I want to help educate because THAT seems to be the only chance at reaching out and turning on the light so that others that were cowering in the dark, may see with renewed illumination.

    Wish me luck! AND a GREAT big THANK YOU again for this wonderful piece!

  3. for: restless renegade

    They aren’t smart enough to correlate the rabbit call with the gunshots, so yeah they’re pretty stupid by human standards. Then again so is everything.

    I suppose if I wanted a change I could hunt “the most dangerous game of all”.

    You know, like a hobo or something. Maybe a cape buffalo.

  4. @anon: “the most dangerous game of all” is ignorance… as you have so expertly proven by your posts.

  5. As one recent Orion letter to the editor said, “Nature bats last and bats cleanup.” Well, it is the bottom of the ninth and Trickster is leading off. Cheerio mates!

  6. anonymous–Appears yer lost, my friend. Here, let me show you the door. Point you to the RANGE Magazine site. Happy trails!

  7. Trickster is the coyote,stupid until not.Here in Atlanta they thrive both feeding on and breeding with dogs.The dog I’ve had for 11 years now appeared at my door as a youngster and the vet who gave her a check-up and shots commented that she could be part coyote.A friend who had his dogs attacked saw three coming into his yard one evening and shot and killed two-the third and certainly more are around his place still but are not as easy prey as they were.My dog was attacked and nearly killed;she stays closer by me now on evening rambles.She has learned,they and I also learn and I feel a kinship to both her and them.I am certain it’s possible that I may have to deal death to one of them,or my own dog,or even myself but it will not be with pleasure but with respect.Weeds we are;competing,yes,but also learning,sharing,sounding out the night.These creatures are part pet,companion,scavenger,threat,nuisance,and even potential food.They continue to co evolve with us here many thousand years along.Laugh at their silly antics but be aware of the fear within your laughter-and of the love.Thanks for the interesting article.Happy Rambling!

  8. A wonderful and insightful article! It’s not surprising that Anonymous is afraid to sign his name. No intelligent person would admit to such ignorant remarks. How in the world did he ever stumble onto Orion? I live in coyote territory and remain in awe of them. Humans could and should learn from these song dogs.

  9. Around here (Maine) people deny they are coyotes, calling them “coy dogs”, but I have no doubt they’re coyotes. I sometimes hear them yipping and howling out by the Old Saco that borders our property. But not as much as I did a few years ago. Probably because I also keep on hearing gun shots as they can be hunted anytime, anywhere. All kinds of wildlife, especially bears (nuisance bears people are calling them) are coming closer and closer, but then where are they supposed to go when we cut down and develop the wild areas they traditionally live?

  10. We live in the hills of Appalachia, and often hear the wild songs of the coyotes. Funny thing is, our two dogs chime in, and sound amazingly like their wild counterparts. Over the years we have probably lost a couple of our numerous pet cats to coyotes, but somehow you can’t really hate the wily critters. Laws of Nature, and all that….

  11. @mike: precisely why we keep our 7 cats indoors at all times. Matter of fact, we took in 5 from the back 40 so as NOT to feed the coyotes (o; there’s enough rabbits around for sustenance.

    and re: trolls. I should know better, but thanX for the reminder!

  12. Renegade — Actually, for the last ten years our two dogs have kept the coyotes at a distance, leaving our six cats to explore nature as they will. In decent weather, they far prefer to be outside, coming in only for meals, and occasional petting sessions.

  13. Really, you would have to hear my two dogs and the coyotes singing/talking to each other to appreciate what I am about to say. There are significant pauses in this animal conversation, so that the clear impression of a statement or question and response pattern seems to be occurring. Sometimes I think the gist of the conference is: “This is our territory, and that is yours. We can coexist on that basis. There is no need to fight. You can protect your territory, and we will protect ours.”

    And indeed, our dogs faithfully make the rounds every morning, marking their boundaries, and checking to see if intruders might have entered their space, or even dared to cover their marks with their foreign scent.

  14. Another element of that language older than words is that our dogs are saying “we can sing your songs, we are not some little house pets you could eat for lunch. If you mess with us you will be in for a real fight. We too are proud warriors.”

  15. well… depending on the size and breed of the dog, I might be careful to keep an eye on them. Little foot warmer dogs have been killed due to inattentive caretakers. It was during breeding season, which is also the dead of winter when competition for food is pretty fierce, so it was entirely understandable… from an educated viewpoint. The dog owners cried ‘murder!’ and convinced the mayor to hire a trapper to trap and kill 4 coyotes. Pure foolishness!

  16. Renegade — Our two dogs are brothers that were abandoned as pups on the back road to our place. They are mixed breeds and weigh about 75 pounds each. They are about ten years old now, but run the woods freely, night and day with unabated vigor. It is true that smaller dogs would be no match for a pack of coyotes.

  17. @mike – how appropriate! the title of my calendar is “All good things are wild and free-Henry David Thoreau.”

  18. I am a forester who grew up on a family farm in the Midwest. I started trapping furbearers in elementary school and went on to do animal control work through my thirties. Anonymous comment #1 knows very little about coyotes or Orion. That degree of shallowness is not appropriate for this website and one can only wonder why he wishes to make hunters/sportsman look so stupid?
    Any trapper worth their salt knows coyotes are the most intelligent prey we pursue. And the author is dead on when he outlines the utter futility of attempting to control coyote populations through shooting or trapping.
    I’ve spent hundreds of nights in the woods by myself while coon hunting or fishing. Hearing coyotes call from a nearby field often sends a chill down the spine, but they are simply not a threat to man in rural environments. In the country, the coyote fears man. Once the coyote moves to an urban environment, or an area in which they are protected, the coyote begins to lose that fear. It is rare that coyotes attack a grown person, but the more time they spend around humans, the more they become a threat to small children. Google the topic, and you will find that several children have been killed or injured in urban California. I believe a young singer was recently killed in a park. That doesn’t mean that coyotes should be killed as vermin. I or one, would like to see more large predators on our landscapes, but that can be a tough sell.

  19. I googled ‘coyote kills child’ and the first link I come up with?
    “Varmint Al’”
    Oh my yes. THERE is a reputable source of information. Not.
    Second link? simply states: “The last human to be killed by a coyote was a child in the Los Angeles area around 1980.”
    The media and other non-official sources are wonderful at spreading and instilling unwarranted fear.
    Humans fear what they do not know.
    They hate what they fear.
    Hence, they kill what they do not understand.
    It is the lazy and uneducated that spread the ‘kill them varmints!’ message.
    I for one would rather be educated and enlightened than told to ‘fear’ nature. How dumb is that?
    At the same time, I respectfully keep my distance and do NOT feed them or entice them to interact with me in any way. People that do feed wildlife, do so at the risk of that animal being harmed by humans in the long run. It is NOT in their best interest.
    Why do you trap? What is the point?

  20. Whenever I encounter animals living free in the wild, as they have for millions of years, I feel a certain thrill, and reverence, and gratitude that they are still with us. The idea that we would force any of these noble creatures to extinction, on the other hand fills me with loathing and disgust for my deranged fellow humans.

  21. Someone left a copy of Aug. TIME magazine laying around at work. The cover story reads “What Animals Think. New science reveals they’re smarter than we realized.” Really? Isn’t it way past time that the scientific field come up with something we did not already know? Seriously. In my opinion, they spend far too much time looking into microscopes, at pieces of life at the molecular scale, that they very rarely look at the big picture… do they?

    If scientists had stepped back and looked at what plastics could do, would do to this planet, do you think they would have unleashed that bit of experiment to the universe? Oh, I suppose greed had something to do with it. Some corporation somewhere paid big bucks for that piece of discovery.

  22. This has certainly brought an interesting trail of comments;the range from the beginning of bravado/disrespect (born of fear and ignorance)of the animal itself coming full circle to bravado/disrespect of science and our “fellow humans”.I do love and respect the wild creatures and am saddened to see so many driven towards extinction but coyote is not on that path.He is both wolf and dog,she is our helpmate and a small and rare threat(here is a link to a reasonably accurate account of that http://www.cbc.ca/canada/nova-scotia/story/2009/10/28/ns-coyote-attack-died.html).If you are raising animals as pets,for meat, or other reasons you must defend them,particularly their young,from coyote.If this is done with care and respect it involves both gaining intimate knowledge of the local coyotes and a partnering with domesticated brother of the coyote.Part of what I love most about the coyote is that it refuses to be put into a museum role,it is happy and thriving as a part of the evolving wildness that is largely unnoticed by urban humanity.As we pontificate about “dominion over all things”he snickers and swipes our lunch to remind us we are in nature and not over it.My first dog was 1/4 wolf and would throw back his head and howl when he heard a coyote.As he was 75 lbs. or so and ran with several others which were up to to 100 lbs.the coyotes stayed away.My current dog is only 55 lbs. or so and will not howl.Partly because of her gender and because I am her only running mate she sticks close to me and looks to me when she encounters a strange smell.There are bear now in some of the mountain woods which I wander in summer,I am quite glad she will come to me and not chase or attack them!We all have “dogs”-some in the literal sense and some only in the metaphorical-and we should certainly look at the “big picture”with respect for all creatures.Every fight is one we have some type of “dog” in and every fight is a failure to anticipate and avoid conflict by finding a more generous,respectful sustainable and thoughtful way.Step back and look at the larger picture,put yourself in the paws-or boots- or scientist shoes and take a mental walk.Try to find common ground and ways we can share and play “with malice toward none”.Above all seek to both know and love your “enemy”because that is the path towards true”victory”-which is not over others but over our own faults,fears and blindness.

  23. Lovely article! We have the same thing happening inUK towns and cities with the urban fox. Unfortunately our urban foxes aren’t very healthy and tend to suffer from mange and associated illnesses. They are also becoming too well acquainted with humans and pose a threat to small domestic pets and babies on occasion. Let’s hope your coyotes remain elusive, shy and cunning and don’t start moving into the family room!

  24. To Anonymous posted Oct 5th I quote from Chief Dan George ” If you talk to the animals, they will talk to you, and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys”

  25. @Yvonne- I’m sorry. what? “….pose a threat to small domestic pets and babies on occasion.” Babies? Seriously?! What town do you live in that people leave their babies unattended in the wild for days at a time? Should perhaps Child Service representatives be called? or do people just stand around watching, going “Oh My! Look! Another one took our baaabeee!”

    Also, I’m curious to know… what is “mange and associated illnesses” …?

    I have worked with rehabilitating wild life for nearly ten years and I am not familiar with these “associated illnesses” you speak of.

    Thirdly, if your uban foxes are becoming ‘too well acquainted’ as you put it, it is most likely due to humans encouraging their proximity, either by purposely feeding them, or leaving trash out that they may scavenge from. Most municipalities discourage this and may even have laws against this. If humans are the cause of the problem? animals should not be subjected to unjust punishment.

    Hopefully there is an educational endeavor underway in your area. Sounds like it could help.

  26. C.Crofoot — Thank you for these wise words. We have a lot to learn about relating to our animal parents, sisters, and brothers. Maybe if we showed them more love and respect we would learn not to kill each other either.

  27. Yvonne – I apologize if my wording was too harsh. I have no excuses, just a sincere wish to apologize.

  28. I grew up on Gouverneur Ave., right next to Van Courtland Park. There used to be a permanent hole in the chain link fence around the golf course and we kids would all sneak in with our sleds in winter. We sledded down “Dead Man’s Hill”. Or so we called it because everyone “knew” that if the watchman caught us he would shoot us!

    I hope the coyotes know to watch out for him.

    As a child, I would disappear for hours into the woods of Van Courtland. Lovely to learn that the coyotes are there in my stead.

    Thanks for reminding me of one of my childhood delights.

  29. Great article. Coyote has become a part of my life since I packed in my real estate career in Washington DC and headed west for a job with Really Big Land Conservation. My first encounter with coyote was on a backpack trip in the Ozarks in February. It was brutally cold and one night, while we were hunkered in our tents, a pack came screaming and caterwauling into our camp then left as fast as they come. I was pretty freaked out.

    Since then I have moved to California and run over one on the interstate in San Diego, had a pet cat devoured by a pack in Orange County and been serenaded by the obviously mellower west coast ensemble on many a night in the SIerra/Owens Valley/Warner Mountains/etc…..

    How ironic that I could go back home to the east coast and find them in the place I thought I had to leave to experience wild nature!

  30. *a coyote story*

    The father and son rested side by side in the field of tall grasses. The setting sun caressed the tops of the trees with a glowing blush, as if to kiss the crown of leaves good night.
    The son shifted slightly and after stretching, turned and asked “Dad? Can you tell me about my mom?”
    The elder coyote gave a sideways glance to his son and then softly replied “Yes son, I will tell you about your mother. What did you want to know?”
    Thinking for a moment, the son asked “Will she ever return?”
    “No, I don’t think so,” replied the father, “she was taken away many months ago.”
    “But…. why?” the confused son asked.
    The father looked off in the distance at the now crimson sky and said “It’s somewhat complicated my son, you see, we animals are guided by our senses and natures seasons.”
    “What’s that got to do with mom?”
    The elder coyote thought carefully of how best to relate the tale of courage and loss to his son. He continued on by saying that it was during the season when a father coyote takes extra precautions to ensure the safety of his family that things went wrong.
    “It was nearing the time when your mother would be focusing on creating siblings for you. It was winter, with a blanket of snow covering the earth and I could smell the strong scent of another male in our area. His scent was highly concentrated in a very small area. Males know that it is their job to protect their family, so I approached this other male, much smaller than me, and tried repeatedly to chase him away. He would not go. I could not risk him hurting my family or have him competing for our food source.”
    “What did you do dad?” the son asked.
    “It is never an easy task, but I did what was necessary, son.” the father replied.
    He continued “It was getting difficult, those long, cold winter nights, to find enough food to survive. Rabbits and rats hid themselves well at night and during the day, mice and birds were nearly impossible to catch.”
    “I remember being very hungry too.” said the son.
    “We do not want to eat what is not natural, but if we are hungry enough, we will take what is available, so as not to starve. Humans sometimes leave big containers with food scraps out by the streets. Those containers get emptied by a big truck when day light comes, so we have all night to eat what we can find. Some also put out bowls of crunchy things they call ‘pet food’ by their back doors.
    It is always wisest to stay away from humans though, as far away as possible.” related the dad. “I always had to remind your mother. She would reply to me that she heard me loud and clear, but that sometimes, her hungry belly spoke much louder.”
    The son sat quietly as the father continued, “One night, not long after I had eliminated the presence of the male adversary, your mother wandered off in search of food. I could tell she was very hungry, so I followed at a safe distance, just to keep an eye on her.
    I must have gotten distracted by the call of a great horned owl, to see if I could be led to some mice nearby, for when I turned around, I discovered I had lost sight of your mother. A few moments later, I heard a sudden, harsh noise and her cry of pain. I raced to her side. She was caught in a trap. No matter how hard she struggled, she could not get free. I saw how it could have happened, there was food nearby and knowing how hungry she was…..”
    “But why dad? Why was mom trapped?”
    “Some humans fear us son and would rather not have us near them,” his father replied but then remembered and said “..but, not all humans. There are those humans that understand us and our needs for survival. They treat us with respect.
    Your grandmother was once captured by humans, but she was not harmed.”
    “Really!?” asked the son “What happened dad?”
    “It was a very cold winter and with little food available, your grandmother made sure everyone else was fed first. After a time, she became weakened and a mite got a hold of her. The mite caused mange which made her so itchy, she scratched off most of her fur. In doing so, she was unable to stay warm and became even sicker.”
    “What happened next?” asked the son.
    “She was unable to take care of herself or anyone else and eventually collapsed from weakness. She was found by some humans in uniforms, who carefully put her into a carrier and took her away in a big van.
    She was taken to a big building where more humans treated her with medicines. These humans understood that mange is curable and given time, she would be fine. They gave her a warm, safe place to sleep and fed her for a few months. There were other animals in that building as well who were being cared for in a similar manner.
    Your grandmother started to feel much better. One night, when the humans had all gone home and most of the other animals were asleep, your grandmother tried to escape.”
    “No way!” said the son “How?”
    “She got out of her cage, climbed atop the highest cage she could find, and crawled into the ceiling tiles. Starting at the back of the building, she had almost gotten to the very front, when the ceiling tile she was walking on gave way and she fell to the floor!”
    “Was she okay?” asked the son.
    “Yes, she was fine son. Your grandmother was resourceful and resilient! She spent the night chewing on anything in sight, mostly out of frustration in not succeeding her escape, I imagine. She said she even chewed through all of the telephone lines, including the internet connection.
    The humans discovered her in the custodians room, early next morning on Christmas Eve. They took precautions to make sure she did not escape again, much to her dismay.
    But weeks later, when the mange was gone and her fur grew back and she gained weight from all of the nourishment they gave her, they returned her to us.”
    “That’s great dad! It’s good to know that some humans understand us and will even take care of us if we are injured or sick.” said the son.
    The father looked up at the now starlit sky. The harvest moon was rising into the bejeweled darkness.
    “Your mom’s favorite thing was to hear us sing. Do you remember son?”
    “I sure do.” he said. He then watched a shooting star, race with incredible speed, across the sky. He turned and asked his father “Should we sing now, dad? Sing as loud as we can, so that maybe, just maybe, she can still hear us?”
    “Alright. You can start, son.”
    “Yip yip oooooooooooooOOOOOoooo”

    The above story is a work
    of fiction, based loosely on
    actual occurrences.

    10.22.2010 – restless renegade

  31. renegade — Great story. Very well told. Thank you.

  32. Great article. We’ve had three coyote encounters in the past three years. Here’s the craziest one:

    My husband and I were living about 35 miles southwest of Boston. About three years ago, he was walking the dog on the powerlines behind out house while I was making dinner. My cell phone rang and it was my husband yelling for me to get the BB gun and run out to the powerlines since he and the dog were surrounded by coyotes.

    I rushed outside and immediately heard the yipping! I ran through the woods and broke through to the powerlines. My husband and dog were surrounded, but as I came onto the scene the coyotes scattered. It was quite an experience and my husband walked with a BB gun for quite a while after that.

  33. Good story, Amy. We have so few encounters with our wild bretheren nowadays. I like that you chose to deal with the pack non-lethally, if necessary. A BB gun is the only kind of “weapon” we have on our place in the woods. Never had to use it on any living thing yet, and probably never will…

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