Coyote: Nobody's pet

By Mark Wheeler / Hi-Desert Star

Yellow eyes: two squinted flames flickering in the moonlight. Bush wolf: low-stealing and stealthy among the shrubs. Canis latrans, "barking dog," heard from somewhere far away, or near. This is the desert's own dog, the coyote, "God's dog," the Navajos say.

If not the most maligned and universally reviled of nature's creatures, the coyote is at least one of the most abused. We use the thing for target practice, trap and poison it, blame it for just about every domestic animal kill this side of the Canadian border, tear up its habitat and then curse it for presuming to live in ours. County extermination programs are popular sport, especially in the western states, and a data search by DesertUSA found the U.S. government has spent tens of millions of dollars since launching its 1891 Tet offensive to control the animal.

All sources found for population estimates count roughly 300,000 to 400,000 coyotes killed each year by deliberate means. Some fall to the invasion-force assaults carried out by the government, but most are victims of the "social shooting" militia mobilized for regional and local varmint hunts. Nature takes an even higher toll on the species with no mobilization efforts at all, using privation, predation and disease to make sure 80 to 95 percent of pups don't make it to maturity.

Despite this seeming combined natural and human jihad against its numbers, the coyote is almost bewilderingly successful. In "Season of the Coyote," essayist Tom Kuhn reports that biologists reckon the coyote population in 17 western states alone total a reasonably stable 1.5 million. Although this might be population chicken feed compared to, say, the number of bats we would find over the same area, it still demonstrates the species is holding its own.

In fact, the coyote is considered by all accounts to be the most successful species of largish predator on the North American continent, and it is believed by some that this very facility for stubborn survival against all perceivable odds is what truly inspires our own stubborn and continued hostilities against it.

Southwest author Charles Bowden calls coyotes "the Viet Cong of the American desert," and, elsewhere, "the most insolent bravos of all...." Of course, the dog isn't just confined to the desert, but Bowden's conceits aren't meant to locate the species geographically. Rather, they are meant to locate the coyote in its own evolutionary prowess, and the facility it has for adaptation calls to mind nothing less than a nimble and highly resourceful band of guerrilla fighters.

Genetic and paleobiological evidence, noted by Wayne for the Institute of Zoology in London, indicates the coyote and gray wolf shared a common North American ancestor as recently as two million years ago. Since then, the "little wolf," as it is called by some American Indian tribes, has become the runaway superior of the two species in terms of range. Spreading from its known origin on the grasslands of north and midwestern America, it has settled every conceivable environment from Alaska to Panama.

Besides the grasslands, there are coyotes in the forests, mountains and deserts. They thrive in temperate climates, but also in warm, wet and humid ones, and in the snowy and blistering-hot ones as well. They can make a meal on red meat, fish, berries, insects, nuts and seeds. Not only have they mastered all the natural habitats, they have demonstrated an uncanny talent for getting on in the human habitat as if it were designed specifically with them in mind.

Confirmed sighting of coyotes have been reported in every major city in the country. One photographer caught two to them on film running between taxi cabs on a Bronx, N.Y., street. Hiding out in city parks, alleys, abandoned buildings and highway culverts during the day, they come out under cover of darkness to raid garbage cans, hunt pets, eat leftover dog food and drink out of bird baths and suburban swimming pools.

Nothing seems to faze them, nothing so low a stooping in the whereabouts or wherewithal of lifestyle as to raise the coyote equivalent of shame in them. They are a dog for every season, every landscape, every diet. Nonetheless, there is one baseness to which they seem preternaturally determined never to lower themselves. That is to be a human's dog, and we hate them for it, or so contend many who have given much thought to our affections and disaffections for non-human creatures.

Tucson poet Richard Shelton wrote, "Something very basic in humans resents the coyote...." Expanding on the statement, he invoked our long and loving relationship with dogs and then noted in contrast: "But the coyote, so much like the dog in appearance and even behavior, has refused to accept us as masters, has spurned us, and we can never forgive it."

Shelton's pronouncement might sound like just another sly denunciation of modern human insensibilities. However, it speaks to something far more inimical between the human and coyote than can be explained by simplistic generational, or even cultural differences in our own species.

As abundantly revealed in their legend and lore, even the American Indians didn't know exactly what to make of the coyote. It was a chimera, one moment greedy and stupid, the next selfless and wise. Mostly, though, it has always been for them the notorious trickster, "Coyotl," a name and identity given by the ancient Aztecs which has hounded the animal across time and a continent to this day.

Perhaps the coyote is the penultimate deceiver, but if there is anything to the notion we bear it some atavistic grudge, it's less likely to be based on the animal's chicanery than on its seeming monumental arrogance. The dog just won't heel, refuses to ever wag its tail for us, and this despite everything we'd gladly give it in return for just a little bootlicking servility.

Early on in "Paradise Lost," Satan states his case: "...better to reign in Hell," he defied, "than serve in Heaven." At the risk of further besmirching the coyote's already unfairly demonized character, it would seem correct to say that at least on the issue of independence, the dog and dark angel are of the same mind. Of course, it can't be overlooked that Milton wrote his epic poem to reveal the nature of our own kind, and we, also, are as clearly invested in self-rule as either of the other two.

What we have here, between ourselves and the coyote, is a classic contest of wills, and if it isn't so biblical of proportion as the one between Satan and Yahweh in Milton's verses, it is by earthly standards a battle most Olympian. The players in our own struggle are purely mortal, and it isn't clear which character, if either, is the fallen one. What does seem clear by most observation, though, and what galls us beyond consolation, is that despite all our presumed advantage, the rude little bush wolf with yellow eyes seems to be winning.

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