Sometimes nature comes pounding at your door, whether you’re ready or not. One winter night, my wife, sons, and I put our ski jackets on over our bathrobes, tucked our pajama legs into our boots, and went outside to the field to watch a remarkable trilogy of astronomical events. Comet Hale-Bopp hung low in the sky, beaming like a motorcycle headlight in fog. High above us, Mars glowed bright and faintly red in unusual conjunction with the moon. The moon itself was in eclipse, its light dimming gradually, nibbled away by the Earth’s curved shadow. As the moonlight faded, the comet brightened and the snow covering the field and the hills beyond glowed with an eerie, copper-tinted light. We watched until everyone grew cold, then ran shouting in exhilaration back to the house.
A few days later, ten-year-old Nick and I were standing in front of the big window in our living room when a coyote came trotting down our driveway and crossed the yard twenty feet from us. It was a big moment for Nick. He had never seen a coyote in the wild and none of our family or neighbors had ever seen one on the twenty-mile-long peninsula where we live in northern Michigan. It is land checkered with woodlots, cherry orchards, vineyards, and subdivisions, a fine mix of habitats well suited for coyotes. But the peninsula is separated from the mainland by five miles of Lake Michigan on each side and is cut off at its base by our small city.
I was so surprised by the animal before us that I barked “Coyote!” It heard me through the glass and instantly turned and ran in a fluid lope across the yard and into the field where we had watched the comet and eclipse. The coyote was a healthy and well-fed specimen, its lush winter coat the color of granite, with highlights of silver, brown, and black–the subtle shades of tree trunks and leafy ground and fallow fields. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the varmint hunters mobilized.
The odd thing about varmint hunters in our neighborhood is that some of them are cherry farmers and vineyardists who face perennial trouble from rodents. When meadow voles and field mice become unusually abundant, as they do every few years, they can not find enough food during the winter so they feed on the bark of cherry trees and grape vines. The trees and vines are much affronted by this and die. Dead plants don’t produce fruit, so the farmers lose money. Some of the farmers sense profound ecological principles at work but seem to be confused about cause and effect. Instead of welcoming the predators that feed on bark-eating mice and voles, they set out to shoot or trap them. They’re especially tough on red fox, and deeply suspicious of hawks and owls. There’s not much chance that coyotes will ever be welcome here.
Sure enough, a week after Nick and I saw the coyote in our yard, the local newspaper printed a letter to the editor written by a man who had watched three coyotes emerge from the woods beside his house on our peninsula and give chase to his Scotch terrier. Fortunately, the terrier made it safely to the house, but the man felt it was his duty to sound the alarm. Something had to be done, he cried.
My neighbors divided quickly into opposing camps. One camp included those who are charmed by the idea that a bit more wildness has returned to our over-civilized peninsula. To them the coyotes overcame great odds to arrive here (probably crossing the ice over Grand Traverse Bay that winter), filling an ecological niche and thriving where no coyotes have thrived for many years. Their group includes anti-hunters and suburban nature romantics, as well as hunters (and I am one of them) who have studied enough wildlife biology to know that killing top-tier predators has deleterious consequences throughout an ecosystem.
The other camp was made up of those who persist in considering coyote, wolf, and even eagles and hawks as worthless at best and dangerous at worst. They take for granted that predators kill deer, elk, moose, grouse, pheasant, and other game animals, as well as domestic chickens, sheep, and cattle. To those folks, predators are competition, and not to be abided.
It’s an ancient attitude, of course, probably as old as humanity itself, and one that has significantly shaped our attitudes and policies regarding coyotes. In 1915, the U.S. federal government initiated the first large-scale program of coyote control. “Control,” of course, meant trapping, poisoning, and shooting hundreds of thousands of adult coyotes, on the ground and from airplanes, as well as killing coyote pups in their dens. Few animals have endured such relentless persecution.
But by the 1960s biologists had concluded that predation by coyotes was not as severe a problem as western ranchers claimed, and that coyotes preyed primarily on the mice, voles, hares, and other small herbivores that those same ranchers had been trying very hard to eradicate because they competed with cattle and sheep for grass. By then it was also evident that the favored coyote controls of traps and poisons were indiscriminately destroying foxes, badgers, cougars, bobcats, lynx, eagles, hawks, and domestic dogs. To top it off, the control measures weren’t even very successful. When ranchers began lacing carcasses of cows with strychnine, wolves and other animals died by the thousands, but coyotes avoided the lethal bait.
In 1972 the federal government banned the use of poisons on federal land and in federal predator-control programs, but a black market in banned poisons thrived. Two years later, the estimated kill of coyotes in seventeen western states surpassed 300,000 animals. Not even the wily coyote could withstand such pressure. It virtually disappeared from central Texas, much of North Dakota, and from sheep-grazing country in parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.
Throughout the American West many ranchers and farmers still shoot coyotes on sight. Yet, in most of the western states, coyote numbers are holding steady, and in many other parts of the country they are increasing. Thousands of them live in Los Angeles and in suburban Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, and Brooklyn. Within the past hundred years, the coyote has expanded its range across the United States to the eastern seaboard, north across Canada and Alaska, and south as far as Central America. It might be the ultimate triumphant underdog.
Many people are ambivalent about this, just as they’re ambivalent about nature in general. We can go weeks or months without being aware of the wild outside our doors, then it makes an appearance and ancient reflexes are stirred. The fables, myths, folktales, legends, and fairy tales of people everywhere suggest just how deeply are lives are interwoven with the creatures we share the planet with and how complex are feelings are about them.
Many psychologists are convinced that hearing, reading, and telling animal stories in an important step in teaching children to orient themselves in the world. Such stories seem designed to remind us that there are both similarities and differences between people and animals. Fables, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales identify and stereotype behavior in animals–the gluttony of a pig, the cunning of a fox–behavior that children learn also to recognize in themselves and in adults. When a kid plays the role of a grumpy bear or a courageous lion, the animal is serving as a model that helps the child understand grumpiness and courage. It creates a widely shared reality–everybody knows a lion is courageous–that helps the child learn what courage feels like.
When we accuse someone of being a wolf, a bear, or a chicken we perpetuate characterizations that go back hundreds and often thousands of years. The early Greek fables were among the first we know of that associated recognizable character traits with animals and applied them to human situations. Later, the Medieval bestiaries performed a similar task by attributing Christian values to animal behavior. Throughout the world there is an enormous warehouse of myths and tales, many of which share similar motifs. If you want to know how humans feel about animals, that warehouse is a good place to look.
Coyotes show up frequently in the mythology and oral traditions of Native Americans throughout the western United States and Mexico, in what was the historical range of wild coyotes. In many of the oldest traditions, Coyote is featured as a trickster and buffoon. He is not an animal, but one of the First People, a race of godlike mythical beings that lived on Earth before humans came along. They were the creators of the world, the builders of cultures, and the progenitors of the first human beings. It wasn’t until after humans appeared that the First People were transformed into animals.
The tales of Coyote the Trickster describe a creature that can change into human form at will, thus linking animals to humans and nature to culture. Like other Tricksters–familiar examples are Reynard the Fox in thirteenth-century France, and Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote in twentieth-century America–he’s an altogether lovable scoundrel. He is thieving, deceitful, cunning, crafty, vain, larcenous, and lecherous. He has tremendous vitality. Because of his pranks, rivers now flow only downstream instead of both ways, and people must walk uphill as well as downhill. Because he meddled with the Earthmaker’s original creation, where food was always at hand and everyone lived forever, there is death in the world. In the various trickster tales, Coyote suffers many misadventures, including poisoning, starvation, dismemberment, falling, burning, drowning, and annihilation by explosion, but he always bounds back to his robust self. He’s outrageous and selfish and bad, and he spends most of his time getting into mischief. Yet he is capable of generous deeds. He taught tribes along the Columbia River how to catch salmon. He stole fire from the gods and carried it as a flame on the tip of his tail and presented is as a gift to people.
Old Man Coyote shares a number of qualities with the biological coyote, which zoologists say is perhaps the most ancient canid in North America. Fossil remains of primitive coyotes date back four to ten million years, to the late Miocene and early Pliocene. The coyote we know, Canis latrans, has lived here for about 500,000 years and for most of that time shared the continent with the mastodon, camel, dire wolf, and sabertooth cat.
Like the Coyote of mythology, the biological coyote is a thief, a wanderer, and a clown. Biologists and storytellers agree that he seems indestructible. He’s a work-in-progress–still changing, a master of adaptation. According to an old saying in the American West, “A coyote will eat anything that doesn’t eat him first.” If there is no game to eat, he eats carrion; if there is no carrion, he eats grasshoppers, fruits, and berries. He’s a troublemaker and an escape artist. He pokes around where he has no business. He breeds with wolves and domestic dogs, spawning hybrids that are bigger, stronger, and even more adaptable.
Here on Old Mission Peninsula coyotes are being blamed for everything from plundered garbage cans to the scarcity of certain songbirds. Farmers suspect them of stealing their chickens and rooting up their gardens. When his cat came home with a deeply lacerated front paw, my neighbor was convinced that it was the work of coyotes. At the grocery store I saw a small cluster of people reading a notice on the community bulletin board–“Lost: Yellow Lab, male, four months old”–and heard one of them cluck in regret and whisper, “Coyotes.”
The comet has disappeared now, but the Trickster remains. It’s funny that we need centuries to change the way we think, but require almost no time at all for coyote to become Coyote.
Jerry Dennis, author of A Walk in the Animal Kingdom, The Bird in the Waterfall, The Windward Shore, and other books.
Join me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JerryDennisAuthor