Copyright © 2007
Frank Turkowski


THE COYOTE

A BEAST OF GREAT CONTROVERSY



The coyote is an interesting animal. It has many unique traits that allow it to survive in nature. Since it is a predator, it provokes a variety of feelings from us. Some of us are inspired to love and admire the coyote and encourage its protection. Others have opposite feelings about this North American canine due to the fact it sometimes preys on domestic and game animals. Regardless of our attitude toward this native dog, most of us are fascinated by it. Observations of the coyote have resulted in countless stories that are part of the history and folklore of America. Some of the most captivating of these tales are about how this animal makes a living and interacts with humanity. In the narratives that follow, we will delve into some of these aspects of the coyote story. I hope that you will consider this mammal even more interesting after reading Coyotes, Trappers, Sheepherders and Urbanites.

Much of my life has involved interacting and learning about coyotes and persons who have been associated with them. My memoirs begin on page nineteen. Presented here is an introduction that offers some life history information about the coyote, and human attitudes toward it. In my personal accounts that follow, I will delve into experiences with America's wild dog and otherwise tell my own story. Recollections of my travels and other experiences as a government trapper with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service form the foundation of this book. Along the way I discuss trapping, hunting, human contacts, interactions with nature, and my thoughts about the whole state of affairs.

A second book to follow, pending the success of this one, will summarize my experiences while conducting scientific research activities in the American West while employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will feature information acquired as a wildlife research biologist investigating aspects of the life of the coyote and other predators and their management, including methods to reduce predation on livestock.

To begin, let me introduce the coyote, as it is known to me. The coyote is probably the most controversial creature that ever walked (or slithered) on the face of the earth since the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Is the coyote a saint or a sinner, or both, or just an animal doing its own thing? Over the years, I have become acquainted with this canine and its ways. I have developed mixed feelings about coyotes because some prey on livestock and damage crops while others do not. I have trapped coyotes to protect livestock and have been involved with research that would prevent coyotes from being destroyed needlessly. Along with these associations, came introductions to an assortment of people who were also interested in this predator for various reasons. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what the coyote is or is not and that is where the controversy lies.

In some parts of the United States, coyotes are commonly called prairie wolf or wolf or song dogs. A rancher that has lost livestock to this predatory species may call it something else indicating his point of view. Animal rights advocates or naturalists and campers who want to hear the howls of this song dog may have other opinions about it, and so on. Scientists have named it Canis latrans, which means barking dog. The word coyote comes from Mexico and is derived from the ancient Aztec word coyotl. A male coyote is sometimes known as a dog, a female may be called a gyp or a bitch, and the young are known as pups.

The coyote is a member of the dog family Canidae and resembles a smaller version of the German shepherd domestic dog. Two larger North American canines resembling coyotes are the gray wolf and the red wolf (Canis lupus and Canis niger respectively). Coyotes sometimes interbreed with red wolves and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and the offspring of the latter are known as coy-dogs.

In addition to subtle anatomical characteristics, the coyote can also be distinguished from its wolf relatives by its smaller size and the fact that it has a more pointed snout and ears, and usually holds its tail at a lower angle. Actually, there is no such thing as "the coyote", because like humans, all members of this species have unique individual traits. However, for convenience sake, we can refer to the many individuals of several subspecies, or geographic types, as the coyote. Most adult coyotes are about two feet tall at the shoulders and weigh about thirty pounds, though they can vary in size and weight and can be much heavier in parts of their range. Fur color usually blends somewhat with their habitat; they are lighter tan in deserts and darker in forests.

Words used to describe coyote behavior might include predatory, carnivorous, omnivorous, scavenging, opportunistic, alert, cautious, clever, curious, and adaptable. Depending on circumstances, these canines sometimes can be timid or aggressive and ferocious as when defending their young. Coyotes are famous for their howling “songs” and other sounds. Their vocabulary includes howls, barks, growls, whimpers, whines and yelps. Some functions of such vocalizations include signals to gather, to enhance social bonds, as warnings and distress calls, to claim territorial rights, and to attract mates. When coyotes join others in a serenade, they appear to be enjoying themselves. They also use visual signals that resemble those of domestic dogs such as raised hackles, exposed canine teeth, wagging tails, and various body postures. Coyotes also interact by sniffing, nuzzling, and licking each other and exposing parts of their bodies to indicate dominance or subordination to others. Other means of giving and receiving information are through odors on scats (feces) from anal scent glands, urine scent posts, and ground scratches made using their paws, which contain also scent glands.

In some areas, coyotes may share their geographic range with other canine species including red wolves, gray wolves, and red, gray and kit foxes. Some of America’s other wild canines, such as the red wolf, are endangered. Conversely, in spite of all the hunting and population control activities directed toward them, coyotes have increased their range. Once they were thought of as characterizing the West but they have expanded their territory northward and eastward. Coyotes now inhabit all of the forty-eight contiguous American states as well as northward into Canada and Alaska and southward into Costa Rica. Such developments have stimulated the writing of publications with picturesque titles like Go East Young Coyote, Go East.

As we have said, people's attitudes about the coyote vary from detached curiosity to love or hate. Such perceptions of this are often influenced by our personal values and priorities. Attitudes about animals may be guided by personal experiences, acquaintances, or by the influences and interpretations of moviemakers, authors, other media people, and educators. Ranchers and farmers perceive this wild dog one way, city dwellers may have a different viewpoint; and scientists may have yet another, and so on. A few persons want the species exterminated because some of them prey upon game animals and livestock, and damage other possessions of man. As there are people wanting to eliminate or protect coyotes completely, there are others wanting the species to be managed so only individuals that cause damage to livestock and crops are controlled.

Some Native Americans may revere coyotes because they believe this species played an important part in the origin and history of their people. Some tribes believe that coyotes have magical powers and have taught their ancestors how to hunt, fish and otherwise live off the land. One Indian name for this native animal is medicine dog. Some Hispanics believe that brujas or witches can take the form of coyotes. The controversial nature of this beast can also be demonstrated by reviewing literature about it. Included in the thousands of publications about coyotes are such emotionally charged titles as Killer Coyote and Eliminate the Menace, and more sugarcoated ones like God's Dog. Regardless of how people feel about coyotes, many of us are interested in them and books such as The Voice of the Coyote by J. Frank Dobie often become best sellers. The movie, television and other industries and groups also have depicted this canine in many ways including them as cartoon characters and as sports team’s logos.

My associations with coyotes have included studying their food habits to determine what they do for a living by sorting and identifying food items taken from their digestive tracts and droppings. Additional research was developing selective lethal and non-lethal methods to prevent coyotes from damaging livestock and crops. As a government trapper, I controlled those that preyed upon livestock, poultry, wildlife, and crops (watermelons and cantaloupes). Seemingly, to make it even, occasionally coyotes excavated my traps and defecated on them, chewed my equipment and awakened me nights by howling. Also, some that preyed upon sheep, made me work hard to catch them.

While on the trail of the coyote, I met fellow government trappers and wildlife researchers as well as fur trappers, ranchers, wildlife managers, farmers, educators, persons in the fur industry, animal rights advocates, and city dwellers (also known as urbanites). In addition to trappers, ranchers, farmers, and others who have interacted with coyotes for centuries, many urbanites and suburbanites are now meeting them in their neighborhoods. Coyotes are walking down city streets, eating out of garbage cans, and preying upon domestic cats and dogs. Lately, coyotes have been seen within the city limits of Los Angles, New York City and other municipalities. Unfortunately, several documented deaths of human infants and older children have been attributed to coyote attacks and we are likely to see more such interactions.

To most zoologists there is no such thing as a good or bad animal; it is just that some of them do things that are harmful to us. My belief is that in assessing the coyote's place in nature, one should keep in mind that the coyote is designed and programmed to prey upon and scavenge from other animals. That is why it has well-developed senses of smell and hearing, long fangs as well as meat shearing teeth, and can run up to thirty-five miles per hour. Coyotes are not intentionally trying to be at odds with humanity, they are just doing what comes natural. Another definition of a predator might be – kill or die. Among other traits, they have the biological instinct to hunt and kill in order to survive, and that is just what they do whether they capture a jackrabbit, a mouse, or a lamb, calf, or a chicken. However, it doesn’t mean we have to let them prey on livestock any more than we allow caterpillars to eat our vegetables or disease-carrying insects to bite us.

Since coyotes are so interesting and such an integral part of our wildlife heritage, whenever possible, it is best to direct control methods toward individual coyotes that prey on livestock, game animals, or damage crops. This is not always easy to do. It is evident that coyotes really want little to do with humankind. It just happens that humans raise things that taste good to them. Otherwise, they would probably just mind their own business all the time. Regardless, some people carry a personal grudge against the whole species. Since coyotes and man are connoisseurs of the same foods, they come in conflict with each other and the results are often attention getting. Over the years, I have listened to many stories relating to these clashes.

One tale someone related was about the rancher that hated coyotes so much that when he trapped one alive, he decided to send it to the great beyond in a way that befitted his attitude toward the species. He proudly drove the caged coyote in the bed of his pickup truck to a remote area of his ranch. With friends watching, he tied dynamite to the coyote's tail, lit the fuse and released the creature with a whoop and a holler. Just like a coyote, the critter did the unexpected. Instead of running away, it decided to hide under the nearest object. That object happened to be the rancher's brand new truck.

How do coyotes manage to survive and proliferate when the odds seem to be against them? Their high reproductive rate accounts for much of their success. Although coyotes bear pups in an underground den only once a year during the spring, litters average five to seven and sometimes even more. Some coyotes breed during the first year. They are also opportunistic and sly. When the animals were being loaded on to Noah’s arc, I would not be surprised if the coyotes tried to pass themselves off as aardvarks so they could be at the head of the line.

Also, these adaptable canines can obtain nourishment from a variety of foods including rabbits, rats, mice, large hoofed animals, reptiles, fish, sea turtle eggs, carrion, mesquite beans, persimmons, and various kinds of melons, berries, cherries, grapes, apples, and insects. They can subsist for a while on only grasshoppers but a single coyote can kill a hundred pound lamb. Another way to look at the coyote is that it is a sort of average of the North American canines. It is smaller than the wolves but larger than the foxes. Regarding its predatory behavior, it seems to swing between the two other groups. Sometimes coyotes are more solitary and prey mostly on small animals, and at other seasons, they gather into social or family groups to hunt larger hoofed animals such as deer.

Another trait that contributes to the survival of this creature is its wariness. For years, coyotes have been controlled with traps, poisons, cyanide guns, snares, hunted from planes and helicopters, reduced by den hunting, and by calling them into shooting range with prey and predator sounds. Their populations are often reduced by these methods, but a few alert individuals always seem to be left behind to carry on traditions as well as pass on their genes and teach their young about dangers. Thus, when control methods cease, coyotes increase again. Some Native American folklore states that the coyote will be the last animal on earth. One Indian legend specifies that after the buffalo and man are gone, the coyote will rule the earth.

An incident disclosed by an Arizona government trapper further illustrates the wariness of this predator. The owner of a tame coyote asked a visiting friend to watch the cautious behavior of his pet as it played together with his children. As they observed, the coyote, the family dog and the children ran through the room. When they exited, the owner moved one of the chairs in the room a few feet from its original position. When the group returned, the dog and children continued nonchalantly through the room. When the pet coyote entered, it hesitated, looked around the room and focused its eyes on the chair. Then, apparently convinced that the change did not mean danger; it continued onward. Alertness and wariness allow coyotes to detect things in their environment that can increase chances of survival. For example, minor disturbances of the soil might mean danger in the form of steel foot traps, while discovering a newly excavated rodent burrow may lead to a meal.

Coyotes sometimes have a reputation for being intelligent beyond reality. However, they do utilize complicated thought processes. They are known to cooperate when hunting. There are reports of several coyotes taking turns chasing rabbits and resting. They sometimes drive deer onto frozen lakes where hoofs cannot gain enough traction to maneuver successfully. A coyote will occasionally travel with a badger and these two carnivores will hunt together. The faster coyote will chase a rodent and it may escape into its underground burrow, and then the location is known. Sometimes the badger is rewarded if it catches the rodent while digging into the burrow, and if the prey has another exit for escape, the coyote may get the prize.

The value of coyote furs has varied through the years, which influences the amount of human effort expended for trapping and hunting them. In past centuries, fur trappers had a great influence in the exploration and development of our country and presently some people make a living trapping fur animals, including coyotes. Government trappers have been protecting livestock from coyotes since the late 1800s. Many farm, ranch and city boys, girls and adults also trap or snare coyotes on a part-time basis, to stop depredations, and for extra money or sport.

Interest in capturing coyotes leads to interesting stories as follows. A coyote was entering a pasture to prey upon kid goats by sliding through a hole under a woven wire fence. The rancher set a wire neck snare in the hole. Instead of being caught in the snare, the wise coyote pushed the loop aside with its paw and then entered the pasture through the cleared hole in the fence. Each time the rancher examined the snare, it had been pushed aside, and another kid was found dead. Then the rancher began reducing the size of the loop each time he returned. Finally, the coyote was snared by the front foot. This story illustrates that it sometimes takes wit and patience to capture a coyote. Some trappers often say, “To catch a coyote, you have to be able to think like a coyote". If you have any stories about coyotes, I would like to hear them as well as your comments about this book.

Considering everything about it, the coyote is a fascinating animal. After you read my story, you will probably agree that this is true, and that the coyote is indeed a beast of great controversy.