Us against the world

coyotes by larry lamsa creative commons license

Coyote couples are as destined to misfortune as any literary star-crossed lovers, but a lot more reproductively successful (Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons license)

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Boy meets girl.

It’s such a familiar story I probably don’t need to spell out the rest.

Ah, but folks like stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, don’t we? Ok, ok… so a male and a female find one another.  They “meet-cute” (the classic contrivance of romantic comedies), or through the efforts of micro-managing parents (the historically classic approach), or online, or in one of a million completely unremarkable everyday ways—the “how” doesn’t matter (to anyone else).  A spark catches. A bond is formed—over time, at first sight, or by rite (mating or marriage rituals, depending on one’s religion, politics, or species). They find a home, start a family, and live happily enough ever after (fairy tales tend to gloss over the details of that last part).

It’s a comforting, feel-good saga. But it’s not the stuff legends, of Pulitzer Prize novels, or Oscar winning dramas. No, for that we need a star-crossed couple, thwarted by outside forces. We need Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff.  Edward and Bella. Or a pair of coyotes.

coyote in grass by trey ratcliff, creative commons licenseWyle E. and the Mrs. may not be icons of romantic literature, but one would be hard pressed to find couples more destined to misfortune than those of the Canis latrans clan. It’s all here—blood, poison, class, caste, honor, artifice, cruelty, revenge… and then some. After all, the persecution most luckless lovers experience only lasts three Acts, or about 100,000 words. Coyotes have been wearing a target since shortly after European settlers, and their livestock, came to North America in the early 15th Century.

Many species have disappeared into extinction under far less pressure yet, despite hundreds of man-hours and billions of dollars spent annually to wipe coyotes off the face of the Earth, as a species they continue be fruitful and multiply, to survive, and even thrive.

urban coyote by ken slade creative commons licenseUnlike their close relative the wolf (Canis lupus), their range has expanded in response to human development (and programs to exterminate wolves, a key natural competitor). Prior to 1700, coyotes were creatures of the prairies and deserts of the central United States and Mexico. Now they can be found as far west and north as Alaska, in all but the northernmost reaches of Canada, across the entire “lower 48,” and much of Central America, and in habitats as diverse as protected wildlands and urban centers.

How is this possible? Chalk it up to intelligence and adaptability. Behaviorally, coyotes are as flexible as a yoga instructor about everything from where to live, what to eat, and even family size and composition.

By 12 months of age—and there’s about a 60% chance they’ll survive their first year—coyotes are old enough to start looking for a mate. They don’t always leave home or settle down right away, though. Adults may live alone (for at least part of their life), in pairs, or in packs comprised of an alpha male and female and their offspring from previous years.  Once mated, they form perennial, monogamous bonds; however, on average, “till death do we part” is only a couple of years. In captivity, coyotes can live about as long as domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)—13 to 15 years—but in the wild few live to see their third birthday. Dying young is a familiar theme for the romantically doomed, be they canid or primate.

coyote pups by zac garrett creative commons licenseEveryone in the family unit—Mom, Dad, and any older sibs who haven’t left home—pitches in to rear the current generation of pups; it takes a village to raise coyote kids, too. Litters average four to seven pups, although—and here’s another example of that flexibility I mentioned earlier—coyotes can adjust their litter size based on the how much food is available and how many of their brethren live in the neighborhood. In other words, if humans remove (almost always by some lethal method) coyotes from a particular area, the population density falls, and during the next breeding season the number of pups per litter will rise. In the case of a pack, the loss of an alpha pair may cause the other members to disperse and find mates, so the area ends up with more breeding pairs than before any effort was made to reduce their numbers. One could argue that, however counter-intuitive it may first appear, extermination programs are a great way to increase your coyote crop.

last laugh by matt knoth creative commons licenseWell, what do you know? Play your natural selection cards right, and it’s possible to turn the tables on those who try to sabotage your relationship and have the last laugh—talk about a plot twist!

Perhaps the folks who try to control coyotes would find it helpful to read a few Victorian romances. Then again, anyone who’s tried to keep besotted teenagers apart should understand that when it comes to ill-fated lovers, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Come to think of it, maybe Cyrano and Roxanne, Tristan and Isolde, and Jack and Rose should have taken a lesson or two from a couple of cunning characters dressed in fur. They may not have cheated death, but they might have managed to leave behind generations of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to tell their tale.  From Once Upon a Time to…

The End.

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EPILOGUE:  Lest anyone think I’m unfairly choosing sides in the war against coyotes and other wild predators, readers should know that I understand the narrative presented above is not the whole story. I used a literary device to focus attention on a particular aspect of the coyote’s natural history—pair-bonding and social structure—and I intend to return to this and other species featured on this blog again and again over time, as is necessary to flesh out these complex and fascinating creatures.

While I may not always agree with their production practices, I don’t begrudge farmers and ranchers their right to make a living and protect their investment. I’m an omnivore who depends on the plant and animal foods they produce. However, I do find it strange that many who own livestock will point to the fact that coyotes, wolves, and foxes kill cows, sheep, and chickens as proof of their inherent cruelty, and as justification for implementing lethal control measures—even though many, if not most, of these domestic animals are being raised for food and will eventually be killed by the same humans who cry foul when the grim reaper appears on four feet in a pasture instead of on two at the processing plant.

As a biologist, I know that life feeds on other life. That’s the way of the world and I don’t see it changing any time soon. I just think we should be honest about our motives (and I’m aware that I risk offending some readers with what I’m about to say). It’s not that we don’t want that lamb or calf to be killed and eaten, it’s that we want to be the only ones who get to eat. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed, because it perpetuates the idea that people are somehow removed from the natural world.

Here in the U.S., we’re already paying to have both livestock and predators on our public and private lands, and have done so for a long time.  But the true cost of tonight’s meatloaf or coq au vin isn’t visible on the grocery store receipt, in the form of the higher meat prices livestock producers might charge to pass along the cost of losses to predation (or non-lethal prevention methods). Instead, part of the price of our food is disguised, hidden as taxes that support inefficient, ineffective, and often brutally cruel control programs. Personally, I prefer to know how much my dinner really costs, financially and ecologically.

You may disagree, as is your right.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Larry Lamsa (two coyotes and a pup); Trey Ratcliff (coyote in grass);  Ken Slade (coyote on the street); Zac Garrett (coyote pups); and  Matt Knoth (last laugh).

10 thoughts on “Us against the world

  1. Coyotes have always fascinated me… when they yelp, crying in otherworldly screams, I always crouch by the open window to listen. They’re so much like dogs, yet lanky and forbidden. A fear of these creatures has been instilled in me by others. But beyond that is always the curiosity. After all, they’re just animals. Living, seeing… just like us.

    • One thing that fascinates (and puzzles) me is the long history of people forming strong bonds with one canid species while vilifying all the others, including the one from which man’s best friend derived. By and large, coyotes understand that humans are dangerous and avoid us as much as possible. It’s true that as their numbers rise, particularly in urban and suburban settings, it’s wise to keep a close eye on our smaller companion animals, but we ought to be doing that anyway. There’s only been one verified coyote-related death in the U.S., and that was over 30 years ago. More people are injured each year by bees and deer (when they’re hit by cars) than by coyotes.

  2. I love this blog. I am the president and founder of the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline and I can’t even begin to tell you how many people we’ve talked to in the last 60 days about coyotes! It’s mating season and everyone is shocked to see them in their own back yards. After the shock wears off, the terror sets in and residents get really scared that the coyotes are going to attack them, their dogs, their kids. I’ve written blog posts about the coyotes and their mating season, but I didn’t come close to making my blog post anywhere near as entertaining as yours. If it’s okay by you, we’re sharing your post on our Facebook page, and plan to link to it from our site as well. Thanks for writing!

    • Hi Angel. Thanks so much for the compliments–you made my day! Of course, I’m happy to have you share the post anywhere you like, and hopefully link back to NDN.

      FYI, I did just add an Epilogue to address another aspect of the human-wildlife conflict issue, so make sure you read that and are comfortable with it before you share the post.

      As you may know if you’ve read my bio, I used to be the director of a wildlife rehabilitation center, so I’m well aware of public attitudes toward, and fear of, coyotes. I used to remind my hotline volunteers not to automatically assume that because someone has called to report a coyote sighting, they are asking for help to have the animal removed. Sometimes what they are really asking, without quite knowing they are, is “how am I supposed to think about this?” Solid, fact-based information can help calm their fears and encourage their fascination.

      • I read the epilogue and our group is in agreement with you on this one. We’re not PETA, we’re not against meat eaters, trying to make people become vegan. As you said, life feeds on other life, and we seem to know that as humans, but Lord forbid if an animal steals a chicken from a chicken coop – all hell breaks loose. As you’ve probably seen and heard in your rehab days, we get calls all the time from chicken owners (which by the way are not just farmers anymore – the ‘green’ movement is changing the types of people who own chicken coops. A lot of chicken owners now are young, urban hipsters trying to live off the land). Many of our chicken coop operators will call outraged that a coyote got into their chicken coop and stole a chicken. We try to explain that a.) you have FOOD in your back yard and something-anything is going to try to steal it b.) if a coyote can get in your chicken coop at 40+lbs you have some serious security issues c.) it is somewhat improbable that a coyote stole your chicken so let’s go over exactly what happened and why you think this.

        There’s a great website out there on predation that explains what to look for to determine what may have attacked your livestock. It’s super interesting, but with coyotes it’s usually simple for us to rule them out. Is the chicken still in the coop but eaten/dead? If yes, it wasn’t a coyote. Pretty simple. I would include the link, but that’s bad manners on someone’s blog. 🙂

        It is funny that when people call about coyotes, the conversation ALWAYS starts the same way – “I’m calling to REPORT a coyote!” as though we have a map here that we’re going to add a thumbtack to with your location, or we have a sharp shooter standing by waiting for one to be reported. They are simple calls, but still difficult to convince people to not be afraid of coyotes – just cautious, especially with teeny tiny pets. We’re careful about saying that coyotes haven’t attacked a dog in this many years because people CLAIM that coyotes attack their dogs on a fairly regular basis, about 5 per year here in Missouri, and it’s hard to say ‘unconfirmed attack’ to the poor dog owner who spent thousands of dollars trying to save her dog, only to lose him in the end, and that same owner swears that she saw the animal attack her dog and it WAS a coyote. Technically, that’s considered an un-confirmed attack. I don’t know though… it seems pretty confirmed to me. Then again, we get at least one call a month from someone saying that an opossum attacked their dog and when we get those we immediately say “No it didn’t.” because we know better. 🙂

        We’re adding your blog link to our site, and we would love if you would link back to us as well. We’re wildlifehotline dot com. Keep writing!

  3. Beautiful, important post about an animal I admire and cherish as part of my landscape. Considering how maligned and persecuted coyotes are, your perspective doesn’t strike me as unfair or biased. I see it as an important counterbalance to the unrelenting bad press coyotes get.

    One other factor that coyote advocates point out is that coyotes are often wrongly blamed for livestock carnage (similar to wolves) where dogs are to blame. But even if they are the source of the problem in various cases, what I’ve personally seen in terms of cruelty to coyotes simply cannot be justified by and ends-justifying-the-means approach to coyote “control.” Besides, as you say, coyotes will fill the biological niche as quickly as they are exterminated.

    In my lifetime, I’d love to see a change of paradigm in how we treat our “pest” and “varmint” animals. Those words alone seem to bring out pathological responses in those who exercise their will toward these animals. There are too few regulations and too many freedoms that allow for incredibly inhumane measures in so many cases.

    • Ingrid – This is so true. I work for a state wide wildlife hotline and we get calls on a very regular basis with residents asking us ‘is it legal to’ _____ insert atrocious abuse. We’ve heard is it legal to beat an opossum with a lead pipe, is it legal to set a raccoon on fire, drown a squirrel, poison all of the above… It’s sad. Our hotline only offers humane solutions to wildlife conflicts so our answer to these people is “Technically according to Missouri wildlife code, you can kill an animal any way that you want in order to protect yourself and your home. However, while it is LEGAL it doesn’t mean that it is not ALSO considered animal abuse. You will be reported to the Missouri Animal Cruelty Task Force and prosecuted if you cannot prove that you were just defending yourself.” We explain that if you had time to call and ask us if it was legal, then you are no longer acting in self defense, you are plotting horrible ways to kill an animal. Then we usually ask why they want to kill them and it’s because the animal is in the attic, or in the chicken coop, etc. and I love telling them “Well, I hope killing animals is your new hobby, bcz as long as animals can still get into the attic/coop/etc, you’ll have to do this every night.”
      Perfect example was a call I received from a City of St. Louis resident that had trapped an adult raccoon in his yard because the raccoon had been tearing up his garden. I’m sure it was only ONE raccoon in his garden, and I’m sure he caught just the exact raccoon that was causing trouble. Anyway, the caller had already talked to our Conservation Dept. who had advised him that he could shoot the animal, but the caller didn’t want to. He wanted someone to come pick it up. I explained that there are no public, free services that will come out to pick up a perfectly healthy raccoon just bcz you don’t like him. They live here, and we’d go broke picking up every raccoon that people don’t like just to relocate it to some magical fairy land where raccoons run free and people love them. The caller then said “You’re going to come get this raccoon or I’m just going to have to shoot it then” I said “Well, actually sir, it is illegal to discharge a firearm within the city of St. Louis limits and I have your home number here on caller id. I would be happy to dispatch the local police department to explain the city’s gun laws.” He said “Fine! Then I’ll just cut his head off in my front yard!”

      My reply – “Sir, I know exactly what’s going to happen when you open that trap door with that raccoon inside. Do YOU?”

      I hope that raccoon kicked his butt. 🙂

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