Song Dog

 

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My neighbor, age sixty-something, has waged a war on our local coyote pack. Very early in the morning I hear his shotgun. The noise is startling, territorial. I imagine my small herd of horses dispersing like stars, the coyote lying motionless on the hill.

Later in the day, I meet my neighbor in the clearing between our properties. I ask if he fired the shots.

He smiles, “Yeah, I finally got that coyote I’ve been after. He goes after the rabbits and, anyway,” he adds, “he didn’t look too healthy. I think he had the mange.”

I don’t mind the hunting. I understand the primal thrill of hunting, a deer in the sights, filling a freezer for the winter and providing for a family. A successful hunt makes us feel we belong in the wild, that we’re not outsiders after all.

Ten years ago, we moved to the northwest hills of Connecticut. Our new house lay in the direct path of a nightly coyote run. We’d wake, pre-dawn, to the pack racing past our bedroom window, howling and yipping as they raced off to what our neighbors nicknamed, Coyote Ridge.

The barking and howling was electrifying, like no domestic dog sound I’ve ever known. We kept our Border Collie under close watch.

The coyote scares me, but I consider him my spirit animal, if such a thing exists.

As a kid I could pass for a coyote; the pointed nose, the tawny coat. One year I insisted on prowling around the house on all fours, inhabiting the coyote body or letting the coyote inhabit me. That year I snubbed vegetables, but chomped on any bone put in front of me. I’d tear at the meat with my canines and suck the marrow out of pork chops. And not just my pork chops. The rest of the family’s as well. When it was time to clear the table, a heap of bones on my plate.

My father, alarmed. Table manners were important to him.

“At least she’s eating,” my mother said.

That was the year I practiced howling while sitting cross-legged on my bed, but I found I really needed to be on all fours to get in a good howl. I needed to throw my chin up, press my ears flat back.

The coyote is known as the Song Dog. He boasts at least eleven documented vocalizations, the highest number of vocalizations of any wild North American mammal. The lone howl, perhaps the one we associate most with the coyote and the wolf, is believed to be territorial. The translation; ‘this is my hill’.

Even though, Connecticut is mostly urbanized, the eastern coyote thrives here, preying on grasshoppers, small rodents like voles and rabbits, deer, and sometimes, on small livestock like goats and sheep. Coyotes prey on house cats and they’ll attack and kill even large domestic dogs, though they rarely eat them. Their quarrel with dogs is almost always over territory. Attacks on humans are rare, but they have occurred and with terrible consequences.

The eastern coyote, is larger than his western cousin, about the size of a German Shepherd dog. He can live practically anywhere, making cozy dens out of downed trees, culverts, under suburban decks, in drainage ditches, and concrete sewer pipes. Although he’s wild, he adapts to rapid changes in his environment with incredible speed. He’s equally at home in the forest or on the streets of New York City.

Last year, a lone coyote loped through a coffee shop in New Haven, not far from the Yale University campus, startling patrons and easily evading wildlife control officers. The coyote is a testament to adaptability; consider that he thrives in all of these places without manipulating his environment in any way at all.

And that’s what rubs my neighbor, and others like him, the wrong way. I mean, it seems like there must be some sort of trickery going on.

A google search finds several groups here in Connecticut dedicated exclusively to coyote hunting. They say the pelts fetch anywhere from thirty to fifty-five dollars. Some hunters eat the coyotes they catch and share recipes for Cajun coyote and coyote stew, both of which get high marks.

But, there’s more to coyote hunting than making a meal out of him. Many of the hunters and trappers take a photo of the dead coyote and then leave his body in the forest. And unlike deer or elk hunters who tend to have a deep appreciation for the animal they hunt, coyote hunters freely admit loathing for their target.

On one forum, a discussion as to why:

“They prey on wildlife.”

“They kill dogs.”

“They’re a nuisance. I can’t stand them.”

“Their populations need controlling.”

Hunting isn’t an effective tool for population control. In some areas where seventy percent of a group were culled, the coyotes increased their numbers in just a few short years. Females simply became fertile at younger ages and gave birth to larger litters.

Here, in Connecticut, their range expands year after year.

Last spring, while trail running in the forest, I came eye to eye with a female coyote. She was loping up one side of a ridge and I was loping up the other. We met at the top. I don’t know which of us was more surprised, but she was definitely more at ease with our encounter.

This was her territory. Not mine.

I looked into her yellow eyes, glass-like, expressionless. Scary as hell.

Then she faded back into the forest, leaving me with the thrill of the encounter and nothing more.

Yesterday, I walked the field again that separates my neighbor’s property and mine. A herd of deer startled and bounded away, thin legs like birch twigs, white tails flashing. I thought at first it was my sudden presence that startled them, but on the edge of the forest I see the familiar triangular shaped face, the yellow eyes, the shadow of the Song Dog.

(This essay originally appeared in Writing the Wild in slightly different form.)

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