ASK MY CAT ABOUT COYOTE BREATH

I wanted to call in a mountain lion. I was 10 years old, and during the spring and early summer, it seemed that all I'd heard my father and other northern Arizona cattle ranchers talk about was the big mountain lion too smart to be tracked and treed and shot--the mountain lion my father suspected of slaughtering a couple of his beloved, purebred quarter-horse foals.

I wanted to see that mountain lion for myself.
So when my father was off on errands, I sneaked into his tool cabinet and took his "varmint caller," a whistle that shrieked like a wounded animal and was guaranteed to attract wild predators when blown with skill.

I settled in the shade of one of my favorite juniper trees on the east bank of Big Muddy Creek.

I would keep as still as a rock, I told myself, and play that varmint caller until the very mountain lion no one could catch would come right up to me and I could see it with my own eyes.

I hadn't been blowing the varmint caller more than two or three minutes when an intensely curious coyote came out of an oak grove and walked toward me. It was an old male with a white muzzle and a ratty, gray coat that looked as if it had been eaten by a thousand moths. It stopped maybe five feet away.

We stared at each other, a blond kid with a varmint caller and a ratty wild dog. I was captivated by the fearlessness and intelligence in its eyes, but I was also a little put off by its closeness and its fixed stare.

After perhaps a minute, I figured we'd both had enough. I jumped up and waved my arms. "Git git git out of here," I yelled.

The coyote bolted.
After that I gave up on the idea of varmint calling. I never again wanted to share my personal space with a wild coyote.

But 33 years later, I would again have a close encounter with a coyote. This time it would not be in the country, but in my backyard in a suburb of Phoenix.

No one knows for sure when the coyote family moved into our northeast Valley neighborhood.

It is likely that generations of the wild dogs had lived there unnoticed. Like most urban coyotes, they may have secretly watered at swimming pools and golf-course ponds; fed on the road kill of the streets; pounced on the quail and rattlesnakes and rabbits and rats that live in front yards; feasted on garbage after tumbling over the cans; gorged on the Purina left outside for neighborhood pets, and, occasionally, on the pets themselves.

Or it may have been that the coyotes were newcomers, immigrants from the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Maybe the mother and tagalong father had found the desert too harsh, had opted to whelp a new litter in the safety of the suburbs--in a cozy culvert, in a quiet corner of a golf course, in the empty garage of some abandoned, foreclosed-on home. Here, they were assured of abundant food, water and protection from their only remaining natural predator in the desert: the human trapper.

I started noticing the coyotes in the early summer of 1992.
Occasionally, I'd spot a coyote trotting along the flood-control ditch that eventually empties into Indian Bend Wash and onto the Camelback Country Club golf course.

What the coyotes did back then, and still do today, is trot out of the ditch onto the nearby streets in search of food. One day a neighbor spied three curious coyotes peering into the living-room window of the Christensons, who live just a couple of doors east of me.

Not too long after that, the coyotes made a meal out of the Christensons' cat, Oreo, right in the Christensons' backyard.

They targeted our gray-and-white alley cat, Duke, for their next feast. Had I not been awakened by the unmistakable sound of a coyote yipping and pouncing outside my bedroom window that August morning, Duke wouldn't be around today.

I jumped out of bed, threw on an old tee shirt and darted outside. Sure enough, there was a young coyote straddling Duke just a few feet from the front door. Duke's head was in the coyote's mouth. "Git git git out of here," I shouted at the coyote, just as I had shouted at a different coyote 33 years ago.

The technique still worked. The coyote forgot Duke and hightailed it down the street, exiting into the ditch just before it reached the Christensons' house.

Clearly, the coyote was in better shape than Duke. Duke could not walk. His mouth and right eye were bleeding heavily.

Figuring we would have to euthanize our cat, my daughter Tina and I loaded Duke into a portable kennel and drove off to an emergency animal clinic. I remembered to take a credit card with me.

Duke rejected first aid, even after having suffered a coyote attack. In fact, he did a better job of fighting off the veterinarian at the emergency animal clinic than he had the coyote. In order to protect the doctors, a technician plopped our bloody kitty into a rectangular, glass-aquariumlike gismo called an anesthetic chamber.

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