ASK MY CAT ABOUT COYOTE BREATH

The Anglos raised hundreds of sheep and cattle, for which coyotes soon developed an appetite. They also planted acres of melons and vegetables, which coyotes rapidly introduced into their menus.

To farmers and ranchers, the wild dogs were simply pests to be poisoned or trapped. The farmers and ranchers have little affection for former President Richard Nixon. Before his exit from the White House following the Watergate scandal, President Nixon banned the legal poisoning of coyotes in the United States on the grounds that thousands of other scavengers--including eagles and foxes--were being poisoned along with the wild dogs.

But trapping is another matter. Between 1985 and 1992, nearly 40,000 coyotes were trapped in Arizona, according to state records.

Don Moon Sr., who has been trapping coyotes for 18 years, freely admits that the preferred method of coyote trapping, leg-trapping, causes the coyote's leg to "hurt" until the trapper can come around and shoot the wild dog to death.

But then, says Moon, coyotes can "put out some hurting, too." Time and time again, Moon says, he has seen ewes that have been attacked by coyotes. "They eat the hams off the ewe and she's still alive when we find her the next day," says Moon.

All of this is not to say Moon dislikes coyotes. He does not. In fact, he has tremendous respect for them. He tells me one story about a coyote that got to a pile of cow entrails by digging a different underground trench that led to the food each night. What Moon figured was that the coyote had been trapped before, and simply "never forgot" that traps were buried underground.

Moon was right. The trapper finally outsmarted the coyote by sprinkling the urine of a female dog in heat over the area where the trap was buried. The coyote fell for the bait.

The next morning, Moon found an old, three-legged coyote in his trap, one that had probably lost its leg in a different trap several years before. It pained him to defeat so smart an animal, to have to trap and kill it.

I am struck by the fact that Moon's method of dealing with coyotes is in some ways far more humane than that of city dwellers who do not understand the animals.

Adobe Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center receives from eight to 30 young coyote pups each summer. What happens is that hikers and joggers come upon young coyote pups who seem "abandoned." In truth, most of the pups are part of a litter of two or three that is in the process of being moved from one spot to another by the mother. To move three pups, the mother must make three trips, so it seems that the solitary pups have been abandoned.

Pups that go to the center acclimate to man, says Sandy Cote, the center's assistant coordinator. They cannot be released into the wild, because they do not have the skills to survive. Most are sent to zoos, and Cote admits that coyotes "do not do well in zoos" because of their nervous natures and need to roam.

While the urban coyote is free from steel-jaw traps, it is obviously not free from misunderstanding by its human neighbors.

There is the erroneous notion that coyotes carry dread diseases like rabies. This is not true--state biologists say a human being has a greater chance of being hit by lightning than of getting rabies from an urban coyote. Only three rabid coyotes have been detected in the state in the last ten years, says Craig Levy, an Arizona Department of Health Services epidemiologist. Rabies is more often detected in skunks, bats and foxes than in coyotes, says Levy.

The second, and probably most important, misunderstanding is the human perception that the coyote's favorite food is the neighborhood pet. In truth, the occasional small pet that finds its way into an urban coyote's jaws composes only about 10 percent of the coyote's menu, says Glenn Frederick, the Tucson biologist.

Still, most confrontations between human beings and urban coyotes center on attacks on domestic pets. Sometimes, the pets, not the coyote, start the attack.

Phoenix veterinarian Tom Watson recently sewed up a large dog that made the mistake of attacking a coyote it encountered on a morning jog with its mistress.

Veterinarians say they usually don't treat smaller pets. They don't get the chance. A coyote will snap the neck of a small animal and cart it away. If the animal is too large to carry off, the coyote tends to eat the guts immediately, tear off a choice piece of meat and leave the carcass behind.

That is precisely what happened to the Christensons' cat, Oreo. It is what almost happened to my cat, Duke.

But urban coyotes eat a lot more than just cats. Their indiscriminate palates make them useful city residents, says professor William Shaw. He tells me that urban coyotes devour rats and other rodents, which carry diseases dangerous to humans. They snack on herbivores, like gophers, which destroy city gardens.

And they clean up city streets by eating road kill and litter.
That a coyote occasionally trots off with a Yorkshire terrier between its jaws is more a testament to human carelessness than to a coyote's evil-mindedness, is the way I see it.

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