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.
We carted Duke to two more vets that day. After the emergency vet, we visited our regular vet, who sent us to a specialist. Whichever doctor happened to be attending Duke simply fed a tube of anesthetic gas into his chamber, which cost at least $75, and began another round of expensive treatment. Duke eventually wound up in the hands of a bone specialist named Chris Visser, who wired Duke's shattered jaw and gave him a root canal.
Dr. Visser was under the impression that Duke had been run over, until I pointed out the gray coyote fur wedged between the cat's claws.
Dr. Visser and the other vets had reason to suspect something other than a coyote had attacked Duke. "I don't get to treat many cats that tangle with coyotes," the emergency vet had said earlier in the day. "Usually, there's nothing left."
It ended up costing me $700 to provide the veterinarians with the unique experience of triaging a cat that had been attacked by a coyote.
It wasn't until I got home, exhausted and late for work and ready for a hot shower, that I realized that throughout the entire duration of Duke's trauma treatment, I had been wearing a tee shirt that was inside out.
Neither I nor my daughter Tina was the least bit angry with the coyote.
It was, after all, just being a coyote.
I still enjoy hearing my coyote neighbors yip-howling late at night, competing with the roar of kids racing their Camaros through the intersection of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, police-car sirens and the occasional burglar alarm. The coyote songs add a Southwestern aesthetic to urban living, and remind me of my childhood on the ranch in northern Arizona.
But to some city dwellers, the wails of the wild dogs bring terror.
In the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona Game and Fish Department officials receive from two to five telephone calls each week from residents curious about urban coyotes. The residents want to know if coyotes eat children. They want to know if coyotes carry dread diseases. They want to know if coyotes make good pets. They want to know if coyotes live in the city because man has crowded them out of their natural environment.
The department gets so many calls that it recently published a pamphlet titled "The Urban Coyote," which it mailed to me. The pamphlet shows how a coyote print differs from a cat print, but is similar to a dog print. It instructs residents not to feed coyotes and to keep pets indoors at night. It also says coyotes are permanent residents of Arizona cities.
What Game and Fish biologists explain over and over to people like my neighbors is that coyotes have expanded their range as man has expanded his. While they were animals who mostly lived in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico 100 years ago, coyotes now prosper from Costa Rica to Alaska and from New York to California. They have even been sighted in Maine.
Arizona has a particularly healthy population of wild dogs. However, taking a precise census of Arizona coyotes is impossible, because the creatures don't stay in one place long enough to be counted. State biologists estimate that at least 200,000 coyotes live in Arizona--hundreds are urban residents who live in Phoenix and Tucson.
Their numbers in the cities are growing, because there is practically unlimited food and water in Phoenix and Tucson, according to Judy Loven, district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Damage Control. "The long-term trend is that there is an unlimited potential for urban-coyote populations," she tells me in a worried voice. Each year, she says, her agency hears of more and more coyote sightings in Phoenix and Tucson, as well as increased complaints of coyotes killing pets. "We're afraid that's a step away from either a child or a person being bitten or attacked," she tells me.
In Phoenix, they like the city's fringes best.
Mostly, they hang out in suburbs like Paradise Valley and Pinnacle Peak Village and Sun City, near golf courses and drainage ditches and near suburbanites who regularly feed them.
But they have also been spotted on downtown Tempe's busy Mill Avenue, at the intersection of 44th Street and McDonald Drive, at the corner of 40th Street and Van Buren. "I would not be surprised if they go up and down the Central Corridor," says Tom Hildebrandt, a Game and Fish biologist.
"People call in and say they saw a coyote way downtown. They ask us to come and rescue the animal. I tell people it can't be done. If they see one coyote, there may be 25 in the same area. They are abundant in the city. They are a fact of life living in Arizona," Hildebrandt tells me. "We cannot control coyotes in the city. There is no possibility that we can eliminate them. There are too many of them and they are too smart and too successful in the urban environment."
It's not surprising that the prevalence of urban coyotes has caused some debate among city dwellers. Some residents consider the animals pests. Others are protective of the wild dogs, and view the coyote as a treasure.
Last spring one urban-coyote conflict came to a head when some angry Tucsonans who live downtown near that city's Reid Park demanded that Game and Fish biologists "remove" urban coyotes from their neighborhood. The coyotes were suspected of devouring several neighborhood pets.
Game and Fish officials defended the urban coyotes. Should the coyotes be captured, removed from the Reid Park area and released into the desert, two things would happen, they said. First, the urban coyotes would not be able to survive in the desert, which is already staked out as the territory of tougher, stronger coyotes. Second, a new bunch of urban coyotes would move into downtown Tucson to replace the ones that had been banished to the desert.
The truth is, there was absolutely nothing the Game and Fish people could do. The biological problem, as Loven puts it, has become a "political problem that is impossible for any agency to solve because there is no consensus among the public about what to do."
"These people felt coyotes didn't belong in the center of town," Glenn Frederick, a Tucson Game and Fish biologist, tells me of some Reid Park residents. "They felt they shouldn't have to go through extra precautions to save their pets. They thought the coyotes had switched their diet to household pets."
This sudden attention to urban coyotes does not surprise Don Moon Sr.
"I've always said people don't care about coyotes eating calves and lambs, but when they start eating Siamese cats and poodle dogs, we'll get a lot of people on our side," says Moon, a 64-year-old U.S. Department of Agriculture coyote trapper who has lived in Arizona since he was 3 years old.
Like most old-timers who are outdoorspeople, Moon respects the wild dogs for their cleverness, but nevertheless sees them as a menace to farmers and ranchers.
Moon tells me coyotes seem to like "town better than their old haunts," and has little else to add on the subject except to say that traps wouldn't work in the city because the traps are a hazard to pets and children.
Having spent my childhood on a cattle ranch, I can understand why Moon sees coyotes as pests. As a kid, I lost a couple of dogs to coyotes, and I saw what a hungry coyote could do to a baby calf or a goat.
But I'm a city dweller now, and I find my coyote neighbors endlessly fascinating. I confess I'm beginning to think like an "Easterner," which is what we used to call anyone who lived in the city and did not share the same view of land and animals as ranching families. Don Moon Sr. would not be considered an "Easterner--not by any stretch of the imagination.
These days, most Game and Fish officials would be "Easterners," because they learned of the land by getting master's degrees in ecology at places like the University of Michigan. University of Arizona professor William Shaw would also be considered an "Easterner." He studied ecology at the University of California--Berkeley, and ended up with a doctorate from the University of Michigan. He's conducting ongoing studies of urban coyotes, and has grown to admire them because they have withstood years of "relentless persecution" by ranchers and farmers. Now biologists like Shaw say the coyotes have another enemy--city dwellers who feed them. Shaw understands the natural attraction to the animals--they are intelligent, large and furry. Among biologists, coyotes are called "charismatic megafauna."
But the feeding of coyotes is creating a "time bomb waiting to explode," says Shaw. Feeding urban coyotes makes them lose their fear of man, which will make them bigger pests, which will create more human enemies in the long run.
All of this is an endless source of frustration for Game and Fish biologist Hildebrandt, who explains it to me this way: "You see a coyote hanging around, and you feed it, and he fattens up. Then a month later, you have three coyotes. Then a month later, you have 13. Then the cats disappear, and your dog is nervous all the time and then you call us. 'Come take these coyotes away, they're bothering me,' you say. You've created your own problem, and then you expect Game and Fish to bail you out."
Game and Fish officials say an urban coyote fed by humans actually killed a child in California a few years back, but they couldn't come up with any documentation. I wondered if this wasn't just another urban-coyote tale gone wild.
The urban-coyote population in east Tucson is considered to be one of the densest coyote populations in North America, Shaw tells me. There are probably ten coyotes per square mile there, compared with one coyote per square mile in the wild desert.
One of the reasons is that 11 percent of the residents in east Tucson feed the coyotes, according to a University of Arizona study.
Bob and Helen Burkholder are among the 11 percent. And to them, the idea that feeding coyotes is somehow wrong makes no real sense, as long as nobody tries to "tame" the coyotes by petting them or providing all of their food.
What Bob and Helen do is set out dry dog food "snacks" for nine coyotes who regularly visit them at mealtime.
"We wanted to see them up closer," Bob tells me, "so we began to put out goodies. We just give them enough to come in, so we can see them better. We don't want to tame them, or feed them by hand or replace their food supply. We are not providing for their needs. They still have to hunt."
Bob knows about these things, because he worked for the U.S. Forest Service before he retired.
Each day, Bob writes in a journal exactly how many coyotes come to "snack" and at what time.
"These are our boys," Bob Burkholder tells me. Pinnacle Peak Village-area residents Fran and Russ Winter also find nothing wrong with leaving out a few snacks for the wild dogs.
"I can't see where they would become dangerous," says Fran Winter. "When they come up to eat, they take off if I come near."
All of them, that is, except the coyote the Winters called "Tri."
It was a three-legged coyote that came around for four years, and eventually ate out of Fran's hand.
The Winters became attached to Tri. So when he was attacked by wild javelinas last New Year's Eve, the Winters alerted Game and Fish, which transported the animal to the department's Adobe Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a pet hospital for wild animals. Tri died at the center, and the Winters carried his body home, burying him in their front yard.
Do not tell Fran Winter that it is wrong to feed a coyote.
Canis latrans, the coyote, has lived on the land that is now Arizona for thousands of years. The creature thrived in the open spaces of the Arizona Sonoran Desert long before the arrival of the area's first residents. It was always a remarkably adaptable creature, feeding on desert berries and fruits as well as rodents, insects, birds and reptiles.
When people moved into the Arizona deserts, the coyote added another staple to its diet--human garbage. The animals hovered near early Native American communities, on the lookout for leftovers.
Today, coyotes are the subject of significant cultural schizophrenia. On the one hand, we buy happy, howling-coyote tee shirts and happy, howling-coyote woodcarvings in airport gift shops to remind us of Southwestern vacations. But if we walk out of the gift shop and spy a particularly unsightly human, we might let it slip that the person is "coyote ugly."
Mexicano-Chicano people in the Southwest say that a "coyote" is the lowest-of-the-low fellow who, for an exorbitant sum, will smuggle poor people from Central America and Mexico into the United States.
Leonardo Felix, a professor of economics at the University of Sonora in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, says that in his country, any shady character out for a quick buck is a "coyote." Like a poker player. Or a financier.
Wayne Juste, a member of the Pima tribe, has told me he defines "coyote" as a "real politician and a hustler--someone who bends the truth a little."
But Juste will be the first to point out that the coyote had many different characterizations in ancient Native American stories.
For hundreds of years, the Navajo people told coyote stories to their children on long winter nights. University of Nebraska Press published an English translation of Curly T Aheedlinii's version of Navajo Coyote Tales in 1984.
In each story, Coyote has a different persona. He is a filthy, lying coward, or a trickster and a thief, or a hero or a god. Each story has a moral for children: Do not be greedy like Coyote; do not trick people, like Coyote; do not steal like Coyote; be brave like Coyote; be good like Coyote; be wise and honest like Coyote.
For centuries the Pima people and their cousins, the Tohono O'odham, farmed and hunted on land that is now beneath the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. They, too, told Coyote stories around the fire.
The legends were translated and collected by University of Arizona scholars in 1973.
Again, Coyote is either brave and honest and wise, or a trickster and a con artist who lets his greed cloud his thinking and is outsmarted by other animals. In one story, greedy Coyote is tricked by Quail into eating the roasted fat of his own tail.
Other legends tell how Coyote brought two food staples, the saguaro fruit and the mesquite bean, to the Pima and Tohono O'odham peoples. "Coyote is good for something," the storyteller would say around the fire. One Tohono O'odham legend explains how these early residents of the desert and Coyote lived together. "The people had good homes and planted and gathered various kinds of food and stored and ate them to live. But Coyote didn't have a home anywhere. He just wandered around and appointed himself chief of everything, but usually almost got himself killed. Still, people didn't criticize him, but were just happy with him and kept calling him, 'Uncle, Uncle.'"
This was not a view shared by Anglo settlers who moved into the Valley in the 1800s.
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.
But then, I agree with Shaw that the coyotes' "biggest benefit is that many people enjoy hearing them and seeing them. They are a symbol of wildness to us."
The ease with which wild coyotes have adapted to Phoenix never ceases to fascinate me. For instance, a Phoenix coyote has its own freeway system--the Salt River, Indian Bend Wash and all of the flood-control ditches created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A Phoenix coyote can live up to ten years, and may weigh as much as 30 pounds. It may live in one territory its entire life, and may invite a female to join it.
Coyotes do not mate for life, however. And they do not run in "packs." Instead, they group together in family units that break up at the earliest convenience.
When the female coyote is ready to give birth, she digs a den wherever it is quiet and safe. She might find an abandoned stable in Moon Valley, a culvert in west Phoenix, a vacant lot in Maryvale. She might give birth to two or three pups. By the time the pups are one month old, the male coyote hunts for them. Regardless of whether the food is road kill or a Taco Bell leftover, the parents eat it first, then regurgitate it so the hungry pups can more easily digest it.
Sometimes, the mother moves her children to a different den, which is when she can run into trouble if someone finds her "abandoned" pup.
If the pups aren't snatched up by well-intentioned city dwellers, their mother will teach them to hunt. They must learn the neck-snapping technique of the quick kill, how to turn over garbage cans in alleys behind restaurants, how to pluck melons from gardens. The father might tire of the lessons and take off because he is no longer useful. But he still keeps in touch. When coyotes howl at night in my neighborhood, it is likely that they are members of a family apprising each other of their whereabouts.
A coyote family doesn't last forever. Once the pups are independent hunters, the family breaks up.
The adolescents take to the ditches and riverbeds, looking for unclaimed territory.
What they are finding, more and more, are crusts of stale bread, pork chops, dry dog food, table scraps and apples left out for them by the humans they are learning not to fear.
Curious urban coyotes have been known to follow walkers and joggers, and are unafraid of their scents. A safe distance between a coyote and a human is considered to be 50 yards, biologist Frederick tells me. But some urban coyotes can get as close as 15 feet.
The problem is, city dwellers don't often shoo the coyotes off. "People are usually not assertive with coyotes," Frederick says. "If they were assertive with them, and didn't feed them, they would remain a good, safe distance from us. And we could have a situation where coyotes and people can live together in a city."
Me, I just keep Duke in at night and listen to the coyotes sing.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.