Longform

ASK MY CAT ABOUT COYOTE BREATH

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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.

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Terry Greene