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ASK MY CAT ABOUT COYOTE BREATH

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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.

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Terry Greene