Longform

ASK MY CAT ABOUT COYOTE BREATH

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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.

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Terry Greene