Posted by: trevormeers | October 19, 2010

Wile E. Neighbor

I recognize that many of you have become regular readers of this blog through the reports on Katie’s medical journey. I’ve been humbled and uplifted by your interest and encouragement to keep the reports coming. But even if it seems we’re mostly about doctor’s appointments and therapy here SW of Mingo, that’s not every hour of the day. So I hope you don’t mind an occasional detour like this one into other happenings around our place.

Their voices sang through the rattling stalks of October corn and across the fallen leaves at our firepit, curled around the front of the house and slipped through the open bedroom window. The sound made Allison shiver. “Let’s close the window,” she said. “They’re scary.”

Even with the pane pulled down tight, though, the shrill yipping and barking made its way inside. The coyotes were assembling for the night’s hunt somewhere in the hills out back, calling each other out to weave through the corn, the woodlots, the barnyards and the almost-suburban lawns like brushy-tailed wraiths ghosting unnoticed through the lives of the section’s humans in a search for practically anything edible.

A coyote forever poised in curiosity at a prairie learning center near our house.

Canis latrans (“barking dog” in Latin) has never haunted me like he does Allison. To her, the yipping of the creature also called the prairie wolf or the American jackal is the closet thing to a call of the wild ringing through the night. For most of us, that call doesn’t juice the adrenal glands like a wolf’s howl, even if most people have only heard the latter in recordings. In our folklore, coyotes didn’t dress up in Grandma’s clothes and try to eat heroines. Nobody morphed into a were-coyote under a full moon and terrorized the moor.

For the most part, Americans have generally seen the coyote as no more than a canine strain of rat or cockroach that has proved maddeningly hard to eradicate. The American Humane Society calls the ol’ prairie wolf “the most persecuted animal in North America,” but their numbers don’t show it. Wolves, we pretty much stamped out. Coyotes, on the other hand, are numerous enough to earn a rating of “Least Concern” on the scale of endangered species. Not that stockmen sick of losing sheep haven’t tried to change that. The U.S. government whacks about 90,000 ‘yotes every year, and countless more are rubbed out by traps, poisons and .223 rounds fired by varmint hunters. For many hunters and ranchers I know, the rules of engagement call for shooting all coyotes on sight.

He pulls a Quizno's sandwich, you pull a coyote. That's the Chicago way!

There’s no doubt that coyotes cause humans plenty of headaches, and I’ll admit, if I had the time, I’d probably have a go at coyotes with a rifle now and then myself. But, as with any game I pursue, that doesn’t represent any lack of respect. (For precedent on this thinking, reference Jim Corbett, who grew famous hunting down man-eating tigers, while becoming the greatest champion of the cats’ conservation.) In fact, since I’m not a sheep rancher battling coyotes eating up my profits, I still find his yipping call to arms invigorating when it carries across the fields behind us on a bitter winter night. He’s a survivor, one of the precious few mid-size to large animals that has actually increased its population since white settlement in America. Start killing them off, and their litter sizes increase to compensate. They eat just about anything and can make their home just about anywhere. They’ve been spotted in New York’s Central Park (undoubtedly unnerving the Upper West Side Poodle People), and in 2007, a coyote wandered into a Quizno’s in Chicago’s Loop during the lunch hour and layed down to chill in a soda cooler next to the Sobe water. Wildlife experts estimate 20,000 coyotes are living around Chicago. Fact is, there’s a good chance a coyote is skulking about near your very own chain-linked castle.

If you root for the little guy and feel even a few pangs of loss about how much of this country we’ve bulldozed, you have to give at least grudging respect to a species so hard to kill.

I’m far from the first one to give coyotes some due. In Native American mythology, Coyote is the trickster, always scheming to put one over on somebody. A Karok story says he got that way because he overslept the day strength was handed out to all the animals. Showing up at the end, after the power was all doled out, Coyote received cunning as a consolation prize. In a Kalapuya tale, he uses it to steal a pond’s water from the Frog People by tunneling through the dam while they think he’s taking a long drink. In an Apache story, he hangs all his coins off a tree, then sells the tree to greedy white soldiers convinced they’ll harvest money from it forever.

Many times, however, Coyote’s cleverness backfires, as when he loses his wife to Badger in Tewa lore. Coyote’s convinced he can win a bet over a rabbit hunt with the slow-footed Badger by catching a single rabbit. But while Coyote is relaxing all day after bagging a jackrabbit, Badger is digging up 12 cottontails. Somewhere in here, you can see the DNA of Wile E. Coyote and the Acme devices that turn him into a walking accordion in every episode.

I met Whisky the cowdog on a cattle drive in Kansas and learned that her mother had been accused of a dalliance with a coyote. You be the judge.

Today, these kinds of stories are mostly confined to books and multicultural story hours at the local library. We’re too far from the animals to even see them outside of zoos, much less pick up on their habits and wonder what they’re up to when we see them skulking across a pasture. That’s one reason I try to get Allison to leave the window ajar when the yips carry in on the night wind. Most of the native residents disappeared from our land decades ago, but Coyote is still out in the corn and woodlots, holding down a tattered corner of the past in the middle of settlement and reminding us what the call of the wild once sounded like.

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