Kelsey Lahr has worked summers as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park since 2008. She holds a BA in Communication Studies from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and is currently working toward a Master’s degree in Communication at the University of Utah, where she focuses her research on environmental and health communication. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, Dark Matter, and Gold Man Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appearance in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series.
Some say Coyote created the earth. Some say he brought us light. Coyote is known by a hundred different names, as the Trickster and the Creator and the Old Man and the Old Woman, Ah-h?-le and O’-ye and Chirich and Talapus and Napi, but always he is very clever, and in these parts, always kind and good.
When I first moved to the Sierra Nevada, I went a long time without seeing much wildlife, even though I hiked quietly and sat alone by the river and always kept my eyes open. I heard coyotes late at night, when their yip-yip-yipity-aa-ah-woo woke me up and raised the hair on the back of my neck, an expression I had until then thought to be figurative. For many nights that unearthly hollering panicked me, and I told myself aloud in the darkness that it was just coyotes, just earthly critters, finding one another in the night, maybe just letting it rip for pure joy as they ran the hills. I would fall back to sleep then, and after a while I never woke at all, and in the morning I would realize with regret I had missed the show again. So I knew they were out there, somewhere nearby, and I had heard there was a family with pups.
I went running one evening on a trail by the meadow. It had been a long time since I had awoken to coyote cries or heard mention of the nearby family. I was looking at the ground in front of me, a terrible running habit I have never been able to break, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked around and saw a coyote—yellow-gray, bigger than I had imagined—running on the ridge of the hill above me, keeping pace with me stride for stride. I stopped. The coyote stopped. I looked up at her, she down at me. No one blinked. I lost track of time. The coyote sat, still staring. Finally I broke, knowing that I probably needed to get home sooner than the coyote did. I began to jog, and the coyote stood and trotted above me. She ran with me until I hit the road that would take me home. The coyote headed up the hill as I crossed the street, looking at me over her shoulder until I disappeared around a bend in the road. I did not sleep at all that night.
If you have ever interacted with a coyote, or had one as a running partner, you probably feel that coyotes seem almost to like us, in a way most wild animals never will. This is why, I am certain, the tribes in this area have always conceived of Coyote as a great advocate for humans. After creating the earth and bringing fire to the people, say the Chukchansi, Coyote pushed for our immortality. Coyote was very upset by the death of the first human, and proposed to bring him back to life. Meadowlark argued with Coyote, saying that humans should not be brought back to life, for then the earth would get too crowded. When Coyote lost this argument he mourned for us all, for our mortality, and then put on the first funeral, instituting the practice of burial.
Last summer I thought of this story, this convivial relationship between coyotes and humans, every time I drove by the Glacier Point coyote. This coyote had been sitting at the Glacier Point Road turnoff all season, begging for food, quite successfully by the looks of him. Every few days we received calls at the ranger station, alerting us of an injured three-legged coyote near the road that needed to be either helped or put out of his misery. After the first several of these calls, law enforcement rangers would drive out to see what could be done for this poor animal, and each time the coyote ran off on four perfectly good legs. Bewildered, we wondered if we could be getting the wrong coyote. But the reports continued, same location, same three-legged coyote, and eventually we concluded that this entirely healthy coyote was faking a severe limp in order to get the pity—and food—of soft-hearted tourists. This coyote had furthermore learned to recognize law enforcement vehicles and ranger uniforms, and knew when to get moving on all of his feet in order not to get in trouble with the law.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following similar reports of cunning coyotes from all over the country: one researcher caught on video a coyote who rolled around in the dust each morning in order to affect a dirty, pathetic look. He then walked limping to the nearest roadside, where he got handouts all day long. When he felt full, he dropped the limp and groomed himself, walking away looking clean and healthy and round. Rangers in Yellowstone have reported that several coyotes have regularly been seen posing for photos in hopes of getting rewarded with food.
I am initially amused, and then saddened, by these stories. I am delighted by the cunning of the coyotes, and then dismayed that we humans are influencing these once-wild animals and encouraging them to drop their natural behavior. But then I think, we got domesticated dogs from somewhere, didn’t we? I imagine the ancient ancestor of the domesticated dog and cousin of the coyote, the gray wolf, begging beside an encampment of nomadic humans, perhaps faking a limp. Maybe all this canine-human friendliness is, if not inevitable, at least genetic.
Somewhere along the line, though, that relationship was severed. Wolves were hunted ruthlessly by westward-moving Americans and the ranchers who settled down all along the way, and had been extirpated from all of the lower forty-eight states except Minnesota by 1960. Wolves and ranchers became bitter enemies, as fences went up that blocked the wolves from roaming as they always had, and as wolves attacked the cattle that provided a meager living for the ranchers. The west was not to be big enough for both wolves and men. Today wolves have been reintroduced to parts of their historic range, but this represents only a tiny fraction of their former habitat.
As the animosity between people and wolves became increasingly entrenched, it seems that wolves’ bad reputation began to spread to its much smaller and less threatening cousin, the coyote. Coyotes could and did raid chicken coups, of course, but they are far too small to take down a cow alone, and are not usually inclined to hunt in packs in order to do so. And yet today people seem to see them as a menace to human life and property, and when I tell the story of my coyote running partner, people respond uniformly: “Weren’t you scared?” Scared? Coyotes stand about two feet tall at the shoulder and weigh usually thirty pounds. I fancy myself capable of taking a coyote. But somehow they seem to have merged with wolves in the popular imagination into a large, fierce aggressor, a reputation that wolves, and especially coyotes, do not deserve.
Unlike wolves, however, coyote populations have not been brutalized by humans. In fact, in this age of dizzying change and crumbling ecological systems, the coyote population is one of the very, very few that has expanded in the face of urban sprawl and deforestation. Coyotes are masters of adaptation, able to scratch a living from back ally dumpsters and oak woodlands and sweltering deserts and arctic tundra alike. A coyote was filmed several years back running the streets of New York City, expertly dodging taxi cabs. And as the suburbs of Los Angeles expand ever farther into coyote habitat, coyotes do not leave. They simply adapt. And this, perhaps, is one reason that coyotes are regarded with fear today: as we move into once-wild territory, coyotes are one of the few creatures that do not back away. And this close proximity leads not just to coyote begging antics, but also to coyote predation on our pets, and in a few cases, young children. In the wild, coyotes do not deserve our fear. In the suburbs, however, they might.
The only known fatal coyote attack in the United States occurred in August of 1981. Three-year-old Kelly Keen was dragged off her family’s Southern California property by a coyote and gravely wounded before her father found her and rushed her to the hospital, where she died of blood loss and a broken neck. At least thirty-five other coyote attacks, these nonfatal, have occurred in California, mostly in the greater Los Angeles area. And it is with this knowledge that I meet a wild coyote, in its own wild habitat, with friendliness and respect, and at a distance. Were I to meet a coyote in suburban human habitat though, I might well respond with fear, at a much greater distance.
And this is the difference: a coyote in the suburbs is cunning enough to adjust its predation habits, and will learn to go after garbage, small pets, and very rarely, small children. This coyote is an object of fear and disdain. But the wild coyote, this is the descendent of Coyote the creator, Coyote the friend of humans. This coyote has no use for our refuse or our children. This coyote will enthusiastically hunt mice and grasshoppers in a field, teaching its pups to do likewise, as did those I watched one summer in a field across the river from my house. This was the summer I had heard but not seen the coyote family with pups. I had kept an eye open for weeks, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in daylight instead of just hearing their ruckus at night. And then one evening, entirely unexpectedly, I spied them from my back porch, just across the river. The male and the female were out together with two pups, on a training expedition. The pups watched and imitated their parents, who stalked mice, rumps in the air, with total absorption, completely unaware of my presence on the other side of the water. It was simultaneously amusing and awe-inspiring and utterly delightful to behold.
It is this incredible versatility, adaptability, and cunning—their ability to scratch a living from the suburbs and the wild alike—that causes me to respect coyotes, and in some odd and melancholy way, to find hope in them. The earth is losing species at the rate of three an hour. When I survey the rich and varied landscape around me I wonder what kind of sparse desert my children will see. But I am convinced of this: my children and their children will know coyotes. They will hear their eerie nocturnes, find joy in seeing them hunt mice in a field. And if we humans bring about our own destruction, coyotes will inherit the earth. Or perhaps, create it anew.