The Coyote Bides His Time

The Coyote Bides His Time

A Native American Trickster and a Born Survivor

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart


coyote y correcaminos

An excited yipping and yapping, like a pack of fox terriers fighting over a carcass, echoed across the meadow as I rested beneath a towering evergreen, savoring my morning mug of lapsangsouchong tea. Moments later, four large coyotes came ambling across the meadow and began snuffling around a weathered stump about twenty yards from me. I was happy to have their company on that morning beneath the azure skies of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, where I was working as a seasonal ranger.

In an attempt to get the attention of my visitors, I whistled, as one would when calling the family dog. No response. I slowly approached them, waving in greeting, hoping to elicit some sort of response. As they peered in my direction, each one lifted his leg and sprayed the stump, after which they arrogantly trotted off to complete their morning’s tasks.

Every coyote I have ever met has exhibited an attitude of quiet superiority. “We coyotes have been here for much longer than you humans, and we will be here after all of you are long gone,” they seem to be saying.

To many Native American peoples, Old Man Coyote was a sort of spiritual avatar, the earthly personification of the creator god. According to the Navaho, Coyote also introduced death into the world to prevent human overpopulation from taking up all the space needed by other creatures.

As a god, Coyote, like the ancient Greek deities, possesses human qualities and human weaknesses. He is the rapscallion, the ragamuffin, the imp, the bad kid made to stand in the corner. He is the Great Trickster, akin to the Cherokee Great Rabbit, who evolved into the animated cartoon character Br’er Rabbit. He often fails in his many schemes. I watched one morning as a mule deer pursued him across the meadow, his huge antlers aimed right at Coyote’s fleeing posterior.

Coyote has always thrived as a city kid as much as he has a country kid. He lived surrounded by the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan and among the urbanized Maya. He is now a resident of every large US city, from Los Angeles to Chicago, Miami to New York’s Central Park. Humans have caused this. Eradicating most of the wolf population, Coyotes only natural predators, was the first step. Rounding up stray dogs and carting them off to the pound opened the door to Coyote, ever the opportunist. Then, too, wherever there are humans, there are rats and mice, Coyote’s favorite delicacy.

Coyote eats other things too, lambs and family pets. A few years ago, my sister, who lives in the Texas hill country, noticed that “Dotty,” her little terrier, was missing. Apparently, Dotty had pushed her nose through her doggie door to bark at marauding coyotes and was snatched by one. My sister’s family did not blame the coyote, who was only being a coyote.

While Native Americans esteemed Coyote for his antics, invading Europeans, as they pillaged their way across the continent, developed a hatred for him that bordered upon the pathological. Determined to eradicate him and cruelly practical, they turned to strychnine, which causes an agonizing death characterized by choking, vomiting, convulsions, nervous system failure and asphyxiation. Hundreds of thousands of Coyote’s people were slaughtered, as were countless wolves and not a few farm dogs. Sometimes, nature struck back. In Utah in the 1880’s, farmers exterminated the coyotes, causing a proliferation of wild rabbits that riddled their crops.

Western states offered bounties for each wolf or coyote head or pair of ears. Between 1883 and 1928, Montana paid out bounties for 111,545 wolves and 886, 367 coyotes. The state legislature mandated that veterinarians be required to introduce sarcoptic mange into the ecosystem.

The poisoning continued until 1972, when President Richard Nixon issued executive orders banning it on all public lands and outlawing its use by federal employees.

Annual coyote hunts are still encouraged in some rural areas. Dan Flores’s new book Coyote America includes a photo of a stretch of New Mexico prairie obscenely littered with the corpses of God’s Dogs in the aftermath of such a locally sanctioned hunt. While shooters are in reality seeking a convenient moving target, they attempt to justify the slaughter as fostering larger populations of game animals.

Unsuspecting US taxpayers still finance the deaths of 80,000 coyotes a year, but such attempts are self-defeating. When their numbers are down, with almost supernatural awareness, Coyote’s people produce much larger litters. And they move on to safer habitats. Coyote is a survivor.  He outwits us at every turn.

Perhaps those fine specimens I met on that pristine mountain morning were on to something.  Given man’s penchant for environmental degradation and mutually assured destruction, his vulnerability to pandemics, Coyote’s tenure on the planet may outlast our own.


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