A Good Read About Coyotes

With an active, dynamic and ever-changing reading list usually piled atop the square, snake-legged candlestand next to my La-Z-Boy reading chair, it’s unlikely I’ll jump right on a book recommended by friends or readers, no matter how much I respect their opinion. Not impossible, but definitely a long shot given the big picture.

Well, it just so happens that this recommendation was an exception — one that caught me with an opening as I neared the end of Barbara Olins Alpert’s “The Creative Ice Age Brain: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience,” which triggers so many intriguing, local, deep-history questions. So I went on a cyber search, found the book at a reasonable  price, ordered it and jumped right in when finished with Alpert’s fascinating study of cave art dating nearly 40,000 years back. Hard to imagine, huh?

Nonetheless, the new read immediately grabbed me and quickly bore succulent fruit dealing with  a subject of old personal fascination: that is, coyotes. Not only that, but it even helped me through the first Labor Day Weekend in memory without local peaches to sweeten my morning cereal. Oh, how I eagerly await the ripening of our annual salubrious peaches, which never arrived this year due to Mother Nature’s February/March sleight of hand, the old witch.

The reading recommendation came from Deerfield Academy English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, and it couldn’t have come at a better, more appropriate time. I had for weeks been listening to a good old friend devastated by the loss of a dear cat and, though not certain exactly what happened to it, he named coyotes as his No. 1 suspect, vowing to shoot any with nerve enough to show themselves along the lawn’s edge of his wooded estate.

“Can you tell me what good they do?” he’s asked rhetorically and angrily many times in grief over the loss of his beloved pet, a male cat who liked the freedom to roam and hunt, then one day didn’t return. By now it’s a foregone conclusion that Brady will not return, a sad reality that repeats itself every other second in the harsh world of nature.

When I try to defend coyotes as predators playing a distinct role in the ecosystem by thinning out mice and moles and squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and woodchucks and other small animals that can wreak havoc when unchecked, he ain’t buying it for one second. No sir. Not a chance. He’s furious at coyotes. Well, coyotes and suspect No. 2: fisher cats, like coyotes, known hunters of domestic cats.

“We did just fine without coyotes when I was a kid,” he snaps, “and in my opinion we don’t need them now.”

It’s not a novel sentiment among hunters, farmers and hilltown residents who own pets, hen houses and maybe lambs or calves. When you think of it, there may not be a more misunderstood animal in North America than coyotes. It may not be deserved. Evolving from the western prairies, these wild canids have in the past 50 years become an eastern phenomenon as well. Perhaps people who have learned to hate these highly intelligent, adaptable wild canids ought to read Dan Flores’ book “Coyote America,” which takes coyotes from their honored past in ancient Native American creation and trickster lore, to their villainous status during the American taming of the Wild West well into the 20th century, to continued persecution as a new “coywolf” hybrid that’s moved into urban and suburban settings all the way to the Atlantic coast with mischievous, opportunistic, grinning Wile E. Coyote aplomb.

The story Flores spins is sad indeed, some of it grotesquely inhumane — a story of horrifying, heartless cruelty by federal and state poisoning initiatives, not to mention trapping, snaring and destruction of litters in their secure dens. It was a no-holds-barred attempt to extirpate a North American animal that was here on this continent long before the people charged to remove it, ancestors of European colonists who came here beginning in the 16th century.

But guess what? The more these institutional murderers intensified their concerted efforts to wipe out these wily little critters, the faster the population grew and moved and interbred with red wolves and expanded their homeland coast to coast. And the populations continue to grow nationwide today, with resident metropolitan populations in our biggest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, not to mention border-to-border small-town America, plus Central America and Canada. So, take it to the bank: folks from Central America to Canada must be prepared to learn to coexist with coyotes, because they have evolved into an animal that’s here to stay. They were here first, have learned to live on the fringes for millennia and will continue to do so forevermore.

As a Franklin County resident for most of my 63 years on earth, I have witnessed the evolution of what we now call eastern coyotes, first called wild dogs, then coydogs, then brush wolves, and now coywolves. Call them what you may, but they are here for the long haul carrying varying degrees of western coyote, red wolf and domestic dog DNA. Some are more wolf than coyote, others more coyote than wolf, but they’ve all learned to survive quite well, thank you, in the Northeastern mountains, forests and wetlands. The good news is that they’ll keep the varmint populations down. The bad news? Well, you may lose a pet if not careful. Furthermore, these sneaky canids may become a nuisance if you’re careless and inadvertently feed them by leaving trash exposed.

I was probably in the third grade the first time I heard of local coyotes, although I had no idea at the time that that’s what they were. The tale of a February or March brush-pile den of “wild dogs that looked like small German shepherds” came from Bill Van Petersilge, a woodsman, hunter and surveyor who worked with my dad. Van Petersilge and wife Marge (Settright) owned Indian Acres, a expansive Mill River dairy farm in Deerfield, with a woodlot extending west to a back property line along Whately Glen Road. Van Petersilge was a World War II marine combat veteran and the survivor of many bullet-riddled seashore landings on the Pacific Theatre. My dad affectionately called him “Old Fred” for some reason, and they traveled New England and beyond in the same crew for decades as close friends and fellow pranksters. Anyway, Van Petersilge was out cutting cordwood that winter when the cutting’s best, and with his superior eyesight caught peripheral motion that turned out to be an aggressive bitch showing her teeth. She was protecting a den of pups hidden in the brush pile and meant business. There’s more to the story than I’m going to tell but it was the first mention I ever heard of local coyotes, and obviously it left an impression.

By the time I was an adult in the 1980s, these coydogs had proliferated to ubiquity and were familiar to anyone who spent a lot of time outdoors or traveling rural roads. Today this eastern coyote is a well-established component of our ecosystem and that of the entire Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, high and low, in neighborhoods, dense swamp and remote forest. No matter where you travel these days, be it Conway or Quincy, Bolton or Boston, Springfield or Sandwich, the sighting of an eastern coyote is not uncommon.

So, if you want to learn more and understand the North American evolution of this highly efficient predator, read Flores’ “Coyote America.” You won’t be disappointed. Who knows? It may even change your unfavorable opinion of this wild, misunderstood, ubiquitous New England creature.

Next up on the reading list? Oh, that’s easy: “Heart of a Lion” by William Stolzenburg. I stumbled across it as recommended reading on an Amazon site where I found Flores’ book, investigated further and — lo — discovered it’s about the wayward Black Hillls, S.D., cougar that wound up dead on a Connecticut highway after leaving a well documented trail through Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ontario and who knows where else to the evening shadow of New York City. Should be a good read on a subject I, at the time of the road kill, felt smack-dab in the middle of.

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