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Nashville Scene God's Dog

The coyote comes of age in Middle Tennessee

By Michael Sims

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Chances are, you've never seen a coyote in the wild in Middle Tennessee. If you have, you probably thought it was just another dog at first. Then something about the posture and the bushy tail sparked memories from television and movies. Coyotes do have a distinctive air about them, even if they don't actually stand on their hind legs and fire Acme cannons at roadrunners. So you looked again and remembered stories you'd heard, and recalled distant howls in the night that sounded suspiciously like the soundtrack of an old Western.

Coyotes are not native to Middle Tennessee. However, over the last few decades, considerable numbers of them have immigrated--and apparently they liked what they found and wrote home about it. Now that coyotes are well established in this region, more and more people who have never encountered one of these creatures have some kind of story to tell about someone who supposedly has. Sometimes the accounts involve mysteriously disappearing pets or even threatened children. Not surprisingly, these adventures have usually happened to some nameless friend of a friend--the standard source of all urban folklore.

Human beings evolved in a dangerous world, alongside many animals that were either dangerous to us or at least rival predators for the same prey. Nowadays, we can't seem to let go of our age-old antagonistic view of certain creatures. With former threats such as wolves and bears reduced to peripheral curiosities, coyotes find themselves promoted to the unwelcome role of our wild enemies. In fact, because of their scarcity, the formerly hated bears and wolves have become symbols of our lost wilderness. They have acquired the kind of charisma that qualifies them as conservation poster animals. In the meantime, coyotes, because they have adapted so well to living among human beings, have become more rather than less common--and without the good looks that would help their popularity rating.

Are coyotes a genuine threat to you, your offspring, or even your pets? The answer from people who deal with coyotes and keep an eye on them is a resounding "No." To a certain extent, coyotes have merely joined the choking Dobermans and vanishing hitchhikers that populate urban mythology. Next we'll hear that they've been hiding infected syringes in the coin-return slots of public telephones.

In his recent book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, Barry Glassner points out that, thanks to myths and misrepresentation, many of us fear things that don't deserve our alarm and ignore legitimate issues that merit our concern. Coyotes are a perfect example of something we shouldn't be upset about. So when you're making out your list of things to worry about in the new millennium, you can safely place coyotes at the bottom. The experts all agree: These shy wild dogs are getting a bad rap.

Questions about the coyote extend to even the simplest of matters. For instance, how do we pronounce the name of this animal? There is no consensus. Although some dictionaries list ky-OH-tee as "preferred," many people say ky-oat. Nor is this merely a regional distinction. Around Nashville, no two naturalists or game wardens agree on how to say it. Take your pick.

The Aztecs aren't around anymore to help with the pronunciation, but the word "coyote" comes from their language. They called coyotes something close to coyotl, and the creatures are all over the jaw-breaking names of Aztec mythology: Coyolxauhqui was a moon goddess named after the wild dog that howls at the moon; Heuheucoyotl, "Old Coyote," was a trickster; and those who worshipped the Aztec god Coyotlinauatl dressed in coyote skins.

In a surprising number of mythologies, the coyote plays variations on the role of Old Man of the Prairie or Old Man of the Desert. In our own era, when animals are seldom mythologized, it is important to remember that Coyote was not merely a beast in these tales. He was one of the First People, the ancient characters who walked among the gods in olden times. To the Native American Crow people, Coyote was even the First Worker, creator of the world and its creatures. Always

Coyote was said to be cunning and wise because he was so very old: "Not the oldness of history," as poet Gary Snyder wrote of these characters, "but the oldness of 'once upon a time....' "

In the Southwest, the natives ranked the coyote above the wolf in the chain of animal command and therefore called the wolf the "big coyote." In contrast, the white settlers placed the wolf first and called the coyote the "little wolf." Elsewhere, this wild canine has been called the prairie wolf and the brush wolf. And the Navajo called the coyote simply "God's dog."

In modern-day America, these animals are anything but God's dog. "It seems like there's a lot of paranoia around any city about coyotes," says LinnAnn Welch, a naturalist at Radnor Lake State Natural Area. "A lot of people want to go out and try to kill them all. But we actually see them as a help. At Radnor Lake, they fill an important niche that needs to be filled. There aren't any natural predators left that used to be here 300 or 400 years ago--like cougars or wolves or black bears or any other large animals. At Radnor, with no hunting or fishing or anything like that allowed, if we didn't have a few predators--particularly the coyotes--all our other animals would get out of balance, rabbits and deer and everything else."

Hikers occasionally react with alarm when Welch tells them that bobcats and coyotes populate the area around Radnor Lake. But they have nothing to be worried about, she says. "I've worked here almost five years, and I haven't encountered one of them yet; I've only heard them. They're so elusive."

Not only do coyotes seldom bother people, Welch explains; they seldom bother livestock, as people commonly think. Recently, the Radnor Lake naturalists used some goats to control the growth of kudzu in a remote area of park. "The coyotes were back there pretty heavily where the goats stayed, but they never tried to get into the pen. They could have if they'd wanted to. But there have been at least five different occasions when some domestic dog--somebody's pet--has got in there and tried to kill the goats. We have a lot more problems with dogs getting together and running in a pack."

Each species of canine--dog, fox, wolf, coyote, and others--has its own distinctive social behavior. For example, dogs are more closely related to wolves than to their other cousins, and, like wolves, they tend to travel in packs and work together to bring down prey. (In this respect, they're like human beings.) Coyotes, on the other hand, are less sociable and cooperative--and consequently less dangerous in that regard.

It would be misleading to say that coyotes are entirely harmless; they are, after all, predatory animals. "Some coyotes do occasionally kill livestock," says Kathy Shaw, a naturalist with Warner Park. "But there have been extensive studies, and it's a very small percentage of the coyote population that actually kills livestock. It doesn't happen as often as people would like to think it does."

Shaw insists that the same is true of coyotes and their supposed threat to household pets. Many people seem to think that coyotes lurk around suburban lawns, salivating over the thought of a tasty Shih Tzu. "I would like to talk to somebody who has actually seen it happen," she says with a laugh. "But when you start to question people--'Did you see a coyote take this animal?'--I can't recall anybody ever actually seeing a coyote catch a pet."

Nor do coyotes abscond with children, but that doesn't keep people from worrying about it. Shaw remembers one mother's story: "There was a report in the news in the last year about a girl who was out in the yard, and there were coyotes that came up into the yard, and the mother ran out because she thought that they were getting ready to attack the child.

"I'm just against this whole phobia, people saying, 'Well, we think a coyote might have done that,' and people want to go out and just have this mass killing. If you have a problem animal--no matter what it is--you might have to relocate it or kill it, but there's no reason for a phobia." Shaw pauses for a moment. "I mean, there's lots of times when a dog will bite a baby or kill somebody else's pet, and there's not this mass hysteria about how we shouldn't have any more dogs. And some kind of bad dog encounter happens every single day."

Ed Warr, a mammalogist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), makes the same point: "You have to look at all the statistics and see when people are willing to accept risk. Everybody hates the idea of having their pets eaten. But they seem to tolerate 'em being run over by vehicles." He laughs. "There are more pets killed by vehicles than you'd ever think about a coyote eating. You have to put it in perspective."

Of course, your average housebound Lhasa Apso has little chance of encountering a coyote, but its wild cousins are plentiful in this part of the country. Ed Warr provides a surprising statistic: "The eastern United States has a higher density of coyotes per square mile than you would find out west." These adaptable animals dig dens on brushy slopes, under rock ledges, in steep banks. Sometimes they den in hollow logs or use the dens of other animals.

The relative plenitude of coyotes may be part of the reason people get so concerned about them: If they're living in our midst, surely they must be encroaching on the habitat. Warr argues otherwise. "We're continually monitoring food habits of coyotes. We've found out that the primary diet of coyotes has been small rodents: voles and field mice. That's not to say that some livestock and pets don't fall prey, but that's not what's keeping coyotes around."

Warr gives an example of the flawed reasoning people use to turn coyotes into a threat: "People always say that coyotes are eating all the game birds. Well, if the game birds are gone and the coyotes are still here, they're not eating the game birds." In reality, game birds thrive better with coyotes than with foxes, which do hunt fowl. When coyotes move into a neighborhood, the natural canine rivalry causes a reduction in the local number of foxes--which in turn leads to a rise in the bird population. "Coyotes do exclude other wild canines," Warr explains. "They're direct competitors with other wild canines such as the red fox. They don't wipe them out, but there are fewer red foxes around than there used to be."

Modern Americans surround themselves with miniature prairie habitats, from subdivisions to golf courses and office parks. Like starlings and squirrels, coyotes thrive in this sort of artificial landscape. Warr says that coyotes naturally migrate to such areas. "The coyote is a prairie species, and this land-clearing and everything else that has been going on altered the habitat. Coyotes like that type of environment and tend to colonize these open areas."

Unlike human beings, coyotes don't have antibiotics and sanitation; as a result, their populations don't grow out of proportion to their environment and overrun other species. Warr explains this built-in correction device: "Coyote populations are density-dependent. The higher the population is, the fewer young they have. One thing [naturalists] have learned out west, the more you persecute the coyote by predator-control programs, the more young the survivors will have. They're probably at a real high density here, because they're not reproducing at a real high rate. They're territorial, and they kind of exclude other coyotes out of an area."

Warr's explanation suggests that it's possible to get a general sense of how many coyotes inhabit an area; it's much harder, he admits, to get any kind of real estimate of the population. "It's one of the most difficult things you can do with wildlife--say how many animals you actually have out there, 'cause there are so many variables. And things change constantly, depending on what time of the year and everything else."

Whatever the population may be, it is under attack from hunters all the time. "We have a sport-hunting season on coyotes--hunting and trapping," Warr points out. "It's year-round, and there's no bag limit." For homeowners, he has this advice: "If somebody's worried about their little dog, well, they have to keep a closer eye on it. You just don't turn 'em loose unsupervised outside. However, any animal that's causing property damage, a landowner can control. If you're dealing with big game species--deer, things like that--you have to contact TWRA. But coyotes you don't.

"People call me all upset because they saw a coyote. Well, that's nothing unusual. He's probably been there a lot longer than you realize."

How long are we talking about? "There are rumors that there might have been some coyotes around here before the 20th century," says Radnor's LinnAnn Welch. "A naturalist that I've spoken to had a Cherokee grandmother, and there was some folklore that there used to be a few coyotes in this area. Most experts don't agree with that; they think that coyotes are strictly a western species that has moved east."

Bob Hatcher, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Coordinator, argues that the development is a fairly recent one, going back only a few decades. "By the mid-1960s, coyotes were moving into southern Middle Tennessee. During that time, one of our game biologists presented me with a dead coyote that had been collected in Lincoln County." Coyotes first came to the attention of game officers in that area because they were observed sneaking into watermelon patches like Tom Sawyer.

"It could be that they all just moved upward from Alabama, where they're well-established," Hatcher adds. "They also moved into the western part of the state in the 1960s and gradually spread eastward. I don't know that anybody has documentation to this effect, but there are also stories that some fox hunters brought a few coyotes in as a part of the hunt--but they have never been stocked or introduced by any state agency."

From Aesop's fables to medieval bestiaries, from Br'er Rabbit to Babe, we have used animals to represent human characteristics. In fiction and film, lions are brave, gorillas aggressive and lustful, and doves gentle. It doesn't matter that in reality lions are lazy and steal game the lionesses kill; gorillas are mostly vegetarian and mate once a year if they're lucky; and doves tear each other to pieces when trapped inside a cage. We have never let the truth inhibit our desire to anthropomorphize the natural world.

No wonder, then, that coyotes are subject to such character assassination. No matter what we learn about their natural history, they keep their reputation of being scruffy, sneaky, and generally disreputable. And, as many actors can tell you, once you're famous for playing a certain kind of character, it's difficult to get other roles. In this regard, the coyote is the Vincent Price of the animal world.

Chuck Jones, the great Looney Tunes animation director, tells in his autobiography that he first became interested in coyotes when he read an account of them in Mark Twain's Roughing It. With typical exaggeration, Twain did his part to perpetuate slanders about the coyote: "The coyote is a long, slim, sick, and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth." However, Twain did get one thing right about the coyote: "He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless."

Seven-year-old Chuck Jones responded predictably: "Who could resist such an enchanting creature? He and I had so much in common!" Three decades later, in 1949, Jones directed the first animated cartoon starring Wile E. Coyote, a loser so spectacularly inept he makes Charlie Brown look lucky. He was introduced with the fake scientific name Carnivorous Vulgaris. Because of his inability to catch his preferred dinner, in later episodes Wile E. is dubbed Famishus-famishus and, for his determination, Lupus persisticus. Still, his first name and middle initial express the common notion of the coyote--they're wily. Like the Cowardly Lion, Wile E. Coyote reverses a cliché. To be a coyote as we think of them, he must be cunning and resourceful; however, to be funny, he must fail.

Although it isn't as amusing as the Looney Tunes versions, the real scientific name of the coyote, Canis latrans, is informative. It means simply "Barking dog" and refers to the coyote's most appealing trait--its fondness for moonlight serenades, variously described as yodeling, howling, and yipping.

People fear coyotes because they represent untamed nature defying the straight lines of civilization. This is the era of scented air-fresheners for rooms whose windows don't open. We prefer nature to be repackaged and made safe, like the fake river inside the Opryland Hotel. But sometimes it's good to remember the words of Henry David Thoreau: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." To that end, many Middle Tennesseans are grateful to catch an infrequent glimpse of the coyote, or to hear its distant howl. Whether you think of them as the little wolf, the Old Man of the Prairie, or God's dog, these creatures are just another part of the infinitely amazing spectacle we call the natural world.

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