The coyotes of Soylent Green
The coyotes have been getting rowdy this week. Monday night we heard one of those insane banshee chorales—a sudden eruption of alien screams from the dark woods behind the factories, so close that you’re sure you could see them if it were light out. It may be just a few, but it sounds like at least a dozen, an intense cacophony of yips and barks and truncated howls. The first time you hear it, it sounds like there must be a big fight going on. The experts say it’s the sound of coyotes either reuniting or about to head out on their solitary prowls, like teammates getting each other psyched before they hit the field. That sounds about right, though I suspect we know less than we would like to believe about what is really going on in those enigmatic heads.
I had my first real encounter with a coyote some time around the End of History, walking in an Iowa woodland on a cold January afternoon, one of those overcast winter days where it’s too cold to snow, the sun seems like it’s ready to disappear around three o’clock, and the only sound is the caw of a distant crow. I was trespassing, walking through the property south of my folks’ place, along a spot where the neighbors had turned some bottom land into a government-subsidized swamp. They made the wetland with bulldozers, erecting a berm along the base of two steep washboard hills so the creeks and snowmelt would fill it in time for duck season. An obviously man-made thing, but one that works well. In summer the waterfowl arrive in gigantic flocks, and the beavers get to work in the daylight.
It was less common to see wildlife back then, maybe because that corner of the heartland hadn’t gone as far back to wild as it has now that the means of agricultural production has left it behind, or maybe because I just hadn’t developed the capacity to see it. You kind of have to learn to know where to look, scanning an imaginary horizon line as you walk, and anticipating that most animals will warn each other off about ten seconds before you get to where you could see them.
But as I walked along the levee, looking out over the iced-over shallows, I saw a strange shimmer in motion out there atop the plane of ice and snow. Like some weird ocular baffling, a spinning spectral figure of the sort your mind imagines when you read Terrence McKenna’s descriptions of the “self-transforming machine elves” he saw on the other side of the Ayahuasca portal. An authentically hallucinatory presence. But one that you could see, as you stopped to watch it, was coming toward you across the acreage of ice.
It was only after it got closer, over the course of what felt like several long minutes, that it came into clearer resolution—a coyote, walking straight at me. Something about the silver in its coat produced the shimmer, lending it a degree of invisibility at a distance. Or maybe it really was slowly transporting itself from another dimension.
I don’t know why it was walking toward me. That’s anomalous behavior for a coyote. I have seen many coyotes up close since then, and they often lock gazes for a moment, but almost always move on quickly. Maybe it was hungry. I do know that I got scared, once I realized what it was—out there alone in the cold, without even a pocket knife, and not yet accustomed to occasional run-ins with wild predators. I don’t remember this part as clearly, but chances are I scared it off with a spastic bit of yelling and arm-waving.
The only time I have been more scared of a wild animal was the time I went snowshoeing solo on a ridgeline above Snowmass, began to see fur matted into the snowed-over trail, and then more fur, not really figuring it out until I got to the top, at the farthest point from the village, and stepped into an area sheltered by a big wind drift on one side of a small clearing that had been freshly trampled with crazy tracks. And there to the right, sticking up out of the snow, was a big bloody rib cage. I realized I must have just followed a mountain lion back to its winter lair, not long after it had dragged its antlered kill up the path I had unwisely followed. Just as it started to snow. I grabbed a big stick, as if it would actually help me, and walked faster, on toward the village, feeling the fear of predation every step until I got to the road.
The sense of being hunted is a rare one in modern life, especially in the city. And when we do experience it it is usually driven by our own primitive capacity to hunt each other. The way it used to feel walking home alone after the bars closed in the DC and New York of the 80s and early 90s.
But it’s always out there. Just this week I read an essay noting the new theory that Amelia Earhart was torn to pieces and devoured by the now-endangered giant hermit crabs of Nikamroro, who are big enough to crack open coconuts with their claws. It made me think of all those adventure pulps of the post-WWII years, with their stories of savage encounters with wild animals that, when you got past the lurid covers into the actual stories, always read like veiled retellings of what it must feel like to be maimed in war. And it made me remember how the first pets my brother and I had were hermit crabs, and the juvenile horror on my four-year-old brother’s face as the crab he loved so much clamped onto his finger and would not let go.
The struggle is real.
I know sometimes people keep wolves as pets. The summer in high school when I had a job washing airplanes at the general aviation terminal, my co-worker Randy bummed a ride home one day, asking me to stop along the way so he could feed his friend’s pet wolf. When we got to the trailer park, sure enough, there was a wolf on a chain. “You might want to wait in the car,” said Randy.
I have never heard of anyone keeping a coyote as a pet. The real trick the most famous American animal trickster plays is to maintain its wildness and thrive as we overtake its habitat, but on its own terms—without being domesticated through direct dependencies on what we provide.
Studies of urban canids like the Cook County Coyote Project have shown how the animals don’t scavenge off our trash the way the ancestors of domestic dogs are sometimes theorized to have done. They eat the other small game that has learned to exist in the city. Even in the heart of the Chicago Loop. My son and I saw one right at the edge of downtown Austin one Sunday morning in the late oughts, sauntering across the train tracks behind the YMCA, next to an old gumball machine someone had dumped there on the ballast.
When you hear the yip chorale in the shadow of the highway to the airport, sometimes returning the siren call of police cars and fire trucks, you come to appreciate just how many coyotes are thriving inside the city, making their dens in the slivers of woodland the metropolis abides. Which only makes you realize just how good they are at maintaining an effective invisibility to human perception. A mountain guide in the Rockies once told me the story of how beavers became nocturnal only when European hunters showed up, with their dominionist approach to harvesting from the wilderness—a story that makes such intuitive sense it is easy to believe. Coyotes don’t need the cover of night to hide from us, even though they may prefer it.
We have two coyote-sized dogs, one a retriever mix we rescued after she and her sister were found living abandoned behind the diner down the street (our neighbors adopted her sister, after another neighbor rescued them both), the other a Japanese hunting dog my son discovered in middle school who the breeder described as “closer to the wolf” but I find more like a feral Pokemon. I credit them for the fact that I have seen so many more coyotes since we moved to the edge of the urban woods. Mainly because the coyotes like to come to the fence and taunt them.
One Sunday morning I heard the dogs going nuts in the yard, and when I walked up there was a coyote pogoing in the tall grass like it was on a trampoline, inviting them to come out and party (a trick that seems especially effective with simple-minded male dogs).
I often see coyotes on our morning walks in the woods, though not as often as I see their fresh tracks along the river. Sometimes they lock gazes with you for a long moment, until the dogs finally notice them and the barking begins. That’s how I got many of these pictures. (One of things you notice bushwhacking through wild, unmowed grass is how often you can see deer and other animals in the near distance while the dogs are stuck using their noses to the ground—an advantage of the bipedal hunter, whether carrying a spear or a smartphone.) I have seen coyotes at daybreak move so slowly they seemed stoned, as if engorged or exhausted from a long night’s hunting. I have seen one the size of a German shepherd, big and confident as it looked dismissively at me and my leashed house pets before stepping off into the patch of invasive cane behind the dairy plant. It was the first animal I’ve seen that could pass for the legendary coywolf—or maybe more likely, a cross with a big dog.
The diversity one sees among the coyotes is remarkable—like the one that showed up on one of our trailcams last fall with a patchwork coat of many colors like some 1970s chupacabra. There’s a diversity in their calls, too, from group to group. You hear it when there’s a big flood, and the change in environmental conditions forces animals to move, and suddenly there’s a new gang out there in the dark, howling a different tune. It helps you realize just how little we really know what’s going on in the animal universe that shares this habitat with us. And makes you wonder just how much of a monopoly on language we really have.
Urban coyotes engender a lot of fear, especially among those who worry their dog or cat may become prey. As a new dad, I consider the possibility that a wild canid neighbor could harm our baby—they certainly do not reciprocate any of our sentimentality regarding other species. They are able to maintain that predatory potential and thrive in our midst on a continent whose animal diversity has been decimated at an accelerating rate since people first wandered over the ice bridge from Asia and started ganging up on the mammoths.
When my son was young, we attended the first in a now-longstanding series of family-friendly public lectures by the faculty of UT’s natural sciences departments. The inaugural talk was by Tim Rowe, the guy who had the genius idea to use MRI to look at dinosaur fossils and discover their deeper structure. That’s how paleontologists proved that dinosaurs were birds, basically, feathers and all. Rowe explained how the evolutionary trail led him to understand that the closest living relatives to therapods were the flightless birds of Oceania—species that had evolved on small islands without predation. Until the first humans paddled up in their outboard canoes and found big fleshy animals you could literally just walk up to and club on the head, leading to the rapid extinction of most such species. In otherwords, concluded Rowe, dinosaurs did not really go extinct. But they would soon, due to us.
Rowe recommended one general ecology book: Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare. A title that poses a question to which you know the answer as soon as you hear it. The coyotes know, too, and that’s why they outlasted the mammoths, and the saber-tooth tigers, and the dire wolves, and the giant sloths, and the armadillos the size of Volkswagens.
Evidence of the animal population this continent supported in the lifetime of generations still living is all over the place. The pictures of mountains of buffalo skulls, towers of elk sheds, trophy bear menacing even as taxidermy. When I was a kid we had a picture of my young dad and granddad with a string of pheasant bagged on some trip to South Dakota in the 1940s, an animal that is now pretty tough to find between the section-to-section rows of genetically modified corn and beans tended by robots. There are still enough deer in the woods and fish in the water for Texans to regularly exercise their state constitutional right to “harvest wildlife”—even this naturalized Texan, on occasion. But imagine what it was like when the first settlers got here.
When I see the guys outlaw net fishing in the spillway of the dam, trying to catch their food for free, I am reminded that’s the way nature designed us. The more efficient systems of agricultural mass production seem certain to generate human populations out of balance with what the world can sustainably provide before it tips into ecological ruin like one of those Pacific islands, and suddenly you’re living on Soylent Green. The possibility of something other than that path is so remote from our current trajectory that you can only really imagine it in some post-apocalyptic state. Maybe that supposed dystopia is actually the path to something better. Either way, you can bet the coyotes will be there.
The persistence of wild coyotes helps one believe the possibility of balance is still there. That biodiversity can find ways to happen even between the acres of concrete. But more than that, the urban coyotes show how the possibility of wonder is still there, at an animal who can trick you in the light in a way that seems like the realest magic you have ever seen.
*As a bonus for those who made it to the end of this ramble, here are a few more videos of coyotes on the move behind our house this week, linked here to my Vimeo page since they may not play back within the email: