Southern Life

I remember the first time I ever saw a coyote in the state of Georgia. It was the fall of 1975 in the wildlife lab at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton. As taxidermy jobs go, it wasn’t a particularly good one, the eyes a bit wonky, the fur looking shoddy and secondhand. I was surprised to see it had been killed just up the road on a farm outside of Ashburn.

“Looks kind of poorly,” I remarked to department head, Jim Marshall. He laughed and said, “Well he never did catch that roadrunner!” I’d been an avid hunter since I was eleven years old and thought I knew a thing or two about the woods.

“I’ve never heard one,” I ventured, doubtfully.

“You can, if you get real quiet, right after dusk,” he answered, shoving papers into a briefcase. “What are they doing here ?” I asked, emphasizing HERE, as I thought coyotes to be an exclusively western phenomenon. He looked distracted before saying,  “Theories abound, but, son you’ll have to excuse me, there’s somewhere I was supposed to be fifteen minutes ago.” We never revisited that conversation.

A year later I would see one while on a field trip to Hope Walton Experimental Forest near Cordele. It stepped out on a fire break, glancing briefly over its shoulder as it headed away from us. We had seen a mother bobcat and her two youngsters earlier in the day, and, to most of my classmates the coyote paled in comparison. Not to me, though, in that drafty old school bus on the trip back, I wondered about that coyote, what it was doing, where it was going, what would it eat for supper, would it howl for company that night? These were things I was wondering about myself, as well. I reflected on a moment from the soundtrack to the movie, “Easy Rider,”  when the Smith’s cover of the Band’s “The Weight” segues into the Byrd’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” the brief sound bite of coyotes yip-yowling as a western wind blows. It defined the term “high lonesome” for me, back then, and it still does, today.

I got my associate’s degree in forestry technology, moved from south Georgia, and I was working in the hookwormy wilds of South Carolina’s low country. My boss, Randall, and I were marking trees in a planted pine stand roughly eighty to a hundred yards behind a country juke joint called Snookies. As we were re-filling our paint guns we were assailed by a terrible odor. It had a seafood tinge to it, as though some ocean leviathan had swum inland and broken wind so toxic as to defoliate nostril hair.

“Whoooooo-weeee, what’s that ?” Randall wondered, his face screwing-up.

“I don’t know, but, it’s wrong !” I gagged, and we looked for the source, finding a discarded crate of blue crabs, festering and dripping in the September heat, twenty yards away. We moved away, and began to mark trees. Something drew my attention back to that crate. The coyote didn’t so much as walk up as it materialized out of the surrounding flora. The lupine snout came into focus, the ears formed, the orange eyes, penetrating and reproachful. The coat was the color of dirty peanut shells, heavily flecked with darker hair, like pine straw. The nose worked furiously, nodding towards the crate, eyes on us.

“Bo’, look at that bigass fox! “ Randall stage-hissed.

“It’s not a fox, it’s a coy-…!” interrupted when the creature, as though its legs were spring-loaded, executed an impossible sideways leap, at once ungainly, and acrobatic, as though fallen from a high caliber rifle. It was gone from our sight without a sound, no brush rustled, just an empty place where an apparition might have been.

“Goddang, did you see that ?” Randall blurted in wonder.

“I’m not sure,” I answered, and, being that it was that time back in 1977, I was probably wondering what sort of Carlos Castaneda moment it most assuredly had to be. Thinking I’d seen Mescalito, himself, without taking peyote, or, some such drivel. My coyote curiosity renewed, I began asking questions. Most people told me I was seeing a “bigass grey fox.” One longtime forester for a major paper company told me, upon hearing I was from Georgia, “I’ll tell you why they here! A bunch of richass fox hunters from over in Georgia bought what they thought was a litter of fresh-weaned fox kits, but, since you cain’t tell the difference, they wadn’t, they was coyotes, and now they everwhere! Dumbasses!” I’d like to think I was polite in my response, but, most likely, I wasn’t. Probably something about bigasses, richasses , and dumbasses, yeah buddy, thanks! Things go like they go, and we move on to different phases of our lives.

I left the forestry profession and moved to Savannah where I married the woman I love. Harry Crews wrote in “Childhood: the Biography of a Place” that when his mother moved he and his brother from the farm in Bacon County to Jacksonville Fla., he would think of pigs, and mules and chickens at odd times for no apparent reason. Things that were once commonplace and, seemingly, inconsequential made sublime imprints on the memory. They came back to remind one of a life left behind, but certainly not forgotten, and brought a measure of comfort. So it was with me and wildlife. Driving a truck for a heating and air-conditioning company, if I saw deer on the roadside, their beauty would override my desire to shoot one. If wood ducks lifted off a pond, or, bobwhite quail exploded into flight, my heart would follow them. I quit hunting and packed my guns away. I thought about the coyote, too. The one had multiplied into many. They nuzzled one another and licked their chops, tails wagging, yip-yowling as others arrived. And, arrive they would, in numbers and in places that would shock us.

Mark Twain would introduce the eastern half of America to Canis latrans in 1872, with “Roughing It.” “The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want.”

As white man pressed westward with his domestic livestock he began to persecute and eliminate the coyote predators and competitors, namely, the black and grizzly bears, the cougars, and the timber wolves. It had already happened in the east, not the grizzly, but the black bears fled to the swamps, and remote Appalachia, the cougars and eastern red wolves driven, almost, to extinction. As the wild landscape of America began to change, a curious thing happened. Forests were clear cut, roads gouged, railroads laid, fences built. This created what’s known as the “edge effect,”  the shelter of the natural environment reduced to bits and pieces, sparse cover, but allowing the secondary plants, grasses and brush to flourish.

The Virginia whitetail deer grew to numbers larger than when white man arrived. Rabbits, mice, rats and squirrels benefited from the edge effect, and, the white man’s agriculture. Birds of prey crossed the sky, tilting and circling, diving to easy pickings. All of this moved westward. Ranchers put bounties on the timber wolves , and, they too had to seek remote areas. White man’s lowing, bleating, clucking and honking animals were slow-witted and oh so tasty, but, the price was too high. Eventually, there was nowhere to go but Canada.

The coyote, low and skinny on the Great Plains, watched all of this indifferently. His advantage was strength in solitary numbers, pairs, sometimes threes, and his acceptance and reliance on these lesser animals, more plentiful than ever, and nobody else’s bill of fare, for the most part. The coyote didn’t care for these pale people who carried new weapons to kill him, but, they created garbage and wasted much. They planted sweet fruit, and, vegetables, their scared and shrill fowl leaving their eggs and themselves uncovered, their corn, wheat, and fence rows supporting wild ground fowl like quail and pheasants. It didn’t take a bolt of lightning, nor the heavens opening up and a voice to say, “Go east, sorry-looking skeleton !” He was already on his way.

Today, the coyote is in every state of the union except Hawaii. Once classified as a carnivore, he’s now an extremely versatile omnivore, eating all those lesser animals, as well as fruits and vegetables, snakes, lizards, bugs, and all manner of garbage, pet food, and, yes, your pets. Given a choice of a rabbit, or a toy poodle, he’s going to chose the latter, it’s easier to catch. Fluffy the cat who uses the pet door, and has always had the run of the neighborhood is no longer safe. She’s bill of fare. I’ve read dozens of accounts of people losing pets to these new urban predators, in some cases, witnessing the killing. I’m sorry for your loss, I really am. I understand your anger and outrage. Well, okay, one person in downtown Atlanta with chickens, you know, I’m thinking you had to have been popular with stray cats and dogs too, and, not very popular with your neighbors. Not that I’m wishing misfortune on you and your pets, but, anyway, not once did I read an account of a coyote coming in a pet door, or, breaking a window to eat a pet. Watch after your pets, especially, if they’re small. Don’t feed them, outside, ever! If you have to, make sure they’re penned and well-protected. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, of course, it can.

There are two documented killings of humans by coyotes in north America. One was a three-year-old in southern California, where coyotes have been studied the longest. She was attacked and killed in her own backyard. It was discovered that her parents and neighbors had, intentionally, been feeding the coyotes. Coyotes in southern California were tested and found to have an intake of 25% human food. That’s both intentional and unintentional feeding. In Chicago, where there’s a large population of coyotes, who have been studied second longest, there are no documented attacks on people, the human food intake is 2%. The other killing was of an eighteen-year-old folk singer in Nova Scotia, who was camping alone. That one is still a mystery. Tragic as they are, at least one of them could’ve been prevented.

Atlanta is perfect for coyotes! When I moved here in 1999, I was surprised to see one run over on I-75/85, right downtown, where the graffiti tag “Vomet Knife” is, presently. Months later when I had to go a few blocks away to my jobsite, at night, there were enough rats around a dumpster for a remake of “Willard.” All of those lesser animals, plus, chipmunks, voles and moles, add the available food, our green spaces, and beautifully landscaped yards, and the coyotes have it made! In fact, they do better in the city than their country brethren, the pickings are easier, and they don’t have hunters on four-wheelers, with guns, harassing them. With regards to coexisting with them, prevention seems to be the key, as opposed to any sort of retribution. Poisoning coyotes is illegal and puts other animals at risk. Unlimbering your blunderbuss at one is illegal in the city limits, and, at worst you’d shoot somebody else, or, their pet; at best, you’d shoot your car. Trapping is difficult and costly, and, for those of you who would advocate relocation, you’re the worst nimby of all. If you trap one in Decatur and relocate it to Pickens county, it’s going to find Canton, pretty quick. You just put your problem in somebody else’s backyard. The urban coyote is going to seek another urban area.

“The twilight is the crack between the worlds,” the old Indian, Don Juan Matus, supposedly told Carlos Castaneda. One night a few weeks ago, right after dusk, I was outside with my dogs as was my neighbor Katie. She has a dachshund, Lily, and I have a Scottie, Jenny, and a DeKalb Animal Control rescue, Beryl, a Dixie dingo-Border collie mix with a generous dose of congenital Sooner thrown in. They were on leashes, milling among themselves as Katie and I talked. I live in Midtown, near Monroe and Piedmont, in an area previously known as Vaseline Valley. I thought the twilight might have been the crack between my ears when I first heard the coyotes. Two of them, across Monroe, near the proposed Beltline, and, one answering them, on a hill above Vaseline Valley. It was so real, so clear as to sound, almost fake. Katie’s pale face went whiter in the gloom as she muttered, “Oh my God!”

Instantly, I was transported back to a time when I was learning to discern the difference in the hounds, baying, so I’d know when that coonhound went to tree. Then, the coyote on the hill, yip-yowled, just like on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack, as if to say “Yes, I’m exactly what you think I am!” My heart leapt into my throat as I gasped, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard them in my life! Live long enough, I reckon!” Lily and Jenny managed protective “Woofs!” while Beryl gazed toward the howls, wagging his tail, whining softly. “Old runnin’ buddies ?” I asked him. He looked up at me, our eyes met, knowledge was transferred. “Oh, if you only knew,” he seemed to say.

There’s a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” that sums up this whole coyote situation much better than I ever could. John Grady and Rawlins have killed a deer, butchered it, and they’re smoking the meat beside the campfire. In the night, the coyotes woke them, and they lay in the dark and listened to them where they convened over the carcass of the deer, fighting and squalling like cats. I want you to listen to that damned racket, said Rawlins. He got up and got a stick from the fire and shouted at them and threw the stick. They hushed. He mended the fire and turned the meat on the greenwood racks. By the time he was back in his blankets they were at it again. Make no mistake, they’ll always be at it, and, they’re not going away.

I have a new vision of our apocalypse, be it an asteroid strike, nuclear holocaust, or a super flu. Anything else, and all bets are off ! The coyote has so adapted to our ways, our environment, and our pollution, that its’ demise will closely follow our own. Bad as it hates to, it will consume us, then, slink towards its own Eternity.

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Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver is a writer living, and, working in Atlanta Ga. He believes your country is to die for, food is to eat. He treads the earth, in chrome tennis shoes, fervently searching for transcendent banana pudding. The skin on top is optional.