new neighbor from the west
First sighting, a hazy afternoon near the Georgia-South Carolina border. Driving east on Highway 221 toward Clarks Hill Dam, I spotted a gaunt, leggy, yellow dog loping along the left shoulder. As I approached this wild canine, it darted across the road right in front of me, looking back as if to say, “That was easy.”
“That’s a coyote,” I thought. I had seen one before. Well, maybe. I live on the edge of the largest forest in a city’s limits in the eastern United States. Lots of wildlife around these parts. Deer, bald eagles, and omnipresent opossums. Raccoons, of course. Running a trail here, I spotted a tawny dog. It stepped from the woods and stared at me. A few seconds later, like a ghost, it vanished. The dark, green forest swallowed it. To this day, I’m unsure it was a coyote, maybe it was a Carolina dog, but no doubt surrounds the sighting near the dam. It was a migrant from the West. An interloper.
In my life I have witnessed migrants from afar take up residence here. Whenever red imported fire ants sting me, I curse their accidental 1930’s introduction through the port of Mobile, Alabama. When I see armadillos I feel I have been teleported to Florida. And now here comes Mr. Coyote. When I drive through the hinterlands I’m on the lookout for these leggy omnivores.
Thanks to TV, we knew about coyotes long before we saw them. Coyote concerts were part of the Old West and westerns, which I love. “Gun Smoke,” “Rawhide,” “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train”—none were complete without yipping coyotes and moon-howling wolves. After watching tumbleweeds and campfire scenes, I wanted to go outside beneath a full moon and hear a wolf howling or coyotes yapping. I knew it would send chills down my spine.
Walt Disney ran some shows about coyotes back in the 1960s. Remember Wile E. Coyote and his buffoonish adventures with the Road Runner? Well, that was the stuff of writers, Foley artists, and cartoonists. The reality is that coyotes, like fire ants and armadillos, have moved into the American South, and we’re learning to live together, or trying. To succeed, we need to cut through fallacies and myths and better understand our new neighbor.
“Eastward expansion” describes the migration of this controversial animal steeped in lore. The name, alone, intrigues. “Coyote” is Mexican Spanish from an Aztec root, cóyotl, or “trickster.” Science has a name for the coyote, Canis latrans, Latin’s “barking dog.” This wild barking canid possesses a colorful history. In some American Indian myths, the heroic coyote creates, teaches, and helps humans. In other myths, it’s the amusing trickster that gets into trouble only to be saved by its cleverness. In still others, the coyote represents greed, recklessness, and arrogance. It’s often portrayed as a villain. In his Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy, wrote, “La gente dice que coyote es un brujo. Muchas veces el brujo es un coyote.” (People say the coyote is a witch. Often the witch is a coyote.)
Bad press plagues coyotes, which tend to be creatures of the night, and from Florida comes a nighttime tale of predation. Down Ocala way, a man said a pack of coyotes attacked him one night a few feet from his front door. Jack Miller was about to walk his poodle and Maltese/Chihuahua mix when five to eight coyotes surrounded him. They rushed his dogs. Miller punched one of the coyotes but the coyotes came at him from all sides. One grabbed his Maltese/Chihuahua mix and bolted off. With a meal secured, the coyotes disappeared into the night. It was if the coyotes had planned their attack, said Miller. His poodle, traumatized, refused to go outside or eat.
My neighbor’s cat here in Irmo disappeared one night, never to be seen again. For a long time after that his other cat refused to go outside. For a while, I found strange scat in my yard. Coyotes?
Whether out West or here in the South, the fact is the coyote has never been good at making friends. They kill livestock, and out West, ranchers and coyotes have been waging war for 100 years. Ranchers have seen them attacking livestock in Florida, and they raid sea turtle nests along the dune line. Georgia sportsmen take a dim view of coyotes because coyotes in some places prey on fawns. In extreme cases, coyotes may cause local deer populations to decrease. (Some folks would high-five that.) Georgia’s DNR states, however, that, overall, the coyote is largely misunderstood and despite a reputation as a nuisance it helps maintain the balance of wildlife. Here in South Carolina, the Department of Natural Resources has kicked off a “coyote harvest incentive program.” It’s designed to keep them in check and to minimize their impact on deer I suspect, but I doubt it does much good.
I write all of this as a run up to a great book on coyotes that’s come out. Back in the 1980s, I crossed paths with a fellow by the name of John Lane. He wrote features for South Carolina Wildlife magazine back when I worked there. Over the years our paths kept crossing in the world of books. They still do, and I think of John as a friend. I’m glad to tell you that John has a new book out, Coyote Settles the South. Now here’s a book that will enlighten you on this new neighbor we have, and if you enjoy beautiful language, you’ll like John’s book all the more.
Here’s an introduction … “One night, poet and environmental writer John Lane tuned in to a sound from behind his house that he had never heard before: the nearby eerie and captivating howls of coyotes. Since this was Spartanburg, South Carolina, and not Missoula, Montana, Lane set out to discover all he could about his new and unexpected neighbors.
“Coyote Settles the South is the story of his journey through the Southeast, as he visits coyote territories: swamps, nature preserves, old farm fields, suburbs, a tannery, and even city streets. On his travels he meets, interrogates, and observes those who interact with the animals—trappers, wildlife researchers, hunters, rattled pet owners, and even one devoted coyote hugger. Along the way, he encounters sensible, yet sometimes perplexing, insight concerning the migration into the Southeast of the American coyote, an animal that, in the end, surprises him with its intelligence, resilience, and amazing adaptability.”
In the book, Lane wrote, “I saw some promise of wildness returning to our region. I saw the redemption of our landscape wounded and scarred by hundreds of years of human settlement, a hope that may be hard to explain to my friends and neighbors.” Indeed, he found that his neighbors, fearful ‘for their poodles, their bird feeders, maybe even their children,’ would prefer that this ‘opportunistic omnivore’ be stopped.”
As John writes in Coyotes Settle the South, anti-coyote sentiment plays on dark fears. It’s too easy to view them as a nuisance. Lane reminds us that they are part of the natural world. We should remember, too, that they are here because we banished red wolves from our region, creating a vacuum. And we all know that nature abhors a vacuum. Like John, I see some wildness returning to our region, a salve of sorts to the loss of Carolina parakeets and ivorybills.
Note: You can get John’s book, a Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book from the University of Georgia Press. Just call 800-848-6224 or visit your favorite independent bookstore.