City Vs. Nature: What Coyotes Tell Us About Our Place in the World


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A Mecklenburg County Natural Resources camera captured this coyote at Latta Plantation in November 2014.

Mecklenburg County Natural Resources

I RAN WITH the coyote at dawn. She’d come slinking out of the trees yellow-eyed, sleek, and nimble. I was drinking tea, wandering the hardwood floors of my house barefoot when I saw her through a window—chasing one of my backyard laying hens.

She was a gray streak against grass.

Adrenaline. No time to think. I took off—through a screen door, across porch planks, the patter of my feet paralleling her path. I was screaming. Uncontrollably, like an overzealous kid taking karate: Kiiya! Kiiya!

It’s just what came out. Instinct I didn’t know I had.

I was loud. The coyote didn’t care. She lunged at the hen and missed, lunged and missed. Then, she caught hold of the chicken’s neck and clenched her jaws. My family had nurtured that hen since she was a pullet chirping under heat lamps. We’d fed, watered, and let her out of the coop for occasional free-range runs, since fences erected for protection are, by any other name, cages.

But the coyote and I both knew that, from that moment on, the bird was hers.

The canid slipped back into brush, and I stood there, stunned. I’d never seen a coyote, much less one in the process of kidnapping. That tail. Bushy, untamed. In my mind, I saw it whipping across my yard, again and again.

From behind a stand of trees to my left, a neighbor’s voice, inspired by mine: “Leigh Ann, is that you?” 

My neighbor, Joanna, and I had known there was a chicken thief on the loose. We’d thought it was a dog that had attacked our broods in previous weeks, feathers strewn through high grass. When my six-year-old discovered the chickens’ remains—back when we thought the culprit was a mangy-looking mutt from across the street— he’d blamed the dog’s owners for not keeping their pet off our land.

When he found out it was a wild animal, he didn’t know how to react.

Suddenly, the boundaries he understood were permeable. Coyotes don’t care about property rights, don’t differentiate between domestic and wild.

Joanna and I couldn’t stop talking about the details of the attack. We knew, even before we started obsessively researching, that coyotes weren’t really a threat to humans. Still, I texted a neighbor with toddlers who often played on the edge of woodlands. Their mother—originally from coyote-rich Colorado—was unfazed. But, as North Carolina natives, Joanna and I weren’t used to this.

Unease set in.

I found myself looking out windows for a glimpse of the coyote’s dust-mop tail, listening for winsome cries when the backyard was awash in moonlight. Reality was harsh: That coyote needed to eat. And my family had failed to protect the laying hens that fed us.

My dad told me I should hire a trapper. A friend suggested I buy a rifle. I did neither. But, as directed by local wildlife authorities, I kept my chickens locked in their coop. Joanna still let hers run loose. To me, they looked less like livestock and more like bait by the day.

Weeks have passed, and I’ve started to get comfortable. I no longer clear my throat as a subtle attempt to frighten animals lying in wait. Fear slowly inches out of my daily routine. But, late one afternoon when I’m out gathering blackberries along a roadside, I’m startled by rustling in the underbrush.

Adrenaline. No time to think. I turn to stone, nearly stop breathing.

My house is far from the city, just outside of Boone, but the blackberries I’ve been collecting are plump as the ones I know to grow on the fringes of east Charlotte parking lots. They’ve stained my hands the color of a deep bruise. I grip my basket and flash back to one of the many public service announcements I’ve watched recently, which explain how coyotes will happily scavenge almost anything for dinner.

In particular, like me, they enjoy fruit. Alone and unarmed, outside of my yelping voice, I wait for the animal to emerge from dark bramble.

***

COYOTES ARE NOT NATIVE to North Carolina. The first in the state was documented in 1938, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that populations started to rise. Coyotes, native to North America, are now confirmed to be present in all of the state’s 100 counties. Historically, the species has been drawn to deserts and prairies, but coyotes are adaptable and comfortable in rural areas, suburbs, and cities.

If you spend enough time reading about the animal, you’ll come across some harrowing stories of coyote-on-human attacks. They’re not the sort of thing you want to read before trying to sleep.

This, I tell you from experience.

News reports conjure concern, even though the country only sees a handful of coyote incidents annually. In contrast, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. According to the Humane Society of the United States, a greater number of Americans are killed by flying golf balls and champagne corks than are bitten by coyotes. Statistics have never proven a match for humans’ anxiety about living alongside wildlife.

There’s something primordial at play.

Deforestation and development have helped widen the coyote’s range. Across Mecklenburg County, and in the city of Charlotte, they are thriving. There have been reported sightings in Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, Pineville, Oakhurst, and other areas.

Cats have gone missing in Plaza Midwood, some through confirmed tragedy.

North Carolina law says you can shoot a coyote, day or night. Statewide, 43,507 coyotes were reported to have been killed by hunters in 2014-2015. Still, research shows that if you kill coyotes, populations rebound with gusto. The reason is that packs typically have Alpha pairs that are responsible for reproduction. But if that Alpha pair is broken up, other pairs will develop and reproduce. And younger coyotes start having offspring sooner.

Trapping doesn’t seem to work either. Coyotes are wily, wayfaring creatures.

It’s hard to say exactly how many are in the Charlotte area. The first in Mecklenburg County was documented on December 7, 1995, as road kill. In 2012, county officials set up a way for citizens to report sightings. They received 375 messages in a span of two weeks.

This, despite the fact that coyotes are predators who prefer to be heard and not seen.

The word predator comes from the Latin praedator, “plunderer,” and praedari, “to rob.” It’s a term that’s been assigned, in human communities, to social deviants. It was originally defined as: an organism that lives off of other organisms.

It’s hard to think of many organisms that don’t.

The proliferation of coyotes is, in part, due to the elimination of other, competitive predators—particularly wolves, nearly driven to extinction by humans. And, to complicate any discussion of ethics, some early coyotes arrived in North Carolina as cargo, shipped by hunters who illegally imported them as prey.

In urban areas, drivers—not sportsmen—now present the greatest danger to coyotes.

In 2014, two coyotes got trapped in uptown Charlotte. There, they wandered a maze of buildings, looking like time travelers from a world where, once, four-legged animals reigned. Most urban coyotes consume their natural diet of small game and fruit. Still, imagine what uptown Charlotte must look like to an animal two feet tall, four feet long, 35 pounds: Trash cans appearing as mighty towers of potential nutrition. Mice in back alleys, easy prey. A smeared candy wrapper on the sidewalk. A stray French fry under a bench.

To coyotes, we must seem akin to laying hens, creatures reliably providing for them.

***

Mecklenburg County Natural Resources 

Coyotes are now confirmed to be present in all 100 North Carolina counties. This one was photographed in March 2012 at McAlpine Creek Greenway.

EVERY MUSCLE in my body has fossilized. I’m hundreds of feet from shelter, any doors that I could shut behind me. At close range, my kiiya-calling bravado has momentarily vanished. But wait.

The creature hiding in the shadows has been traveling through dry foliage. It made him sound 10 times larger than his size. I go from fight-or-flight stance to stifling a laugh when the animal reveals himself as a rabbit.

I’m close enough to see his velveteen fur rise and fall with each breath. His body seems as tender as a songbird’s. His ears and nose twitch as he hops on soft pads across mossy ground. I mean him no harm. But not too many generations ago, finding this creature’s body so close to my own would have equated to a meal on the table.

To some small-game hunters, it still would.

The rabbit has glass-bead eyes and fur reminiscent of the coyote, but his tail is all cloud. I watch as little jaws churn the living carpet of my yard. He, along with his brethren, have been stealing vegetables from Joanna’s hard-earned garden in the night, slipping under her fence like bunnies in a Beatrix Potter story. Marauders, even if not ferocious ones.

This animal takes and takes. Just like the rest of us.

It isn’t all about hunting. Eat salad. Eat steak. Flip on a light. Slip on your shoes. Drive on a highway. There’s no way around the fact that, as humans, in all sorts of ways, we consume the bounty of a natural world that bore and belongs to each of us equally.

Predator is an uncomfortable title to claim. But to understand human impact, it’s necessary, albeit painful, as illustrated by the expression I recently witnessed on my six-year-old’s face. After lamenting the coyote’s appearance in our yard, my son realized that he, too, had eaten chicken recently.

His came on a plate. But its true cost was the same. And, through the coyote, he recognized it.

In traditional North American mythology, coyote is a recurring character, often taking on the role of trickster. In stories, she’s often presented as doing something she knows to be naughty to teach the listener something about his own self.

Humans are, undeniably, earth’s apex predator. We dominate and sometimes desecrate the food chain. Yet, in coyotes’ presence, we tend to behave like prey. It’s a habit that can actually train the animals to see us that way.

Coyote educators say that if you see a coyote, you should look big. Be loud. Do not run away. Unless there are young animals and extenuating circumstances—in which case you should maintain eye contact and back away—be intimidating.

Claim your role as a predator, they say. Take responsibility.

In a world of human-built facades, it’s easy to forget that nature isn’t just sectioned-off sanctuaries, parks, and cold-running creeks. It’s also the steel made from metals mined, the petroleum pulled from depths and molded into plastic. Nature is the coal we consume, the threatened water we drink.

The city is nature, shaped in our image.

Coyotes force us to recognize our place in a web of interconnectivity, because they have no regard for the lines we’ve drawn to delineate the domestic. They don’t care about party politics, laws, or ordinances. The animals’ territory is as much an uptown street as forest path. Their diet is dumpster-dived blackberries from the grocery store, as well as the ones growing roadside.

Try as we might to conquer nature, coyotes are reminders that we will never fully tame it. They uncomfortably illustrate that we, too, are animals.

I don’t say anything to the rabbit. He doesn’t see me there, crouched among thorns, within pouncing distance. Rabbit is a favored coyote meal, and we’re mere inches from a road where Joanna’s 15-year-old daughter is precariously learning to drive a 6,000-pound vehicle. But this rabbit doesn’t seem to be living in fear of anything. He’s too busy, coexisting.

Vulnerability is, after all, a prerequisite of freedom.

The rabbit goes about his work, nibbling grass. I go about my task, gathering berries. Out here, we’re exposed. Right now, we’re wild.

Leigh Ann Henion is the New York Times bestselling author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World. She earned her MFA from Queens University. Find her at leighannhenion.com.


This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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