In the battle for turf, coyotes have won. Whether you live in the country or city, they’re your neighbor. And you have to admire them.
I’m pretty sure a coyote killed one of our cats a few months ago.
As the weeks passed, I heard coyotes howling nearby, saw one in the headlights on the gravel road to our home in Vashon, and I kept seeing the posters on utility poles about missing cats.
And so my family became among the many who’ve learned the hard way about coexisting with canis latrans.
That’s “barking dog” in Latin, close enough to what I sometimes now hear at nights.
And they’re not leaving. In the battle for turf, they’ve won.
Fae was a nice cat who loved exploring our three acres of mostly pasture, never venturing very far.
I guess I should now have an intense dislike for coyotes. I don’t. (My wife feels quite differently, but she was born in Montana.)
The thing is, the more you learn about coyotes, the more you have to admire them.
Navajo herders called them “God’s dog.” A Hispanic folk saying is that “the only thing smarter than a coyote is God.”
Coyotes are native to North America. They used to be live mostly in the deserts and plains of the interior West. Now they live coast to coast, from above the Arctic Circle to Central America.
Whether you live in a more rural place like Vashon, or in West Seattle, or the Eastside, or major cities like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, or even near the White House, coyotes are around.
They’re the ultimate survivors, finding a meal in mice, rats, rabbits, snakes, grasshoppers and even berries, cherries, plums and those apples fallen in your backyard. Cats are a minimal part of their diet.
For years, the West Seattle Blog has had a continuing series in which readers send in their sightings, sometimes accompanied by photos, of coyotes. It’s now at 191 postings.
People report seeing coyotes at playfields, the West Seattle Golf Course, ambling down an alley, in their backyards.
A typical posting is a photo of a coyote on a sidewalk near Hope Lutheran Church on 42nd Avenue Southwest.
“No telling whether the coyote was trying to find its way to the market, church, or somewhere else, but yet another reminder that they live among us and they’re out in the daytime, too,” says the caption.
On a December afternoon in 2015, Dave Stockman managed to get a high-quality video with his cellphone at his ex-wife’s home near Schmitz Park in West Seattle, where their daughter lives half-time. Coyotes don’t exactly wait around to pose for that perfect image.
“I look out the window and I think, ‘Whose stray dog is that? Wait a minute, that’s a coyote.’ He was so casual, like he belongs there,” says Stockman.
At first glance, many people do mistake a coyote — which typically weighs in the 20- to 30-pound range — for a small German shepherd dog.
In the evolutionary tree, you can see branches from the gray wolf going right to the domestic dog and to the coyote.
And if a coyote acts like he belongs in our neighborhoods, well, he actually does feel that, says Dan Flores, author of the 2016 book, “Coyote America.”
He says, “They’ve been here for 5 million years. They know America better than we do. There are more in America than there ever have been.”
When in the 19th century we killed off wolves in the northeast and south, he says, coyotes moved in. When dog catchers moved against feral dogs in cities, that left an opening for coyotes. When we poisoned coyotes, says Flores, they responded with larger litters of pups.
Coyotes, he says, basically “yawn” when they see a human.
“The reason they don’t seem alarmed is that they’ve been living around humans for 15,000 years,” says Flores.
In Chicago, they’ve been observed waiting at a street corner for the streetlight to change.
“They know that’s when the traffic stops, and they’ll cross very casually across the road,” says Stan Gehrt, principal investigator at the Urban Coyote Research Program, which since 2000 has studied the animals in that city.
I can’t prove for sure that a coyote killed Fae — I found no trace of her. That is often how it is in cases in which coyotes get blamed for missing pets.
You hear coyotes; your pet goes missing. Guilty!
Along with that is their presumed danger to humans.
But according to the state, the only reported coyote-on-human attack here was in 2006, when a 1 1/2-year-old boy was bitten on the ear while he was playing under the supervision of his parents at Eastgate Elementary School, and later a 4-year-old boy was bitten on his buttocks while playing outside his Eastgate home.
The coyote was shot by a state wildlife agent.
There is no bag limit on hunting coyotes in this state, and they can be hunted yearround. However, areas such as King County have specific no-shooting zones.
Karen Pruett, of Vashon, tells me about her two cats that disappeared a month apart this past summer, right around the time her family heard the howls.
She worries “that my toddler grandchild might look like a tasty snack.” She says about one of her missing cats, “I don’t care that he ‘lived a long and happy life,’ he was an awesome cat and didn’t deserve to be a meal.”
Pruett is moderate in her feelings about coyotes. She’d like to see them trapped and relocated. In this state it’s unlawful to transport wildlife without a permit.
Other reactions to coyotes are considerably extreme.
“Help me kill coyotes in W. Washington,” is one posting you can find online. “I live about 20 miles outside Seattle and the coyotes are really getting around. They ate my favorite cat recently and are howling all over the place … I would like to reduce their population. Should I call them in with a distress recording and shoot them, or use traps. If I use a trap, how do I avoid getting a pet dog?”
Replies included, “.223 Remington works well for me ….”
We keep trying to get rid of coyotes, with government wildlife agents literally killing them each year by the tens of thousands. The coyotes persist.
Wildlife biologists regularly get called out to talk with neighborhood groups worried about coyotes.
Their message invariably comes down to what you can download from the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife, mostly a list of the obvious:
Don’t feed coyotes. Don’t leave garbage cans so they can be opened. Don’t leave pet food outdoors. Keep your cats and dogs indoors, especially after dark, when coyotes prefer to hunt.
Wildlife Services here gets called out to deal with coyotes that have lost their natural fear of humans and become aggressive in neighborhoods.
Matt Stevens is among the biologists who talks to the locals — whether in Fox Island in 2011 when locals said they saw coyotes that no longer ran away, or that same year in Lake Forest Park when coyotes killed a ram on somebody’s property.
In the latter case, Stevens killed three coyotes, using a kitten call to attract the naturally curious animals.
My cats and my dog still get to go outside during daytime, but they’re in the house before it gets dark.
Dan Flores, the author of the coyote book, who lives outside Santa Fe, says the howls and yipping from coyotes is really our national anthem.
“They were here before any of our ancestors out of Europe, or Asia, or Africa, ever dreamed of something called ‘America,’ ’’ he says. “We’ve been around 400, 500 years. The howl of the coyote has been here for millions of years.”