New Dog in Town
The coyote as city dweller, and what it means for the country
by Christopher Ketcham
Photographs by Trish Carney
WILD COYOTES HAVE SETTLED in or around every major city in the United States, thriving as never before, and in New York they have taken to golf. I’m told the New Yorker coyotes spend a good deal of time near the tenth hole on the Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course in the Bronx. They apparently like to watch the players tee off among the Canada geese. They hunt squirrels and rabbits and wild turkeys along the edge of the forest surrounding the course, where there are big old hardwoods and ivy that looks like it could strangle a man—good habitat in which to den, skulk, plan. Sometimes in summer the coyotes emerge from the steam of the woods to chew golf balls and spit them onto the grass in disgust.
They also frequent the eighth and the ninth and the twelfth holes, where golfers have found raccoons with broken necks, the cadavers mauled. At the tenth hole, a coyote ran alongside a golf cart last summer, keeping pace with the vehicle as the golfers shook their heads in wonder. “I stop the cart, he stops,” one golfer who was there told me. “I start it up, he follows. I jump out, he jumps back. I sit down in the cart, he comes forward. We hit for a while—we’re swinging, and he’s watching.” Here the golfer, an animated southerner named Chris, mimes the animal, following with his head the coyote-tracked ball’s trajectory up and up, along the fairway, then its long arc down. It was pleasing to Chris that coyotes like golf.
Until recently, I couldn’t quite believe that coyotes were established New Yorkers. Among neophyte naturalists, it’s an anomaly, a bizarrerie, something like a miracle. Coyotes, after all, are natives of the high plains and deserts two thousand miles to the west. But for anyone who takes the time to get to know coyotes, their coming to the city is a development as natural as water finding a way downhill. It is also a lesson in evolution that has gone largely unheralded. Not in pristine wilderness, but here, amid the splendor of garbage cans filthy with food, the golf carts crawling on the fairway like alien bugs, in a park full of rats and feral cats and dullard chipmunks and thin rabbits and used condoms and bums camping out and drunks pissing in the brush, a park ringed by arguably the most urbanized ingathering of Homo sapiens in America—here the coyote thrives. It seemed to me good news.
THE COYOTE, unlike its closest cousin, the wolf, is a true American. The coyote’s earliest relatives began evolving in the Southwest 10 million years ago, with Canis latrans arriving roughly at the dawn of the Pleistocene Epoch, when huge predators roamed the continent. I imagine the coyote in its prehistoric form as a thing small and weak and quiet, slinking in the shadows alongside the megafauna of American prehistory. The little dog had to deal with the appetites of cave lions, which weighed upward of six hundred pounds; the predations of the saber-toothed cat; the fury of the short-faced bear, which, at a height of fourteen feet and a weight of up to nineteen hundred pounds, was the largest bear that ever lived. It tried not to get stomped by the mastodon and the mammoth and the stag-moose and the elephant-sized ground sloth and the armored glyptodon, a turtle as big as a Volkswagen.
Then, beginning some twelve thousand years ago, the coyote got a break. In one of the great extinction events of prehistory, North America’s megafauna, these giants of the continent, disappeared. What precipitated the mass extinction is unknown, and is today the stuff of much speculation. The cause might have been climate change—the retreat of the glaciers, the warming of the planet—or perhaps it was a change in weather combined with overkill from newly arrived human predators who crossed the Bering Strait, armed with the technology of spears that the megafauna were not adapted to fend off. The coyote, fighting for so long in this hard world of giants, was among the few prehistoric American mammals to survive in the new environment. Other sizable fauna soon filled the extinction vacuum. But they were foreigners. Like the spear-chucking humans, the new mammals were descendants of Asia. They are the creatures that we know now as bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, grizzly bear—invasives that we generally find ghettoized in our national parks.
Another invasive species that crossed from Asia was the gray wolf. Fast-forward several thousand years, and the coyote and the wolf have become mortal enemies. They have fought for space over the millennia, with the wolf claiming most of the American continent because the wolf is bigger, more aggressive, works in packs, and operates well in dense forest. Enter the white man, whose technology and avarice allowed for sweeping control over established predators. By 1900, white settlers had decimated the wolf population, which threatened their livestock and their children. This was accomplished not simply by unleashing gunpowder; the white man felled forests everywhere he went, which opened up the terrain and left no hiding place for wolves. The coyote, on the other hand, thrived in open spaces. It was adaptable as the wolf was not; it had been adapting to predation in America for 10 million years. So the coyote took over the wolf’s niche as top dog.
In the wake of white settlement, the coyote was reviled for its success. That we could not appreciate the elasticity of the native dog was fitting irony for the European species of human, so terribly successful at invading the continent and adapting to it ourselves (or, rather, forcing the continent to adapt to our new and increasingly invasive presence). Along with the Indian and the bison, the coyote was—remains—the pest par excellence of the American West, to this day classified in the law books of many western states as “vermin” or “nuisance” species. Tens of millions of coyotes have been slaughtered in the U.S. since 1900; federal and state governments over the last two decades have killed an estimated 2 million of them. This figure doesn’t incorporate the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of coyotes each year hunted, baited, trapped, snared, and poisoned by livestock ranchers and sport hunters who kill coyotes for recreation in contests and bounty hunts. The attempt at control has cost in the range of billions of dollars—no firm number is known—and it has failed spectacularly. Biologists note that the success of the coyote amid this carnage is largely due to a survival mechanism that renders the species impervious to the gun and the trap: when large numbers of coyotes are killed in any single ecosystem, the coyotes that remain produce bigger litters. The animal compensates for slaughter, in other words, by becoming more numerous, more problematic. I can only imagine this as a kind of Darwinian laughter: Kill more of us, and more of us will come. Perhaps to be killed. So that there will be more of us. Ha ha!
I FIRST HEARD THE SOUND of the eastern coyote in the sprawling Catskill Mountain range, a hundred miles north of New York City. The creatures screamed and shouted and yipped; I thought I was hallucinating. That was eight years ago. Only once did I get close, in October 2002, when a pack in fog yelled in my ear on a mountaintop. No sighting of the creatures that cold night, nothing to lay my eyes on. Just the high keening song, the crackle and whisper of my feet and theirs on the forest floor. Thereafter I made it a point to walk in the forest and climb the mountains at night, to listen for them, find their sign, their scat, their kills. Eight years later, I’ve found a lot of scat, many prints in mud, and no coyotes.
But the song—it hung in my head. I’d listened to coyotes in the American West, and the song in the East was different. In the red rock of the desert, it’s lone and sorrowful and begins with a bark (Canis latrans, after all, means “barking dog”). The pack sometimes—only sometimes—answers the loner, the voices clear and vibrant, like a Greek chorus. In the East, vocalizations never seem to open with the loner. The song instead begins with a scream upon a scream, followed by creeches, squeaks, eeks, heeing and hawing and ululations, dystonal and weird, that the western cousin can’t match. I could say I hear the gamelan music of Indonesia, the off-time rhythms of Turkic Bosnia, girls screaming rape, men losing testicles.
A few years ago, late on a summer night in 2004, I thought I heard a lone coyote singing in the Bronx. This was not long after the first reported New York sightings, which already had begun increasing in frequency. If coyotes were on the move in the city, marking terrain, naturally, I thought, there should be communication among them. What I heard, wandering Van Cortlandt Park on that summer night, was a short spindrift cry, like something heard underwater, distant and muffled and indistinct, and later I assumed it was the work of a dog pretending at wildness while slobbering over an owner come home. Or perhaps it didn’t happen at all and I imagined it because I’d been reading too many reports about coyotes. In the moment, though, I believed what I wanted, and I started howling. And waited. And howled. There was the hush of the city, the hoodoo silence of the buildings that surround the park, and in the silence I could hear the murmurs of men and women speaking in a thousand ways out of tune with each other, and finally, when I howled one last time, someone leaned out a window and cried, “Shut the fuck up.”
FROM CALIFORNIA TO MAINE, there are more coyotes than at any time since records have been kept, their territorial expansion unprecedented in speed and scope. “The coyote is the most successful colonizing mammal in recent history,” Justina Ray, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, tells me. They pressed eastward across the Plains and the Midwest. They went south into Alabama, Georgia, Florida. By the 1920s, they had arrived in New York State, where they advanced at a mind-boggling rate of 116 miles per month. By 1942 they were in Vermont; by 1944 they were in New Hampshire; and by 1958 they were in western Massachusetts. I recently found their tracks like a palimpsest in the tidal flats at Cape Cod National Seashore—the messages of their movements chasing crabs—and one homeowner on the Cape described a den in his wooded backyard, thirty feet from his deck, where the pups stared out from inside a tree trunk. I talked with a Connecticut woman who welcomed a wounded coyote into her car, thinking it was a bashed-up dog, and took it into her house only to discover the creature going wild in her living room as it matured—wanting to get out. By the 1970s, coyotes were arriving in the cold sea-country of the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, having become fully established in New Brunswick by 1975, reaching southwestern Nova Scotia by 1980, Prince Edward Island by 1983, and floating on sea ice across the Cabot Strait to the island of Newfoundland by 1987.
That the coyote has expanded his range does not surprise biologists. What does confound is the suggestion, hotly debated, that the coyotes now taking over the eastern U.S. in fact represent a new subspecies of wild dog on the continent, the Canis latrans varietas. The western coyote is a smaller creature than the eastern cousin. The westerner weighs in at perhaps thirty pounds, looking somewhat like a fat fox. The eastern coyote grows as big as sixty pounds at his heftiest. The tracks I found on Cape Cod and in the Catskill Mountains suggest a big dog indeed.
So whence the bigger muscles, the extra weight, the new song? Perhaps natural selection in the face of bigger game, or the higher snows and colder weather of places like Chicago and New York, sparked the coyote’s physical flowering. Perhaps coyotes in their dominance arrived at a sexual detente with the last wolves in the East and began breeding with their old enemies, which added to the girth of the eastern coyote and also gave him his new voice. Perhaps the wolves, in this same pivotal moment, realized they were outnumbered and preserved, in a copulative leap of hopelessness, what little remained of their genetic pool. I like to think that all these factors commingled and were further complicated by the reality of dealing with the human ecosphere—the byways and hidden passages of the city, the dynamism of interaction with cars, highways, apartment buildings replete with comings and goings, the all-night bodegas, the light of streetlamps, the conniving of rats, the surfeit of accident and possibility. I like to think the eastern coyote’s build, its behavior, and, not least, its song reflect this complexity.
So the coyote runs across schoolyards in Philadelphia; he hides under a taxi on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He is in Atlanta, and in Los Angeles, and Miami, and Washington DC. He follows into the cities our paths, our roads, our railways, our bike and hiking trails. In Seattle, a coyote ran into an elevator in a skyscraper for a ride, and another ended up in the luggage compartment of a tram at the SeaTac Airport. In Boston, biologists who radio-collared a female coyote during 2004 reported that the dog traveled freely across the towns of Revere, Medford, Somerville, and Cambridge, at one point crossing into Boston proper via a railroad line at three a.m. before bedding down in a railyard north of the Charles River. The dog, nicknamed Fog, had “little more than shrubs for her to sleep in.” Stanley Gehrt, a biologist at Ohio State University who recently spent six years tracking the coyote populations of Chicago, concluded that there were at least two thousand of them living in the Windy City, and they were growing in number. Urban coyotes, Gehrt found, live longer than their country cousins, their range per pack is more compact, much like urban humans, and they hunt more often at night, very much like urban humans. Gehrt also found that coyotes howl in answer to the sirens from firehouses—calling to the sounds of men. “Originally known as ghosts of the plains, coyotes have become ghosts of the cities,” Gehrt writes. “Coyotes are watching and learning from us.”
I GOT A BEER FROM A BODEGA in the Bronx and sat on a bench and thought about the ghost dog. To the American Indians, coyote is Trickster, the magician among the animals, the shadow creature, the player on the edges of human encampments. “Along the edge I am traveling, in a sacred manner,” goes an old Lakota song honoring the Trickster. Sacred manner? Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner comes more readily to mind. Chuck Jones, the animator, pegged the Trickster, in his cartoon Latin, as Eatibus anythingus. Which is true: coyotes eat garbage, darkness, rats, air—they’d lap my beer if I let them.
The Trickster in myth appears as rotten minded as Wile E., as creepy and ill reputed, as underhanded as Bronx rats. But in the system of native myth, unlike Wile E., unlike Bronx rats, the coyote’s lying and conniving and cheating is in the last act a leap of creation, bearing the new out of things that are busted down and old and not working. The cartoon hints at this: Wile E. falling off cliffs, born again from the smashed puffball of bones at the canyon bottom to try for a meal once more.
In the various coyote myths, the Trickster makes things happen by sheer pushy will and wackiness. He is a shape-shifter, blown apart, come together again. Coyote is sometimes the creator of the world itself in his tumbledown accidental manner; sometimes he brings fire to the hominids who are freezing in the cold; sometimes he gets the smartest and most beautiful girls pregnant when dumbstruck men can’t get it up to perpetuate the line; sometimes he makes sure that animals get anuses when the Creator, whoever that fool is, forgets to do so. The Trickster, in other words, is a teacher of possibilities, pointing humankind down new paths when the poor bummed-out hominids are stumped.
MY OWN AMATEUR COYOTE STUDY in New York’s Van Cortlandt Park last autumn went not so well. Day after day, I made the long trip by subway north from Brooklyn into the Bronx, my hopes up, maps out, binoculars in the backpack, notepad ready, boots laced high, a flashlight with extra batteries in case I found the creatures after dark. I got lost in the Van Cortlandt woods, scrambling near the border with Westchester. I got paranoid about muggers (who, like coyotes, never seem to show up). I got covered in mud tramping in washes looking for tracks. I got poison ivy up my leg and into my crotch.
The golfers at the Van Cortlandt Golf Course snickered at my efforts. “Saw more of your little friends just the other day,” they’d tell me. “Haven’t found any yet?” they’d laugh. “Coyotes don’t do interviews,” they’d tell me. They suggested I take up golf.
I took to wandering at night where I thought coyotes might be making their way into the Bronx. I imagined them arriving in Van Cortlandt Park via the Putnam Trail, a soil vein pounded smooth as glass, where I walked and walked. Or perhaps they followed the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, the outmoded passage for the Catskill reservoir water that keeps the city alive (the Croton Aqueduct has long been supplanted by more modern piping). From the Bronx, the passage south onto the island of Manhattan is more difficult. Perhaps they cross the Harlem River, swimming the water, or, more likely, they walk the bridges at night. It is only some five miles from the tip of Manhattan to Central Park, which is the place to be if you’re a coyote in Manhattan. On April Fool’s Day 1999, a coyote named Lucky Pierre led reporters, helicopters, photographers, cops, and tourists in a chase across Central Park before succumbing to a tranquilizer dart. Pierre got his name because for a time he holed up in a cave across from the luxe Pierre Hotel. In the winter of 2004, a coyote was seen bounding among the ice floes on frozen Rockaway Inlet in Queens, near the dunes of Breezy Point, twenty-five miles south of Central Park. The animal apparently had gotten across Manhattan, across the East River, either dog paddling in the water or hiking one of the bridges to Brooklyn, and thence across that borough to the shores where Brooklyn meets Queens and the sea. Cops in boats tried to capture the creature, but he dove in the cold surf, swam to shore, and was gone.
A coyote made it across Brooklyn? Incredible. I sometimes find it hard to cross Brooklyn.
On Super Bowl Sunday 2006, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a coyote was found smashed at the side of a highway. That same year, a second coyote was captured in Central Park. In 2008, a coyote appeared on the Bronx campus of the Horace Mann School, the New York Sun reporting that it was out for a “jog” with the students and “offered no resistance” when animal-control officers scooped it up. On February 4 of this year, a coyote, described as “timid and skittish,” stopped in the middle of a frozen Central Park pond long enough to be captured on film by a photographer. Three days later, a trio of coyotes appeared out of nowhere on the Columbia University campus in upper Manhattan, then disappeared as quickly. On March 24, a coyote was reported inside the Holland Tunnel, then it was sighted wandering Tribeca. “Manhattan’s coyote population continued its inexorable push southward,” concluded the New York Times. There will of course be many more of them, and we will welcome the romance of the wild dogs, until we don’t. The creatures will have to be hunted and killed once they hunt and kill one too many of our domesticated foot warmers (or, worse, the little ones in our own domesticated breed). We like our gardens in the East, we like our vines run amok, our tall trees in the backyard, the deer grazing on bluegrass, the pretense of wildness; we like our animals at home pretending at atavistic habits, but we don’t want a carcass at the door in the morning. In other words, let’s have gardens, but not nature. Herein lies the irony of the coyote’s arrival in the urban East. He does not represent wildness; he is an adaptee to the garden. Without us subjugating the land to the ridiculous extent that we have, he wouldn’t be walking alongside us.
MY GUIDE TO THE PARKS of the Bronx was a fifty-six-year-old New York City Parks Department wildlife biologist named Dave Kunstler, who gives the impression that he prefers the conversation of nighthawks and tree frogs. It was October, the days growing short, and we hiked the woods until dusk, looking for coyote dens where he suspected they might be, finding none. We searched under rocks, behind boulders, in tree trunks. We ended up purloining a golf cart at the Van Cortlandt Golf Course to hunt them on the fairway. Kunstler didn’t seem much interested in the quest. What he mostly talked about were invasive plants. Kunstler saw invasives everywhere pushing out the natives: porcelain-berry and Asiatic bittersweet and mugwort; the Ailanthus and the Norway maple among the tall trees; and elsewhere, whole stretches of forest swallowed in kudzu.
Many of the plants Kunstler pointed out could be classified as weeds. Coyotes, it seems to me, are also a kind of weed species. And their success is indicative of a larger problem facing the human race, the problem of weeds relentlessly encroaching, their effect the strangulation and diminishment of complex ecosystems everywhere. Weed species, writes David Quammen, “reproduce quickly, disperse widely when given a chance, tolerate a fairly broad range of habitat, take hold in strange places, succeed especially in disturbed ecosystems, and resist eradication once they’re established. They are scrappers, generalists, opportunists.” The coyote, exactly. Also, black rats, cockroaches, crows, kudzu, raccoons, the white-tailed deer, ragweed, Russian thistle, feral cats, feral dogs, squirrels, wild turkeys—all of them weed species, all exploding in number across the country, but especially along the suburban-urban gradient. In his essay “Planet of Weeds,” Quammen singles out another spectacularly successful weed species, Homo sapiens, and notes that other weeds down the food chain tend to follow where human beings tread. The planet of weeds, as Quammen describes it, is an impoverished place in its abundance because it heralds the end of diversity. And it is likely our inexorable future.
Kunstler and I rode around on the cart like a pair of tin cans, driving away beautiful geese, hundreds of them fleeing on the fairway—weeds with wings. We rode and rode.
Eventually, we stopped a young man who was tending to the carts. “Sure, I seen one just yesterday.”
I threw up my hands.
“They’re probably watching us right now,” Kunstler shrugged.
Not finding a single coyote suddenly made me depressed.
Where is Trickster? We need him. The hominids are screwing up and don’t have a plan to fix things. We’ve got global warming and rising seas and peak oil and fish dying off and deserts spreading. We’ve got a planet of weeds, and we seem utterly incapable of adapting to forestall disaster. The coyote survived the great Pleistocene extinction, and may very well survive the present one, the planet’s sixth great extinction, an event that has been greatly accelerated by the industrialization of Homo sapiens to the point that many thousands of species have disappeared in the last century alone. One wonders whether, before it is all through, Homo sapiens might be among the deceased. Perhaps the message that Trickster brings to us is this: The more of us you see, the more impoverished the world will be.