Call of the Mild

Lost in the suburbs, a lone coyote symbolizes the paradox of progress for man and beast.

Wildlife Journal
Summer 2000

As a road-ditch mongrel, my dog Leroy is secure enough in his mutthood not to go whimpering every time a stranger breezes past the front driveway under low light. He is a barker and, if necessary, a biter, but he definitely is not a whiner. So when I went out back one evening last spring and saw him standing rigid by his empty bowl, ears and nose tuned to the gentle Georgia breeze, I knew something was awry in suburbia. He stood watchful of the street, emitting a kind of weird, high-pitched lament under the emergent stars.

I turned toward the tree-lined length of little Maple Avenue, as serene and domestic a scene as you could ever paint, and instantly I recognized the source of Leroy’s angst. It glided beyond to the opposite sidewalk, trotting confidently across the freshly mown lawn of neighboring West Side Elementary School.

The intruder wasn’t big by coyote standards, but he was all coyote to be sure: perhaps 35 pounds, a bushy tail trailing the surreptitious gait, pointed ears on constant alert. He stopped and turned once to stare with caution—and no doubt with some amount of disdain—at a poor fenced cousin and his ease-loving master. Leroy and I stood transfixed, two utterly tame beings mesmerized by the presence of this wild and cunning survivor striking arrogantly through the heart of Ho-Hum, USA.

At first, I could not believe it. But on second thought, it made perfect sense. Hating a vacuum as nature does, coyotes have expanded their range east and south in the last few decades, reclaiming the void left by extirpated wolves, wildcats, and other large predators. Though still pretty rare in settings such as this, I nonetheless knew they were around. In fact, just north of here, while camping in the southern Appalachians, I had often heard a few singing out beyond the glow of my fire. And two years ago I had watched one as it prowled a North Georgia valley, stalking the soundtrack of wild turkeys on a nearby hardwood ridge.

Over the last three summers I had also noticed an increase in the number of cottontail rabbits on suburban lawns and green spaces around my home. Where once one rarely saw a hare in town, last spring it seemed that every evening produced a virtual Watership Down of brown figures hunched beneath the cedars and the bamboo thickets, hopping out of the English ivy to nibble on rye and fescue—plump, dumb bunnies wary of nothing and nobody. The most recent up-turn in rabbit numbers had no doubt drawn this particular outrunner of the canine world into our little corner of the planet.

As a youngster, the thought of a coyote roaming anywhere near Atlanta would have seemed about as likely as grizzly bears poaching salmon in Peachtree Creek. Thirty years ago, it was considered unusual to see even a raccoon around here. As a boy living on the fringe of an amoebic Southern capital, my wildlife sightings consisted of the occasional red-tailed hawk, chipmunks, banded watersnakes, muskrats, box turtles and the ubiquitous turkey vultures hovering over squirrels and possums matted to the asphalt, which itself seemed to be alive and spreading by the hour.

Nonetheless, we had wildness where we found it, and today, despite the dire straits of many threatened or endangered species, your garden-variety, man-and-beast conflict of the new millennium resembles nothing so much as a turf struggle. Raccoons regularly ply their mischief in suburban trash cans and dog food bowls. White-tailed deer, once a rarity, have become about as common as chipmunks. A couple of years ago, a disoriented black bear wandered into the urban hubbub just on the outskirts of some of Atlanta’s most hellish traffic. It made the evening news, stealing the spotlight from all the murders, rapes, and fires of a society in nightly revolt.

And it’s not just the South. White¬tailed deer, for instance, have overadapted themselves to the human environment practically everywhere east of the Mississippi River. There’s high-density moose traffic in Maine, with annually fatal results for both moose and motorists. There are coyotes from Los Angeles to Lower Alabama; Canada geese squatting on everything from public playgrounds to cemetery lawns; cougars skirtting and scaring California’s exurban canyon dwellers; European zebra mussels, South American giant salvinia, Japanese kudzu and Chinese carp rockin’ and rollin’ in nothing more than the opportunities we humans provide them by both intent and ignorance.

For better or worse, probably no amount of romanticizing could ever elevate Canis latrans above the status of varmint.

American wildlife at the dawn of the 21st century is a dynamic, exciting, and oft-distressing phenomenon, part testament to the resiliency of animal and plant life, part manifest destiny written in the never ending trespass of mankind.

But what, exactly, does it mean to be wild? Is wildness simply a matter of living in a limestone den but not in a brick ranch? Is it to drink from a creek but not from a cup? Or is wildness simply the condition of remaining untamed, and, if so, under whose authority do we consider ourselves tamed?

Certainly, we do not consider ourselves as wild, or we wouldn’t need a word for that which we are not. There wouldn’t be such a premium on wildness in society, from designated wilderness areas to backyard bird feeders, from capturing its image on photographic film to possessing it on the end of a fork.

I’ve sought plenty of it myself. I’ve watched a mountain lion drink from a riverbank at 10 feet. I’ve driven through Yellowstone Park the day the snow was plowed and seen the oddly glorious carnage of winterkilled bison and spring-feasting grizzlies. I’ve sat on a stump in Shenandoah National Park and had a black bear walk within five feet, never noticing me. And I have sat in the woods with flatbow in hand, watching for deer that, as the poet James Dickey wrote, “stand stamping and dreaming of men / who will kneel with them naked to break / the ice from streams with their faces.”

Ironically, watching my sorry old mutt whine at the sight of his wild cousin was one of the most illuminating “wilderness” experiences I’ve ever known.

Coyotes in the neighborhood. I’ll be damned.

Perhaps I’ve just lived in the ’burbs for too long now. Some time ago, however, I lived on the edge of big Western wilderness. For five years I hiked, camped, fished, hunted, pried, and probed into every canyon, creek, and crevice my legs would carry me. Even then, in a place where coyotes were fairly abundant, I saw only a couple of them at such close range as the coyote across the street. They simply are too smart to reveal themselves often upon chance sighting. So if for no other reason than that, I was pleased to discover that there was at least one around here, a feeling mixed with a bit of empathy that he, too, had somehow gotten himself lost in suburbia.

In the end, of course, it may not be just a few coyotes, and we may be sorry that things have gotten so out of whack that coyotes are turning up on schoolyard lawns and golf courses across the South. The coyote will be vilified, rightly and wrongly, for killing quail, turkeys, and songbirds, for stealing everything from chickens to children, for fornicating with endangered red wolves and family pets—for being coyotes. They’ll be trapped. They’ll be shot. They’ll be poisoned, gassed, and mowed down on the highway the way they have been in the West for centuries.

For better or worse, probably no amount of romanticizing could ever elevate Canis latrans above the status of varmint. But I don’t care. The image of a coyote on the lawn across the street moved me.

It offered counterpunch to the occasionally fierce malaise—the mildness—inherent in the securities and sense of place one works so hard to carve out of the wilderness of human existence. Whether it is a hummingbird stopping by the backyard feeder, a red-tailed hawk surveying chipmunks in the back yard, news of a black bear lost in the mall parking lot, or sight of a coyote in the schoolyard, I think that for most people these occurrences help diminish the ordinariness of modern American life.

It’s been about nine months since I watched the coyote across the street. For a couple of days after that, I went outside to feed my dog at about the same time each evening, hoping that I’d be able to pattern the wild dog. I’d sit down on the highest point of the lawn, with ole Leroy standing attentively by his bowl, both of us looking past the fence. But I gave up after a couple of evenings, the TV or the refrigerator or some very tedious and time-consuming hobby ultimately drawing the fool off the hill.

I’m sure that it was a totally freak occurrence, that it was just a coyote without a country. Heck, maybe it wasn’t even a coyote. No one really seemed to believe me anyway, and I never did see him again after that. But you know, I haven’t seen many rabbits in the neighborhood since then, either. ✦