When I was a moody tween growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a school chum gave me the eco-themed Pete Seeger album called God Bless the Grass. My favorite cut was “Little Brother Coyote,” which goes:
“They strychnined the mountain,
They strychnined the plain,
My Little Brother, the coyote,
Won’t come back again.”
The song still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. But Pete was wrong about the coyotes.
The song references an epic campaign of extermination conducted against coyotes between 1947 and 1956, when government agencies killed approximately 6.5 million coyotes in western states to protect livestock.
Although the poisoning campaign ended in the 1970s, approximately one coyote per minute, or 525,600 per year, are killed annually in the USA today. According to National Geographic, Wildlife Services helicopter units gun down about 80,000 per year on behalf of the livestock industry, paid for by your tax-dollars.
And it’s still not working.
Today, I live within walking distance of a hiking spot called Eaton Canyon. We call it “Eatin’ Kitty,” because coyotes den there.
The coyote “problem” dominates the community listserv posts here. The posts take on a sameness: beloved cat went out, didn’t come back. Tufts of fluffy fur, a collar, a tag, fragments of bone found on the driveway. Our neighborhood is plastered with posters offering rewards for “Lost Cat! Children Heartbroken.” I don’t judge: I’ve been there myself.
Not only do we hear them, we see them. They trot lightly down our suburban streets midday. Last summer, one often stretched out on my dry front lawn at dusk and gazed in the living room window, as though she were watching Seinfeld reruns with me. Her swollen nipples told me she was a nursing mother, which gave me a pang. She’s hungry, she needs to feed her pups. Her calm was chilling. Just like closer encounters I’ve had with the singing dog credited by First Nations people as the bringer of fire.
There was the July morning that I was getting dressed for work, and let my cherished calico out for a quick back-scratch wiggle on the patio. I heard a low snuffle, and stepped out to see my pet dangling, limp as a wet dishrag, from a coyote’s jaws. The kill had been nearly silent, as swift as a euthanist’s needle. By coincidence or not, my beloved cat had been declining for some time, and I was contemplating putting her down humanely. Little Brother did it for me.
I stepped onto the patio and those steady yellow eyes met mine. Coyote didn’t bolt, didn’t twitch, didn’t flinch. After a minute, just a head-tilt, as if to challenge, “What’s your problem, lady? Just doing my job.” Then Coyote stepped gracefully up the canyon path and disappeared into the dry brush.
Canis Iatrans is native to North America, with a million years of history right here among the low-brush mesas and canyons around what is now Los Angeles. Omnivorous, resourceful and adaptable in the extreme, Coyote was here first. And now, Little Brother thrives, well, everywhere that’s walkable from here.
Lewis and Clark were probably the first white men to encounter the rangy singer, in present-day South Dakota during the fall of 1804. In those days, the coyote was not found east of the Great Plains, according to Dan Flores, author of Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.
By the early 20th century, coyotes had spread across the Mississippi River into the Midwest, East, and South. Urban ecologists now estimate that they’ve increased their habitat across North America by 40 per cent since the 1950s—twice the rate of any other American carnivore—and today live in every U.S. state except Hawaii.
If you’ve ever weekended in Santa Fe, you’ve encountered the First Nations representation of Coyote as Trickster, not too far from the wily Warner Brothers cartoon version, except X-rated. A popular indigenous story, claimed equally by the Chemehuevi, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute nations, maintains that Coyote’s penis has a mind of its own, and can easily detach itself while Little Brother slumbers, unaware. The frisky, untethered member is thus free to frolic and make nocturnal mischief before returning, spent and shriveled, to Coyote’s lap by the first rays of the morning sun. Many of these stories culminate with the snoozing Coyote being bashed over the head by a jealous husband, to which Coyote exclaims, in all innocence, “What did I do?”
While the legend is a shout-out to Coyote’s impressive fertility, it’s also a nod to the characteristically male capacity for compartmentalization. Everybody knows at least one guy who insists that he just couldn’t control his dick that night, right?
This is part of Coyote’s magic: he’s eternally irresponsible, and feels no obligation to do the right thing. He seems to be pure Id, without a scrap of doubt or conscience or remorse, so unlike us humans who torture ourselves so much over so little.
These indigenous stories often render comical punishment upon Coyote for his anarchy and mayhem, usually by swamping him with a mountain of his own excrement. But true to form, he struggles out into the fresh night air by the next story, unrepentant as ever.
First Nations stories regard Coyote—petty, selfish, greedy, impulsive– with tolerant amusement and affection. After all, he’s our Shadow, doing exactly what we wish we ourselves had the nerve to do. This level of acceptance eluded Mark Twain, who wrote in “Roughing It” “The cayote [sic] is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede.”
Twain’s criticism—the Want, always hungry, poor, out of luck, friendless—aligns with the indigenous accounts, but I hear envy in Twain’s voice just the same. The truest, most maddening punch line of every coyote encounter is that, frankly, Scarlett, he just doesn’t give a damn. He’ll just lick his wounds, snap up a hot snack (look out, Whiskers!), and move on down the line. Coyote is a randier version of Peter Pan, the perpetually adolescent self who refuses to grow up, buckle down or walk the straight and narrow like the rest of us.
Twain was quite mistaken about coyote society, however. As with wolves, also despised by white newcomers to the Great Plains, mated coyote pairs bond closely, this being key to their success as a species. They are good parents. And we now know that pups from previous litters may stick around and help the family raise younger siblings. Coyote is far from a loner, although he wears his rock-star outlaw status like a crown.
The adaptability of the species does seem Machiavellian. Recurring eradication attempts by humans appear to have no impact on the size of their population, even in states like Vermont, where they are considered a pest and may be legally hunted with rifles and dogs, 365 days a year. Those who hunt coyotes always shoot to kill, because, they say, missing the target just makes the coyotes smarter.
Like jazz musicians, coyotes improvise. When the killing rate goes up in a coyote population, young coyotes mature faster, and females produce bigger litters. Problem solved!
They easily modify their hunting strategies on a case-by-case basis. When operating in wide-open areas where they feel vulnerable to attack, they go solo to minimize potential collateral damage. When pursuing game larger than a kitten, they efficiently work in pairs or small groups. Teamwork makes the dream work. Yum!
And they play well with others. While migrating east for the past few decades, Coyote has deepened the family gene pool by hooking up with local wolves, foxes and feral dogs. Par-tay!
Relentless development, equally relentless drought, and record wildfires drives coyotes into new suburbs, where they operate with their usual opportunism. Spurred by one man-made disaster after another, coyote’s range and skill-set continues to expand.
A lady-of-the-canyon friend of mine swears that they’ve agreed to leave her pets alone in exchange for being allowed to drink from her koi pond. Her trust is refreshing, considering that other neighbors on our listserv freely admit to shooting peacocks off their roofs because they’re noisy. Speaking of man-made disasters, the peacocks arrived in East Pasadena a century or so ago with Lucky Baldwin, a flamboyant financier and racetrack entrepreneur. They roost at the nearby Arboretum, but also roam our neighborhoods in search of sunflower seeds and other treats offered by well-meaning residents.
But my friend is naïve, since in the end, there is no bargaining with nature. We all “love” nature when it’s a sunny, Disney-fied world of hummingbirds and dancing flowers. But Coyote’s song is far less sweet. By necessity, it involves death and survival. For me, as a cat-lover, the only solution is not to allow kitty to roam. This seems anything but natural, until I remind myself that the domestic shorthair is an import, a transplant, as alien to the landscape here as the koi and the noisy peacocks. All three are viewed by Coyote as conveniently clumsy potential meals.
A half-century after God Bless the Grass was recorded, our planet is in far worse shape than when Seeger yodeled his plaintive anthem to this totem animal that triggers such an array of conflicting emotions, especially scorn. Even in Mexico, the true homeland of the species, despised human traffickers are called coyotes. But Little Brother persists, successfully outwitting us two-legs once again.
Their newest frontier: mi barrio, El Bronx y NYC, at large, an unending buffet of rats, cats, stray French fries and fresh road-kill, in a place where people cannot (legally) trap, poison or shoot them, and where they thrive for many years longer than their rural counterparts.
Coyote’s story says much about the colonization of our continent. European settlers wiped out the locals, felled the trees, busted the sod, dammed the rivers, and those chickens (and peacocks) now are coming home to roost in the form of global climate disaster.
One thing is plain: Coyote will continue outrun the wheels of “progress.” The persistent message of his legend, including the Chuck Jones animated version where an Acme anvil lands on his head, is that this animal can’t be stopped or even contained. The worse the situation gets, the more Coyote flourishes.
I feel bewitched by Coyote, like Joni Mitchell herself in her haunting song about the Trickster-Seducer-Contrarian in human form. I am exasperated by humanity’s delusional futility in trying to eliminate him. It’s as useless as denying or trying to disown the dark side of ourselves. Not only can we never outrun our own Shadow, in the Jungian sense, but Coyote’s always dancing a few steps ahead of us, just for the sheer devilment of it. We can’t even catch up.
Perhaps Coyote has a lesson to teach us after all: that we’re all stuck here with each other, and we may as well make the best of it. We can only earn an uneasy peace with nature when we appreciate Coyote for his independent, rebellious, and invincible spirit—traits which are, perhaps ironically, so profoundly American.
This much seems clear: our species, or most certainly our civilization as we know it, is at far greater risk of extinction than this long-legged singing dog. As I type, I hear their song. Yip, yip, yowl lifting across the smoggy twilight foothills. Perhaps Coyote sings a song of warning, a song of farewell, but he’s not the one who’s leaving.
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Photo: Hanna May via Unsplash