I have lived in the neighborhood where I live now for just over five years and I have heard about coyotes from those who have seen them here. I have seen their paw prints in the dirt and the snow. My dog seems to have one particular bark he reserves just for passing coyotes. I believe I have, once or twice, heard them cackling away in the distance like they do and like I have heard other places in my life.
I’m not exactly outdoorsy, but I have listened from my sleeping bag on a mountain somewhere, more than a few times, to the sound of coyotes reminding me that I am only a visitor, the way they combine menace with humor, talk about you while you’re still in the room, remain only just out of sight, only just past the turning of your head.
Once, backpacking to Finger Lake northeast of Yosemite in California, I had gained lonesome on the trail with the people ahead and behind out of sight. Climbing a bothersome hill I looked up at the crest of the trail and saw a white coyote. Now, I’m not saying there was a white coyote on the trail, I’m saying I saw a white coyote and then did a full-shake double take and when I looked back the coyote was gone. When I reached the top of the hill I found a small white boulder sticking out of the ground. I kicked at it a bit, daring it to grow legs and ears. It did not.
I did not then and do not now doubt for a moment that my brain conspired with the sweat in my eyes to turn that white boulder, for a fraction of a second, into a white coyote. What I mean is, I have never believed there was actually a white coyote above me on that trail. But I did wonder and wonder still why, of all things, my brain, no doubt bickering with my body at the time about where to feel the most pain, chose to see a white coyote.
Why a white coyote?
I was forced to adopt the white coyote, not as a spirit animal so much as… a spirit animal. I can’t say I actually believe in having a spirit animal, but the white coyote became mine, nevertheless. It was the only rationally irrational response. For the next few days, each night as I fell asleep, I listened to the coyotes off in the distance, reminding us with their hyena laughter that we belonged somewhere else eventually. And we did.
That was almost half my life ago and just the other day, as it goes. I was in a gift shop one day and found a tile with the image of a white coyote, a Native American image, or so I was told. I bought the tile because who wouldn’t among all of us whose minds had once turned a white boulder into a white coyote. I still have it.
Since then I have seen one or two coyotes off in the distance, crossing the highway in a desert somewhere near Palm Springs or in New Mexico or while fighting my way across Texas. I once had a staring contest with a coyote at a zoo, before I gave up zoos. I was asking him about the white coyote but he chose to ignore me. That, or he was just an animal thinking about animal things, like when food might arrive.
What I’m saying is my visual encounters with actual rather than imagined coyotes under the 50 yard mark and without a cage between us have been, at least since I was born, zero. Until a recent evening.
I was working at my desk in my home office when my dog started prancing and jumping and generally making a nuisance of himself, which is dog language for wanting to go outside. I let him out and he began to bark. But it wasn’t the people-walking-past bark, or the neighbor’s-dog-is-loose bark. It was the wild-animal-nearby bark. This was confirmed by dogs all along the street who were all barking insistently. So I grabbed my flashlight and headed out onto the deck to see what I could see for no reason whatsoever.
My backyard is wild, which is how I like it. My neighbors might not agree with my aesthetic preference but I love feeling like those are real woods out back and yonder. I clicked on the flashlight and scanned the brush. About 50 feet out I came across the eye shine, two eyes, reflectors, staring back at me.
I have seen plenty of eye shine in my backyard before, possum and raccoon. But these eyes were further apart and they didn’t sway and fidget like raccoon and possum do. In fact, they stared back at me without flinching or moving at all. Then, without any concern or urgency, the eyes turned away and a coyotes passed across the beam of light. It wasn’t white. For five minutes I listened to what I think was more than one coyote loitering, carefully stepping through the bushes, dead leaves giving them away. I only saw the eye shine one more time, further out, saying goodbye maybe as it headed for the fence line where over the years fallen trees have created many gates.
They’re troublesome during the winter, quietly taking cats like vampires take drunken tourists. And I’m told they can be brazen lately, running across a yard full of children, not in a threatening way but in a taking-the-short-cut way. Still. And the truth is I wasn’t all that comfortable with the size of the animal I saw in my backyard, largish for a coyote I thought.
Coyote attacks on humans are rare enough and only one adult human is known to have been killed by coyotes. They have adapted to nearly every environment imaginable, including major cities like Chicago. And yet the ghost of the prairie is a ghost everywhere. Coyote sightings are unusual relative to their presence. For every coyote you see there are… well, more. The internet can’t make up its mind how many. Estimates range between five and 50 coyotes for every one you see. Coyotes are loners except when they’re not. They run away when you harass them, except when they don’t. They are active at night, except when they’re active during the day. They are blamed for more cat vanishings than they perpetrate. You never hear people saying, “We have to get rid of all these owls.”
Coyote’s, it seems, are like the world in general, at least the world as I know it. They are less dangerous than I imagine but more dangerous than I think. And my response is basically the same. I’m not going to buy a gun but I might start carrying a stick to the bus stop.