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Pet dogs and coyotes: remembering the value of wildness.

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There have been uproars about coyotes recently in Toronto, New York City, and Nova Scotia. We've read media stories buzzing with scary phrases such as "... the coyotes are terrorizing the residents of The Beach," a Toronto neighborhood not far from downtown. One Torontonian pled with city officials to do something, saying, "We just don't want to live in fear!" A tiny Chihuahua named Zoe had been snatched by a "wild coyote" who was dubbed "Neville," after the street where the dog lived.

The story does not end with media hype about dogdom. In October of 2009, Toronto singer Taylor Mitchell was killed by two coyotes while hiking solo in Nova Scotia. Experts were surprised at this event because Mitchell was an adult. No less tragic but more likely was the fatal coyote attack on a three-year-old in Glendale, California in 1981. In many cities, the daylight sightings of coyotes are increasing, including in New York on the Columbia University campus and Central Park. They have become less wary of humans, and this is never a good sign for humans or their pets, or for the coyotes.

We would do well to step back a moment from the heat of these controversies and consider our relationship to animals tame and wild. I will concentrate here on pet dogs and urban-adapted coyotes. A close look at these relationships uncovers some myths that should be dispelled.

Pet Dogs

In contrast to the coyotes, domesticated dogs are known for being friendly and affectionate with their owners/masters; hence the term "companion" or "animal friend." But there is a subtle deception in this usage. Companions and friends have an integrity and independence not enjoyed by pet dogs. Pets are captive and controlled, especially in cities. The current movement for leash-free areas in cities reveals the curious plight of our pet dogs. Most dogs have natural instincts to roam, hunt, and breed freely, but we suppress their instincts. Dogs are fenced or chained or leashed or caged. The leash-free zones are fenced and monitored by dog owners; they are a token effort to give the captives a little more space.

It is a truism that pet dogs are tame and coyotes are wild. The contrast may imply that the coyotes are more dangerous. Yet pet dogs are arguably more dangerous. The Humane Society reports that between 1979 and 1990, three hundred people were killed by domestic dogs in the United States. In that period, only one person was killed by a coyote! In 2007, there were thirty-three fatal pet dog attacks and no fatal coyote attacks. There was one fatality from coyote attacks in 2009 and thirty-two from pet dog attacks. About half of the fatalities were cases of the pet dog biting the children of the household. People believe a "tame" animal that is well known to the family will not bite their child: "He's a good dog. He'd never bite anyone."

Among the most violent of domesticated dogs are the pit bulls. They are so notorious that some places have banned them. And Daniel Estep of the National Animal Control Association has published instructions for use when attacked by a pit bull: Try to shove something you have with you (such as a clip board or shoe) into the dog's mouth. Feed him your non-dominant arm (not hand). Don't get taken off your feet. If you are down, curl up. More details are available in Esquire magazine, January, 2010. Clearly, the term "domesticated" is a relative one.

Coyotes

Urban-adapted coyotes are scavengers who live in or near the city. They live in dens or storm drains. While their cousins, the pet dogs, dine on commercially prepared food, coyotes feed on rodents, rabbits, fruit, birds, and small cats and dogs. Their scats are "furry" because they contain rodent hair. They are "low class" animals, held in disrepute, as we see in the reports about urban coyote attacks.

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Reports on CTV about last year's Toronto coyote attacks were, like all television reports, designed to grab our attention and hold it. They were not grossly inaccurate, but they portrayed the animals in ways that obscure the reality of the "coyote problem." Coyotes were said to be "lurking about," suddenly jumping fences, snatching little dogs and cats "in a flash"--and this in "broad daylight." And a key word in these reports is "vicious."

Since coyotes are not big (average adult is about forty-five pounds) or especially strong, they survive by stealth and speed. They must hurt or stun their prey quickly. They usually kill their prey by multiple bites. We may call this "vicious," but these are the instinctive ways of the coyote and they could not survive in any other way. News media call them "brazen," so in our minds we envisage the actions of an extremely bold and impudent youngster or a psychopath. In Nature, even in urbanized Nature, coyotes take risks when and where they find food available. It's not unusual to see coyotes hunting in broad daylight.

The most vocal urbanites call for officials to shoot or trap or relocate coyotes. As a reaction to the much-publicized coyote attack in Glendale, fifty-five coyotes were killed by county officials. Bounties have been offered by some irate citizens. However, biologists and rangers offer sane counsel amid the irritated voices: None of these violent rid-the-area-of-coyotes proposals are advisable. In urban areas, attempts to shoot or trap coyotes pose danger to humans and other animals. And a biological factor subverts attempts to wipe out the coyotes: When the coyote population dwindles, the females instinctively manage to get impregnated and produce more young.

The solution to the "coyote problem" is for us to understand and adapt to the ways of the coyote. If we make food unavailable, and we present an ominous or scary appearance when coyotes are seen, they will be less likely to frequent the area. City and county officials regularly publish the most effective specific directives: Completely enclose garbage, never leave dog or cat food outdoors, never leave children or small pets unattended. If a coyote is sighted, one should appear to be large and fearless. (This is to be done by adults only, and only when it presents no danger to oneself.) Shouting and clapping will scare coyotes and make them wary of humans. As a general rule, one should avoid walking solo, especially where human habitation is sparse.

Wildness

Apart from media coverage and controversy, and apart from the issues of danger and protection, the presence of coyotes in our cities is of untold importance. They provide a balance in our overly domesticated, overly civilized world. Our minds are so much fashioned by our culture that we begin to forget the value of wildness. The so-called "coyote problem" is primarily a problem in our minds and not in our backyards and urban canyons. Our stressful modem lifestyle has us preoccupied with schedules and held captive by cell phones, computers, and televisions. It is a tight knot. What is much worse is that we are "de-natured." The experience of Nature has the power to release us from our preoccupations, but most of us do not give it due time and attention. The experience of natural events and wild animals can release us from the clutter in our minds and give us a measure of calm.

A common myth in this context is the idea that we need a vacation to travel out into a wilderness area to experience its healing powers. Nature or wildness should not be identified solely with wilderness. Wildness coexists with domesticated life in the cities. Urban-adapted animals and birds are the presence of wildness in our midst.

Coyote sightings where I live are unpredictable--a delightful surprise and a wonderful sign of wildness in our neighborhood. They are wary of my presence and scamper off quickly into the brush, and sometimes we find coyote tracks and scats. Truly awesome is coyote "singing," as I call it. The howling is as eerie as a loon call, although at a higher pitch. The concert usually begins with a single voice--several barks and a tremulous howl. Then others respond in chorus with long howls interspersed with rapid-fire yelps. Three coyotes in chorus can sound like a pack of ten.

My naturalist friend says he loves the coyotes. He does not feed them or pet them; there is a respectful distance between him and the coyotes. He says he loves the wild no less than the tame. The coyotes are fascinating precisely because we do not call them, feed them, and pet them. We do not control them. We do not domesticate them and hold them captive.

Some have called urban-adapted coyotes a curse upon the cities. I hope I have shown that perhaps we should call them a blessing.

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California
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Author:Sager, Gene
Publication:Natural Life
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:1483
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