The other evening, I was at an sporting goods store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the checkout line, the attendant noticed that I was purchasing some coyote attractant and began to bash them.
“Somebody set ’em out.”
This is not dissimilar to the reaction I would get in virtually any place in West Virginia.
Coyotes are reviled virtually anywhere they are found. If they aren’t being blamed for killing calves and sheep, then they are being blamed for killing all the fawns or trophy bucks or are implicated in disappearances of beloved outdoor cats.
Coyotes were once found only the prairies and mountains of the West. Their old name was “prairie wolf,” but now it is often called the “brush wolf.” In my part of the world, you pretty much see coyotes when they burst out of some thicket or dive down a logging road into roughest, brushiest terrain they can find.
This is an animal that fears our kind. We have long since killed off any that were less than paranoid about people.Their lives are harrowing. Death stalks at every corner.
But the thing which brings the death is also the thing that allows them to thrive. That thing is us. Modern man has made the world so much nicer for coyotes. We’ve killed off the larger wolves and most of the cougars, and we’ve allowed white-tailed deer to overpopulate our forests. We leave out garbage and pet food for them. We let feral and outdoor cats wander about, and they are pretty easy prey for a coyote.
That brings us to the human element of the story. South Carolina natural and author John Lane spent a year traveling the South in search of the real coyote story. The Southeastern states were among the first settled by Europeans, and they were among the first to wipe out wolves.
Now, this part of the country has to deal with a new predator, one that is far more resolute and durable than the wolves that existed at the time of colonization and settlement.
And for a part of the country that has long been settled into a kind of subtropical England, this animal represents a sort of invasion, like a noxious weed in a rose garden.
Lane travels across the region, interviewing a coyote trapper in Alabama and wandering as far s the Allegheny foothills of West Virginia to track down the taxidermy of a legendary sheep-killing coyote. He listens to the sounds of the foxhounds turned into coyote dogs that now bay hard after the new quarry.
He compiles his findings into a fine piece of nature writing called Coyote Settles the South. The title alone is worth consideration. Americans think of ourselves as the descendants of a settler state. But in our settling, we have unsettled much. In the region Lane explores, the woods no longer hold vast flocks of passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets (which were actually conures). The cougar is gone, but I think that virtually everyone knows someone who has claimed to see one. Whatever wolf lived in the East or the South is long since gone, and virtually all of the indigenous people who lived in these forests have been driven off or put on reservations or intermarried into the populations of settlers and slave that inundated the land with their quests for gold, timber, indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton.
Just as Western civilization’s settling was actually a great unsettling, the coyote’s arrival has been an unsettling. Although Lane is a defender of the coyote, he is conflicted with the coyote depredations on loggerhead sea turtle nests on South Carolina barrier islands:
I’d spent most of my life with my environmentalist sympathies building constantly for sea turtles. After all, they’ve been in the big-budget ad campaigns that come with being cute in a reptilian sort of way. Protecting their nests had become a vacation activity on southern barrier islands. There were even children’s books about them nesting. All that was good, and it has helped raise the awareness of the plight of this ancient and powerful creature, but it had not stopped the carnage. Was it really the coyotes that were keeping the sea turtles on the worldwide list of most concern? Isn’t it really industrial fishing and coastal real estate agents who should be taking the blame and leading the charge to stop the killing? If we regulated these industries as they should be, would there be plenty of protein to go around?
I was glad that everyone was doing everything possible to give turtles a fighting chance, including “knocking back” the coyotes that had learned how to purchase a quick raw omelet on the beachfront. What I didn’t want, though, was for folks to lose sight of the beauty of the mating predators dancing on the beach. I wanted folks to stop hating the coyotes, and instead to see them as part and parcel now of this new scene (pg. 103).
There is a tendency to think of coyotes as an “invasive species.” I spent many happy weeks in the heat of summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been fascinated by loggerhead sea turtles. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores was my favorite spot to visit on a beach holiday, and my grandparents allegedly took me there several times a day during these vacations. That aquarium was heavily concerned with educating the public about loggerheads, which nest on the same beaches where we sunbathed and swam. I was fascinated that the newly hatched turtles knew their way to the sea, and then the females who survive the gauntlet of predators on the beach and in the depths of the sea return to those same beaches to lay their eggs.
Such a primitive animal, yet so excellent at survival.
And to see its numbers reduced, no matter how trivially in the grand scheme of things, appears at once to be an affront to all that is decent. If this were hogs or feral cats or red foxes doing the deed, there wouldn’t be such a conflict. They simply don’t belong here, and there is no good reason for them to be there.
Lane thinks the red wolf’s historic presence on the islands might give the coyotes some license to eat turtle eggs. I think it goes beyond the red wolf. Turtles have been nesting on these islands for millions of years. If they were using not those very islands, then they were using the ones that were there before. Canids first evolved in North America some 40 million years ago, so it’s very likely that there was some kind of dog eating those sea turtle eggs long before our kind began to walk upright. As wolves evolved, there were always jackal-like and wolf-like forms in both Eurasia and North America. Paleontology has suggested that we can somehow trace the evolution of what have become wolves and coyote through examining those fossils of those canids. Genetic studies strongly suggest that we be careful of such analyses. The story of canids shows that there were many “coyotes” and “wolves” roaming this continent, even if their genetic legacy likely doesn’t exist in any extant species.
In this way, a coyote has more right to eat the eggs of loggerhead in South Carolina than an introduced red fox has a right to eat the eggs of flatbacks in Queensland.
But the line we draw in this regard as some subjectivity. After all, I’m upset at what feral cats do to songbirds, but I know that the bigger problem is what we’re doing to Neotropical forests. If these forests are felled, many of these birds have no place to go in the winter.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore that the cats are taking the birds. It just means that it’s one of the problems that so many songbirds have to face, and the socially responsible thing to do is keep cats inside.
The truth about coyotes is that even their admirers have concerns. Lane wonders if an enterprising coyote might decide to take out his beloved beagle, Murphy, a creature bred to be so docile that he wouldn’t even stand a chance.
Whether coyotes have a place in the South or not is pretty much immaterial. Their populations are so resilient that once they arrive, they pretty much can’t be removed.
Lane wonders whether coyotes would have come into the South if it hadn’t been for the controversial practice of fox-penning. With the rise of the modern highway system and the growth of the white-tailed deer population that might lead a hunting pack into oncoming cars, many blue collar foxhunting clubs have fenced off vast acreages and stocked them with red and gray foxes that can be purchased from trappers or, at one time, ordered from out-of-state companies. Sometimes, the companies would send an order of red foxes with a coyote thrown in for free.
Perhaps that is how the coyote spread through the South so quickly. In West Virginia, I pretty much have my doubts. West Virginia has a climate and forest landscape like the Northeast, and Northeastern coyotes are bigger and more wolf-like. The ones I’ve seen have had broader heads and relatively stout bodies than the coyotes I’ve seen in Arizona. Ours likely came from that great Northeastern swarm that came into Ontario, bred with with wolves, and then wandered into New York State and down the Alleghenies. The High Alleghenies towards the Pennsylvania line were the first place where coyotes became established, and just as black bears did as the forested lands spread out into the abandoned farmland to the west, coyotes did the same. I’m sure that a few coyotes came from fox pens, but I don’t think they are the main reason they came into West Virginia.
South Carolina and the Deep South might be a different story. This isn’t an easy place to be a dog. The parasite load is far, far more extreme that you’d get in the nothern or western parts of the continent. One reason why it so many descriptions of Southern wolves mention their black color is that melanism is associated with a stronger immune response, and being black in color could be a side effect of selection for stronger immune response in the wormy, wormy South. Red foxes were known in Virginia from the Pleistocene. They were unknown south of New England and New York State at the time of colonization. They only became widespread in the Deep South during the twentieth century, and a lot of their spread actually could be attributed to human introduction. So it is possible that coyotes came because of the fox pens.
But it is possible they came on their own.
The epilogue of Lane’s book is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. At Wofford College, where Lane is a professor, a “shack ” was built as a sort of allusion to the one Aldo Leopold built in Wisconsin. It was meant for use for the college’s environmental studies program, and it needed “study skins.”
Lane managed get a coyote pelt. Some rednecks had caught a little coyote and tried to sell it on Craigsist, and the conservation officer tracked down the illegally-owned coyote from the ad. Because South Carolina law doesn’t allow coyotes to be relocated or released, the officer shot the poor coyote and donated the specimen to the college.
The coyote’s pelt is sent to a tannery in Greenville, where a man who is called “the Russian” runs the show. Russians are people of the frontier like Southerners, and they are also people who known some of the worst horrors of humanity. Both people have lived off the land and trapped and hunted. Both know about furs.
But the South is now the New South. With advent of air conditioning and the death of Jim Crow and malaria, it has been appealing part of the country to move to. No more hard winters like in Buffalo or Cleveland. It’s become a domesticated part of America. It’s no longer the Cotton Frontier. It’s the land of air conditioning and finely manicured lawns.
The coyote’s arrival in the region belies the simple fact that the land never can be fully domesticated. Black bear numbers are on the upswing, and Lane quickly notices from reading the literature on vagrant cougars that are working their way east that they are essentially using the same migration route that coyotes used to enter this part of the continent. They are moving across the Northern Plains into the Great Lakes, and it won’t be long before they enter Upstate New York and work their way into the Appalachians.
The domesticated land of the South may soon become a land of predators.
The general population–obese, unaware, untrained in natural history, much less yard maintenance- won’t notice the chance until it’s too late and they’re trapped indoors thumbing their remote controls and adjusting their air conditioning. The coyotes and bears and cougars won’t be using remote controls. They’ll be settled in, operating on instincts and native intelligence, paws on the ground, checking out what opportunities the new neighborhood offers. Cowered in their midcentury modern dens in aging suburbs backing up to greenways, undeveloped parkland, remnant agricultural land, and railroad right-of-ways, the denatured Homo sapiens will fear (and rightly so) for their poodles, their bird feeder, and maybe even their children rare instance the young wander out of the monitor’s shadow. In my vision, most southerners will be prisoners to the wild (pg. 169).
When Lane swings by Greenville to pick up the coyote pelt and the other study skins for the shack, he marvels at the red fox and beaver pelts, but he is still impressed with the coyote. He thinks it is a good skin, but when he goes to pay the Russian, he finds that the order cost $20 less than had initially been budgeted.
“No problem,” says the Russian. “I throw in coyote free.”
That’s what has happened to the New South. The land has been domesticated at a great ecological cost and social cost, but the coyote, well, it came along for free.
And it’s here to stay.
And its howls may be a harbinger of what’s to come.