In Los Angeles County, where I’m from, coyotes come with the territory. It’s not unusual to see one trotting through the neighborhood on an occasional early morning, and pet owners—particularly near hills and wooded areas—know better than to be outraged and indignant if one of the wild canids should make off with a family pet left unattended outdoors.
As I discovered while reporting about a coyote that broke into Cook County Jail, Chicagoans are still getting their coyote-legs. I was regaled with alternating tales of coyote woe and wonder from both official sources and casual acquaintances I talked to in the course of my research for the story. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it seemed everyone was interested.
That was part of the appeal of writing the article in the first place. Wildlife is sexy. I’ve seen enough people all but lose their minds over that slow motion scene in “Planet Earth” where you can see the great white shark chomp right into that seal to know that people love the life/death, predator/prey story every time they hear it.
You almost wonder whether they’re hoping you’ll tell them you found out someone was horribly mauled in a coyote attack. You almost wonder whether they want you to tell them they could be next. (For the record, totally unlikely.)
Of course, all of this also applies to me.
That being said, one of my moments of greatest frustration, and revelation, during my reporting came near the beginning of my phone interview with Stanley Gehrt, Ohio State University’s resident coyote expert, and principal investigator of the Cook County Coyote Project.
After days of immersion in coyote anecdotes, coyote questions, coyote “fun facts,” and Wile E. Coyote jokes, I had developed a case of coyote romanticism that I wanted validated. So here I was, on the phone with a serious wildlife researcher, and I found myself asking an obnoxious question.
Well, it wasn’t really that obnoxious until I asked it a second time.
“Will the coyotes continue to spread throughout the city? Will we see more and more of them?” I asked.
Gehrt’s perfectly reasonable response: “It’s anyone’s guess…it’s a natural experiment, and we don’t know what the final outcome is going to be.”
I wanted reports of the impending coyote invasion, of the final, epic battle between man and his longtime enemy, Coyote.
“It’s anyone’s guess?” I asked, pathetically. “Uh…anyone’s guess?”
God bless Gehrt for not inadvertently encouraging my silly notions about the predictability of unprecedented natural phenomena. He never really gave me anything more concrete than that.
In my fervor to write a “good story,” I had almost been ready to treat this living, breathing part of a dynamic ecosystem as though it were a character in a folktale instead of a nest predator of Canada geese, an agent of rodent and deer bio-control, a recurring victim of vehicular hit-and-runs, a handy trapper of rodents and lagomorphs, a food competitor and sometime hunter of foxes, and increasingly, our own next-door neighbor in the urban wild.
As it turns out, no one really knows exactly how many coyotes have moved into the city, or how exactly we’ll evolve together now that they’re here. In any case, according to what Gehrt told me, there are probably a lot more than we’re aware of. The coyote didn’t earn the nickname “ghost of the prairie” for nothing.
-blog authored by Tawny Flechtner