Suszynski: Who is the coyote to me now?
As I traversed a wide meadow, leaving the water behind, I spotted something running toward me in the distance. I stopped and waited for it to come closer, expecting it to be a dog. But as it dipped over the hills, I noticed it blending in too well, popping over the grass, its tail floating like a cloud behind it. Then all too soon, only 2 feet away, I made eye contact with the coyote.
The coyote trotted by me and then stopped a few yards away to look back. We stood there in the spring air, wondering what each was up to. The coyote turned away calmly and ran for the water I had just left.
Spring always greets us with the soft pull of flowers to the surface, but I often forget, until I hear them at night, that spring also calls forth coyotes and their dens of pups.
Coyotes mean different things to different people. When I was growing up, I had to be careful of them. By the creek in my childhood backyard, the coyotes often made their dens. I had to call the dogs in before dusk.
On a spring night, I like sitting outside and listening to them. Sometimes their cries are an eerie wail, but other times, they sound like a group of friends cackling. Depending on the times, their sounds reach me, and I am left to interpret their howls.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of my recent encounter with the coyote. I had never been so close to one, and never felt so calm as we made eye contact. As we both left each other for our respective lives, I thought of the coyotes of “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya. In this book, the coyotes are signs of witches or evil: “Their laughter-cry sounded directly outside the small windows of the room. I shivered. Their claws scratched at the adobe walls of the house.”
As a kid, maybe at the same young age of the narrator in the book, I always listened to my neighbors telling me to shut the door after I had went outside. If the cats got out, they would be eaten.
Perceptions of coyotes have been shaped by literature and even television. Every Sunday, I used to watch Wile E. Coyote chase after Roadrunner. I liked this coyote. He was funny and scrawny, and often elicited my sympathy.
These animals are a distinctly North American animal. They have been here, having evolved from the candid family 5.3 million years ago, and never left to cross the land bridge to spread to other countries.
Maybe the most scathing description of these animals was by Mark Twain in his book published in the 1870s titled “Roughing It:” “He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely! — so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.”
Between 1947 and 1956, Eradication Methods Laboratory poisoned approximately 6.5 million coyotes in the West. Yet, these animals are still here. Still howling, still adapting. They have even moved into big cities like Chicago and New York, where they are not hunted.
And their howls are more interesting than I thought. The coyotes howl at night to communicate with each other. Dan Flores, author of “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,” told National Geographic in an interview, “They use their howls and yipping to create a kind of census of coyote populations. If their howls are not answered by other packs, it triggers an autogenic response that produces large litters.”
If only we humans could have conducted our census this way. I wonder how big our dens would be and where the lines would be drawn.
As I watched the coyote in front of me Wednesday, my mind was quiet yet cautious. All of the words I was told as a kid, that this animal is here to trick you for your cats, to howl and cry late into the night, to be the evil spirit of a witch, were with me and informed my posture. But these stories only made me more alert, and I understood then the Indigenous views of this small, yet majestic coyote — of it being a sort of guide. As Flores says in the interview about Indigenous tales of this animal, “the bulk of the stories are about … exposing various elements of human nature and instructing people in the proper way to behave toward one another in a social setting.”
When you stand before something, whether it be a truth, a coyote, your own beliefs — you stand before a contained history. It’s hard not to let go of what you grew up believing, or what you have read or seen on television. But when I stood in front of the coyote, I was reminded of what really matters. In that moment, what mattered was that I was fully capable of developing a new belief out of the remnants of the old.
Who is the coyote to me now?
Anna Suszynski is a staff editor at the Vail Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at annasuszynski or on Twitter at anna_suszynski.