Warning: the following is semi-educational and may cause sudden overwhelming sensations of hypocrisy.
It’s a chilly autumn’s eve. The leaves crackle and crunch underfoot as you stumble your way down Middle Path after a late-night essay panic-write comparing Frankenstein to Franz Kafka in the crypt of the library. Pale moonlight filters through the trees, casting strange shadows that flicker in your path and dance off the boughs of the trees. What was that? You spy a flash of motion out of the corner of your eye, right at the edge of the woods. Probably just a raccoon. A demon goblin raccoon. It’s almost Halloween, and you’ve got evil on the brain.
Suddenly, off in the distance you hear an ethereal sound, like a satanic pennywhistle. Another joins the chorus, and then another. It’s like a band of demon children tormenting everything with ears with their fiendish third grade recorders. The band swells, like it’s creeping closer, closer, closer. You break into a gallop and high-tail it into the dorm building and up the stairs to your room, slamming the door behind you. The thought flickers through your mind as you collapse panting on your bed: could there be coyotes at Kenyon?
A short answer to your question is yes, oh sweet mother of pearl, yes. Where the hell have you been for the past 20 years? Coyotes are literally everywhere. Some 400,000 are killed by hunters every year, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of a wild dog population numbering in the multi-millions across the U.S. These days, it’s common to see coyotes crossing highways, vaulting backyard fences and digging through dumpsters in downtown Columbus. But the mystery remains- how in dog’s name did this happen?
Today, I bring you the Tale of the Underdog.
Coyotes, Canis latrans, appeared over a hundred thousand years ago, when they shared the Ice Age with their larger wolf cousins. Back then, coyotes were larger and more muscular, most likely to contend with the megafauna that roamed the frozen glacial plains. You have to be pretty buff to take down a mastadon or a 9 foot tall giant ground sloth. When the Ice Age started melting and the saber-toothed cats and the dire wolves met with dire straights, the gray wolves found themselves in the position of Top Dog, the apex predator of North America, with the coyotes loping along at their heels as the lovable underdogs. As a mesopredator, the coyote hunted whatever smaller prey they could find and when they couldn’t find enough fresh meat to feed their twelve hungry pups, they turned to eating nuts, seeds and berries, cementing their place as facultative omnivores. Coyotes are practical, highly adaptable doggies.
Physically, modern coyotes are fairly unremarkable members of the canid family. They’re larger than foxes but smaller than their big bad wolf cousins. Their ears perk up, their tails droop, their snouts are long and pointy and their eyes are murky yellow. Their fur takes on various shades of grays and browns. They’re a pretty average-looking dog- not so frightening that they’d huff and puff and blow your house down (though I bet they’d have pretty good odds in the New Apts.) but not tame enough that you’d name them Mrs. Fluffernutter and Mr. Fuzzy-wuzzy and stuff them in pumpkin costumes for some Halloween humiliation. They’re right in the middle, which happens to be one of the sweetest spots in nature. We don’t fear coyotes unless it’s late at night and they’re howling their hellhound hullabaloo, but we do respect them as wild animals.
The rise of the underdog is a story of losses and gains, triumphs and downfalls, good dogs and bad dogs and we humans, as usual, play an annoyingly pinnacle role. Basically, we’ve completely reassigned nature’s dramatis personae by meddling in the food chain because we’re scaredy cats about big sharp teeth. Maybe it’s the fairy tale influence- no one wants their granny eaten and her identity stolen- I get it. And no one wants their child ending up as some wolf family’s lunch, although if it was dumb enough to get that close to wolves, maybe that’s Natural Selection. I’m just saying. Still, the grim truth is this: we drove our continent’s strongest apex predator to near-extinction. By the early 20th century, humans had eradicated wolves from most of the U.S., forcing the few remaining packs out into the wild west or up into the Canadian wilderness. Now, american gray wolf populations are relegated to the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the far northern Great Lakes region and Alaska. In recent years, conservationists have completed several successful re-introductions of wolf packs in western national parks like Yellowstone once we realized what an awful mess we’d made, but overall, wolves are practically missing from the national food chain.
In biology, we talk about the concept of the ecological niche, where each species fulfills a specific role in their ecological community. It’s like every Kenyon class ever. You have the know-it-all genius with the hand-raising reflexes of a mantis shrimp, the slacker in slacks, the compulsive fidgeter, the kid who ties everything to obscure television and film references, the kid who nods vigorously but never says a word, and the kid you forget is in the class with you because they barely move. If the Hermione Granger is out sick one day, her absence gives other students the chance to finally get a word in edgewise. Talking in terms of niches and roles is a gross oversimplification because all creatures and students are complex, multi-faceted beings- thou shalt not shove us in boxes! This is the liberal arts! But, the general idea holds up: if you remove the wolves, you reduce competition and open up a suite of new opportunities for other predatory species, if they dare to take them. And boy oh boy did coyotes dare.
As wolves receded into the boreal forests, coyotes quickly moved into their vacated areas like students into empty tables at Wiggin Street Coffee. If a window booth is open, blink once and it’s gone. The first report of coyotes in Ohio came in 1919. It was alright at first. Actually, we welcomed our new neighbors because they kept the varmints from eating our vegetables. But then, they started invading places where we already lived, and that was not fair. We thought we’d worked out a good agreement, a sort of ‘if you don’t scratch my face off I won’t shoot yours’ arrangement. But over years of loitering around waiting for garbage day, they grew habituated to our urban lifestyle and soon they were stealing from us without the slightest hint of remorse. They ate up our livestock and when they’d finished with that they went for our produce until there was nothing left to scrounge but so moldy potatoes. So then what did they do? Rather than going back to the forest where they belonged, they started raiding our cities. Today these puppers are considered pests in all 88 Ohio counties. They roam our yards, eat our garbage, steal our sheep. They’re the backstory behind all of those ‘missing cat’ posters in the neighborhood.
In the absence of wolves, coyotes jumped enthusiastically into their role as apex predator, without actually needing to be an apex predator. Coyotes can’t capture animals like deer that are easy targets for their big bad relatives, and as a result deer populations have also skyrocketed, but that’s a rant for another time. Everything is connected, people! Coyotes are smart, enterprising animals, and they are excellent at adjusting to local environmental conditions. If they don’t like what they find, you can bet they’ll figure out a way around it. It’s the true American way. Coyotes are also tricksters (see Native American folklore and Warner Brothers cartoons.) When you hear what appears to be hundreds of coyotes singing karaoke, it may just be two going back and forth in complex overlapping sequences- a crafty hunting strategy to make a group seem much larger and more intimidating than it is. Coyotes don’t have a strong pack mentality, preferring to hunt alone or in a small group following their first year in the den and communicate with their friends by barking and wailing over long distances. With their keen eyes and acute sense of smell, these typically diurnal doggos transition smoothly between night and daytime living. There’s really no time when coyotes aren’t at the top of their game.
Coyotes are wild animals who don’t want much to do with our petty problems, but like many successful species of the Anthropocene, they tolerate us and benefit vastly from our presence. We’re the reason their species is thriving since we scared off their competition with our big guns. Plus, we leave huge mounds of food just lying around. Now, some coyotes are so comfortable around us that they don’t always respond to our verbal threats and manic hand-clapping in the backyard at 10 pm. They can smell that your precious Wendell Purrington was out here earlier and they want that cat.
The moral of the story: Don’t mess with the balance of nature. But if you do, don’t complain when it comes back to bite you on the butt. Coyotes are merely taking advantage of the feast we’ve plopped in front of their noses, like any good kritter trying to make it in this dog-eat-dog world. And if we don’t like it, well that’s ruff. We are the bad dogs here, as per usual. Good boys, coyotes. Have a treat, you’ve earned it.