With opposable thumbs, they would rule the world

Greg Bean

Coda I once made friends with a government trapper out West whose job was to catch predators that attack livestock and put them out of business. In the CIA, what he does is called “terminating with extreme prejudice.”

And he was (still is) very good at his job. By the time my friend became a pro trapper in the mid-1970s, his predecessors in the trapping business and ranchers around the state had nearly annihilated the predator population. Most of the grizzly bears were dead. So were the wolves, the bald eagles, the golden eagles and a lot of the hawks and owls. The mountain lions were all but a memory. And nobody had seen a wolverine in their lifetimes.

But the coyotes (pronounced kai-oats out there, not kai-oat-ees like that baconhead who’s always chasing the Road Runner) were still thriving, and they were thriving because they are perhaps the smartest animals on four legs.

For a couple of decades, it had looked like humans might win the generations-old battle against coyotes, because they used a particularly nasty poison called 1080. What they’d do is infuse meat with 1080, and then leave that meat where the coyotes would find it. The coyotes would eat the meat, then wander off and die.

That stuff, which the coyotes couldn’t detect in the bait, even with their keen sense of smell, was murder on the critters. And in places where it was used, the loss of livestock due to coyotes dropped off remarkably. Problem was, 1080 not only killed coyotes, it killed every other meat eater in the area as well. It was an equal- opportunity poison, and in addition to

coyotes it killed eagles, hawks, owls, ravens, gray jays, magpies, vultures, bad-gers, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, martins, weasels, family pets and the occasional person who wasn’t careful around the noxious brew.

The government banned general use of 1080 in 1972. As a result, the coyotes started making an immediate comeback and some of them went right back to their bad habits. It would take the other apex predators a lot longer to rebound.

While coyotes usually stay clear of people because they’re shy, and make a living eating things like mice, prairie dogs and rabbits, they’re opportunistic feeders and will often take the easy way out (you almost never see a hungry coyote). And there’s nothing quite as easy for a coyote to kill and eat than a sheep, a small calf, or somebody’s little dog or cat. I’ve seen what a pack of delinquent coyotes can do to a herd of sheep – they sometimes get in a killing frenzy and slaughter many more than they can eat because it’s so easy – and let me tell you, it’s not a pretty sight.

When ranchers see that, see what the loss of all that livestock does to their profit margin for a year, they often sic guys like my friend on the coyotes. Those guys play for keeps, but they don’t always win.

“You might catch some coyotes in a trap,” my friend said. “But you only catch the dumb ones. The smarties will avoid the trap, or they’ll figure out a way to spring it without hurting themselves and carry off the bait to enjoy at leisure.”

Same with shooting the beasts. The only coyote that’ll get close enough to let you shoot him without the aid of trickery is a crazy coyote with a death wish. You never see the smart ones, let alone get a good shot at them.

It was his contention that if God had only given coyotes opposable thumbs, they’d be running the world by now. Which is how their species has survived the purges by trap and gun and poison that nearly wiped out the rest of their colleagues at the top of the food chain.

To achieve success as a coyote assassin, my friend became a true expert on the animals. He doesn’t use traps often because they’re not that effective. He doesn’t use poison. To stop the smart bad apples from killing livestock, he needed to find a way to trick them into coming close enough for a clean, killing shot.

To do that, he learned their language (you didn’t know they had a language, did you?) so he could mimic their speech and call them to him. There’s a big difference in coyote language in a call that says, “Hey, I’m feelin’ a little lonesome,” and the challenging one that says “Come on down here, you miserable, mangy, flea-bitten wimp, and let a real coyote kick your butt.”

My friend still kills a lot of coyotes like that, by speaking their language, but there are plenty more around to cause trouble. That, he said, is because they’re smarter in their environment than humans are. “We’ll never win against them,” he said admiringly. “They’re too intelligent, and far too adaptable. They’re gonna be around a long, long time. Might as well get used to it.”

I’ve been thinking of my friend in recent weeks as folks in New Jersey, and Monmouth County in particular, have been freaking out because of a few recent coyote incidents. In one case, a coyote attacked a 2-year-old child in Middletown, but was frightened off. A 5-year-old boy was bitten in the same community. In other places, coyotes have attacked pets, and there have been numerous sightings. Cops have taken shots at them and almost always miss (I believe they got one). The guys from the N.J. Division of Fish & Wildlife have failed to catch any in traps.

They aren’t likely to catch any smart ones in the near future, either, although frightened crowds are demanding action. They don’t have the experience, the tools, or the skills. To make a real difference, we’d have to:

+ Buy a bunch of 1080 on the black market in Mexico to poison the coyotes, though there’ll be a lot of collateral damage.

+ Give everyone a gun and let average citizens shoot the coyotes on sight.

+ Go out West where expert guys kill coyotes for a living, hire a bunch of them, and bring them back to New Jersey as hired guns to solve our “problem.”

+ Or learn to live with all but the worst offenders. Realize that coyotes are part of the natural environment, intelligent beings that share our planet and have a right to live here. Accept that an occasional unpleasant encounter is the price of doing business. Watch out for the animals, and go on with our lives. There’s a better chance you’ll be hit by lightning a half-dozen times than of being attacked by a coyote in New Jersey, after all.

That would be my choice. But then, I kinda admire coyotes. In fact, I like them better than some people I know.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at [email protected].