By Jim Robertson, CASH President
Photo copyright Jim Robertson
The rocky relationship between modern humans and coyotes, since the first cowboys and sheep boys drove their stock out onto the western plains, prairies and cleared forestland, has played out as a one-sided war waged against an unarmed opponent. Like stormtroopers from an evil empire toting weapons of mass canid destruction (traps, snares, rifles, planes and poisons), ranchers have scored heavy casualties against the embattled, outnumbered and outgunned freedom fighters. Still, coyote populations continue to hold their own and (due in part to the annihilation of wolves over much of North America) have even expanded their range from primarily west of the Mississippi to include all 49 continental United States and much of Canada.
Across time and across the continent, the coyote has been persecuted by those who value animal life only in terms of whether it benefits them. A true native to America (one of the few species of mammals to evolve in the Western Hemisphere), the coyote neither wandered across the Bering land bridge nor stowed away on a trans-Atlantic schooner. They are so inextricably tied to the American landscape that efforts to eradicate them from a given ecosystem usually result in a rebound of their numbers.
Although their merit may not be apparent to those who seek to stamp them out, the fact that coyotes have endured despite overwhelming odds is proof of their significance in nature’s design. Anyone with eyes and an open mind can see that coyotes do quite a lick of good in many important ways.
Partners for life, both mother and father are devoted parents–playful, nurturing, affectionate, and protective. One spring in Yellowstone, I watched a forty-pound mother coyote put herself between her den and a hefty male grizzly bear. With distracting yelps and a resolute performance, she successfully lured him from the hideaway where her pups were safely concealed.
Distinctive yelps and evocative howls are part of the coyote’s diverse repertoire of vocalizations–their familiar chorus helps keep the pack in touch. Coyotes howl to communicate with fellow pack members over great distances in much the same way that humans use cell phones to locate friends or family members across the expansive voids of modern mega-malls. But while a ringing cell phone at a crowded shopping center is just another distraction to shoppers not party to the call, the coyote’s multipurpose melodies aide other species who can interpret communications meant as warning signals or announcements that all’s well.
Wily opportunists whose varied diet consists of up to 40% plant matter, coyotes typically utilize the remains of animals who have died in childbirth or of other natural causes. In doing so, they help the very people who vilify them. Kansas mammologist, Dr. Raymond Hall, made this observation on the usefulness of the coyote, “For one thing, he is a scavenger, and on watersheds which supply water for domestic use, he retrieves many a carcass for food that otherwise would decay and contaminate the water supply, or serve as a lure to filth-loving insects which carry the organisms of decay to man’s food.” In a deplorable display of sheer stupidity, those who poison coyotes have been known to spread toxic chemicals onto these carcasses, threatening everyone and everything living downstream.
Coyote catching a mouse
Photo copyright Jim Robertson
As part-time predators, coyotes’ area of expertise is rodent-getter, taking advantage of rapidly growing mice, vole and rabbit populations where they occur. When they do prey on larger animals, they usually select the injured or sick, acting as agents of nature’s greater compassion by reducing the suffering of an animal who would otherwise linger and die slowly. By removing weak or diseased animals from the gene pool, predators like coyotes, wolves and cougars secure healthy traits for future generations. And it’s been well-established that coyotes would much rather stick to their customary prey than resort to domestic livestock, yet the coyote is ever the scapegoat.
As author Jack Olsen put it, “One of the sorriest effects of the incessant propaganda war against the coyote and other predators is that it perpetuates beliefs that have already caused more than enough harm on the continent of North America.”
Whenever humane activists successfully ban various poisons and other cruel kill methods, sportsmen and their game department cronies are quick to counter any progress made by conducting competitive contest hunts. Much like fishing derbies, offering prizes and cash rewards to whoever kills the most coyotes, these bloody tournaments are becoming increasingly popular in many states. In a country built on draining wetlands, fencing grasslands and prairies and paving over everything in between, any animal who dares to thrive is an unwelcome rival.
Photo Copyright Jim Robertson
Olsen continues, “By simple dint of pounding over and over on the same points, the sheep industry has succeeded in characterizing all predators as deadly killers that would rather dine on lamb than anything else that lives on the range. In the sheep mandemonology of the coyote, every fallen sheep is brought down by coyotes. If Canis latrans comes across a dead sheep and plays his natural role as carrion-eater, the rancher shows teeth marks as proof of murder. If a sheep falls dead and the coyotes ignore the carcass, the sheep man charges an even more heinous crime: killing for pleasure. No matter what the predator does, a diabolical explanation is provided, and grandiose overstatement becomes the rule. Two lambs dying at birth are transformed into twenty lambs killed by coyotes.”
Exterminating established coyotes only allows younger, less experienced individuals to move into the vacated, unfamiliar territory to prey on the most obvious and abundant nutritional source: lambs or calves. Underscoring the futility of brutal “control”methods, the killing of coyotes paradoxically increases the food-per-coyote ratio, resulting in more pups each spring and higher pup survival rates–ultimately leading to more coyotes.
Anybody who has witnessed the harrowing ordeal suffered by an animal caught in a leg-hold trap should be appalled and outraged that trapping is still legal in a society that considers itself civilized. The continuation of this horrid, outdated practice in a country governed by the people suggests either that most folks have brain damage or that most of the voting populace is simply unaware of the terrible anguish and desperation a trapped animal goes through.
They must never have heard the cries of shock and pain when an animal first feels the steel jaws of a trap lock down onto his leg. They must never have looked into the weary eyes of a helpless victim who has been caught in a trap for days and nights on end. They must never have come across a leg that an animal had chewed off in order to escape a deadly fate, nor stopped to think how tormented and hopeless she must feel to take that desperate action. And they must never have seen an animal struggling through her life on three legs.
I’ve had more than my share of heart-wrenching experiences with the gruesome evils of trapping. On a walk near our home in Eastern Washington, my dog stepped into a leg-hold trap that clamped down onto his front paw, prying his toes apart. He cried out in terror and frantically tried to shake it off, biting at the trap, at his paw, and at me as I fought to open the mindless steel jaws. The trap continued to cut deeper into his tender flesh and my efforts caused him even more pain. Finally, after many harrowing minutes, I was able to loosen the torture device enough for him to pull his foot free.
Another dog I freed was caught in two leg-hold traps. One was latched onto her front leg, while the second gripped her hind leg, forcing her to remain standing for untold agonizing hours. Judging by how fatigued and dehydrated she was, she had been stuck there for several days. The sinister traps caused so much damage that a vet had to amputate one of her injured legs.
With no other hope of escape and feeling vulnerable to anyone that comes along, many trapped animals resort to amputating their own leg. Trappers callously label this grim act of despair “wring-off”. Truly, freedom is precious to any animal desperate enough to take this extreme step. But if they don’t bleed to death or die from infection, they spend the rest of their lives crippled and quite possibly unable to keep up with a demanding life in the wild. Unlike the fictional character “Little Big Man,” who was distraught to the brink of suicide when he found that an animal had chewed off its leg to escape one of his traps, most trappers who find a wring-off are indifferent to the suffering they caused as they begrudgingly pitch the chewed-off limb and reset their trap.
While I was camped near Bowron Lakes Provincial Park in B.C., Canada, in late March, my dog found just such a discarded limb–the front leg of a trapped lynx. In what has to be one of the more deceitful abuses of trust ever, free roaming animals– safely protected within the arbitrary boundaries of parks– lose all such protection and are deemed “fair game” for trapping as soon as they step across an invisible dividing line. Trappers consider the lands adjoining parks the most “productive” and will pay tens of thousands of dollars for permits to run trap-lines in those areas. I’ve had the displeasure of seeing three-legged coyotes near the North Cascades National Park, and within the Grand Tetons National Park.
Sidestepping the indisputable cruelty issue, pro-trapping factions try to perpetuate the myth that trapping is sustainable. But time and again entire populations of “furbearers” are completely trapped out of an area, often within a single season. The winter after I found wolf tracks in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, all seven members of a pack who had found a niche in and around that preserve were killed–permissibly “harvested”– by trappers. Though wolves are extinct or endangered in most of the U.S., 1,500 are legally trapped in Alaska each year.
Leg-hold traps are now banned in 88 countries, and some enlightened states have passed initiatives to outlaw trapping. Still, in many U.S. states, as in Canada, the twisted tradition is not only legal, it’s considered a sacred human right. Compassionate people everywhere must add their voice to the rising call to end this barbarity for good.
No animal should find themselves stuck in their steel jaws–not a bear or hawk, OR a “target” animal like a raccoon or coyote.
Photo Copyright Jim Robertson
TRAPPING HAS NO PLACE
IN A CIVILIZED WORLD!
Jim Robertson is the author of Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport. Please visit his website, Animals in the Wild.