About myself, with animals, observing

I thought I should let people know where I am coming from, and why I am interested in coyotes.

This particular activity opened for me two years ago when I met my first coyote on a walk here in San Francisco. At the time, my habit was to get up before dawn and take an hour-and-a-half hike up to the center of our city — always with my dog. Dawn is a great time of day. The world is quiet, it is peaceful. The world belongs to you and to the wildlife which is beginning to stir again after a night’s rest. There is a magic about it, especially as you climb the hills, with all the bright lights below looking something like Christmas, Diwali or Hanukkah, or looking like the approach to a city from an airplane.

Two years ago, during my morning walk, as I was rounding the bend of a path, what should I see on the trail in front of me but a coyote, a young coyote. Right in the middle of a city. In a large, hilly park-like area. Coyotes were just returning to the city after many years of absence  -– we had heard of only a couple of them in the newspapers, so the surprise was overwhelming. This coyote was so excited to see us, me and my dog. It did not run off. It did keep its distance. It bounced up and down, up and down, like a ball. It ran down the path and back, and down again where it lay, sphinx-like, watching us until its excitement made it get up and repeat the bouncing. I sat on a rock, mesmerized, with my dog next to me. For 20 minutes we watched the coyote, and the coyote watched us. I didn’t have my camera that day, but that would never happen again. Exactly a month later, we ran into the same coyote. This is when I started taking photos. The photos were less of the coyote, at least in my eyes, than of the coyote’s behavior. I actually started photography as a record-keeping device: I was interested in character, personality, behavior, motives, etc. The first coyote I met had offered a little of itself to us — I needed to find out more.

So, this is what I do now for a few hours each day, most days: during my walks, I observe and photograph urban wildlife, mostly coyotes. But I have always been around animals, both my own pets and wild animals that were injured which I took care of and released as soon as possible so as not to rob them of their wildness. The exciting thing about animals for me has been not only their wildness: their ability to do everything necessary to survive on their own, but also their rich emotional lives: they feel with all the intensity we humans feel. All species, I have found, have a culture in common, and a culture apart from us humans. We share a lot with them, and we are different. If we observe them, and if we are interested enough, we can understand them — the same way cultural anthropologists do, the same way Jane Goodall did: understanding individual animals through empathy.

My special interest has always been coyotes, though I watch all animals. After lots of observing, nuances take shape and you begin to be able to read a few things that you could not read before.

I have probably spent hundreds of hours in the parks, watching them — using my camera to focus my attention, and then reviewing at home. My camera is like a notebook for me. What I have learned regarding the coyotes is that these are individuals, that generalizations might not necessarily hold. Watching coyotes is like watching the same dogs in a park for a while: you get to know certain things about them — they each have their personality quirks. Does one dog have more in common with the other dogs or less? For each individual animal it is different.

For the most part I know what a coyote is doing, if it is busy or not, that they are communicating. I was aware when one tested me. I know they can “read” most dogs and can assess each individual dog from a distance. They keep a safe distance from people who they also assess — either cautiously trusting them at a distance, or avoiding them.  I know how important the coyote family unit is — I’ve seen them greet one another, I’ve seen them work as a team,  I know that a mother will protect her young, I’ve seen a yearling act as a sentry and warn a mother if an intruder is coming her way. I know food is marked as foul by urinating on it. I know what dog activity upsets certain coyotes, which coyotes are shy, which ones are more curious or daring. I can tell them apart by their facial features — mostly — at least at certain times. I have seen a barking coyote look out of the corner of its eye, to see how it is affecting an onlooker — I could see that part of this is bluff.  I have been allowed to be on the same side as a coyote when a it was chased by a dog. And there is so much more to become aware of — I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. I am getting to know the behavior of individual coyotes, and I am making sense of it all.

Other things about myself: I grew up in South America. My husband and I live with our 15 year-old dog in the center of San Francisco where we have been for over 30 years. We have a front yard garden where we grow corn (200 ears a season) and have an apple tree which gives us over 300 apples a season. We have grown wheat which we made into sprouted wheatberry bread — nine full loaves, we succeeded with one cotton plant — it produced one boll — we were able to make one Q-tip!, we have tomatoes sometimes. We have two grown sons who live in the Bay Area. We both love the urban environment and our walks. I took up the harp when my kids went off to college.

Please see article in The New York Times which appeared on March 14, 2010: Taking Walks on the Wild Side.

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