Domestic Friction Between Alpha Female and Alpha Male

Well, disputes occur between members within all social species. Interaction — which is what being social is about — involves and runs the gamut from simple communication, to camaraderie, play, friendship, and agreement, to disagreement, oneupmanship, disputes, fights, and becoming enemies. It happens in human families, and it happens within families of other social species as well, and here it happens between coyotes.

I put out a field camera next to picnic tables a few nights ago. I’ve put it out here before — it’s a good spot because animals regularly come by — mostly raccoons and a skunk. The camera amazingly captured an intense fight between the alpha male and alpha female of a coyote family I’m following: yikes, a family fight! In the video, it’s the alpha male who charges in and angrily confronts the female. She stands up for herself and fights back angrily. Make sure to have your audio on, as the sounds are impressive. These are mature coyotes who only recently have become a pair in a sort of reconfigured family. Each had been part of different families before their changed circumstances (for instance, death of one of their mates) caused them to come together. It could be that the fight in this video is them still working out the hierarchy between themselves. Then again, maybe it’s just a little squabble, or something bigger going on. I don’t know.

When coyotes communicate, be it to our dogs or each other, they are intense about it so that there is no uncertainty, misinterpretation or misunderstanding about what they are trying to get across. Here is a video of a mother coyote communicating to a dog in no uncertain terms: it is intense, insistent and persistent which sometimes makes it very scary to us civilized humans. And here is a photo of a snarly communication by an older sibling to a youngster: notice the surley face, angry eyes, wrinkled nose, gaping mouth, and teeth showing, and this occurred right after the youngster had extended a very warm greeting to that older brother. As I say, coyote communication is intense. This, along with deep growling or grunting is how they communicate with each other, and if that doesn’t work, they can get physical, as in this video.

Ruminations by Claire Gilchrist on the Eve of the publication date for her new book: Lost Shadow

We  can  be  ethical  only  in  relation  to  something we  can  see,  feel,  understand,  love,  or  otherwise have  faith in. – Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac

Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC, is a busy city park full of locals and tourists.  On any given summer day, you’ll see a family picnicking, surrounded by beautiful old trees and friendly wildlife.  It’s a magical place.  But at the moment, it’s also a warzone.

Starting this summer, coyotes in Stanley Park began to nip at adult joggers.  First at night, then in the day.  Then a toddler was bitten.  People understandably panicked.  Coyotes were shot and killed, but the biting continued.  The decision was made to euthanize all coyotes in the park.

lostshadow2.21I’ve been following this story closely because I’ve been putting the finishing touches on Lost Shadow, the second book in the Song Dog series about the lives of two urban coyotes displaced by human housing.  In Lost Shadow, one of the major themes is food.  Pica and Scruff, now older and becoming more independent, argue about whether or not to eat food from humans.  When I read about the coyote problem in Stanley Park, I see it through the eyes of my coyote characters, and recognize it as more than just an animal problem – it’s a problem that can’t be understood without considering the role of humans.

From a coyote perspective, Stanley Park is an incredible place.  At the time of this conflict, garbage cans weren’t animal proof.  Picnicking families were giving out free sandwiches.  There were no multilingual or visual signs warning people to stay away from coyotes, so many people would try to approach and feed coyotes.  If I was a coyote, and I discovered this magical Shangri-La, I would never leave.  I would stop trying so hard to catch rats, and instead start following humans around, waiting for something easier and more delicious.

This kind of situation comes up in several different ways in Lost Shadow, such as when one coyote character becomes very habituated to handouts from a kind human who she calls ‘Friend’.  It is all fine until Friend disappears, and the coyote has no idea what to do.  Her behaviour has been fundamentally changed, and she no longer wants to source food the hard way.  She becomes a coyote problem, but the problem is, at its heart, a human problem.

In writing Lost Shadow and in digesting the news from Stanley Park, I keep coming back to the quote above, from Aldo Leopold in his Sand County Almanac.  As humans, we share our cities with many animals, big and small.  It is impossible to rid the cities of these animals, and so whether we love them, hate them, or feel ambivalent, it is critical that we understand them so that we don’t create problems like the one in Stanley Park.  Most ‘animal’ problems in urban environments are actually human problems – problems caused when we don’t fully understand that we share a complex environment with capable and determined creatures who find a way to survive in our midst no matter what we do.  Everything we as humans do has a ripple effect on all the things that live alongside us.  And eventually, those ripples can become waves that come back and affect us.To act ethically begins with this understanding, and a recognition that being ‘kind’ to wild animals means understanding what they need.  They don’t need free food – they need to maintain their wild instincts, and their fear of humans.  With Lost Shadow, I want readers to be drawn into the page-turning adventure and as they move through the story, to begin empathetically experiencing the familiar landscapes of cities through new eyes.  Ultimately, I hope that they can leave with a deeper understanding of how their lives are inextricably linked with all the other living beings around them.  And hopefully, we can continue to move to a better understanding of how to co-exist with coyotes in our cities, to avoid any future tragedies similar to the one in Stanley Park.

Claire’s website:

Order from any major bookseller, or here:

Screening: “don’t feed the coyotes”, a film by Nick Stone Schearer

September 27th update: This particular one-time screening is over. There will be more screenings (and I’ll post those) before the film will be put on the site which currently does have the trailer: The questions and answers which occurred right after the film, however, may be seen here.

Death at Dawn

I’m entitling this posting, “Death at Dawn”. Of course, I have no idea exactly what time of day this coyote died, but I chose to say “dawn” because really, it appears to have died at the dawn of its life, not at its sunset: it appears to be a juvenile, judging by the length of its snout. Death is of course part of life and something we all come to. When we are worn out, we come to it easily — see Walkaboutlou’s posting: The Story of one of my Oldest Coyotes, but most of us fight it to the end — our instinct is to live — and we have to deal with the myriad of circumstances which can snuff us out.

I was called by a friend, Susan, about a dead coyote at Fort Funston. Susan’s friend, Cassarra along with another friend Emily and their dogs, generously lead me out along the trails of Fort Funston to pick up this coyote. It had first been spotted almost a month earlier by dog walkers, yet still remained intact on the cliffs of the beach. I document coyote family lives which, naturally, includes their deaths, and I gather samples for DNA analysis at UC Davis for further information.

We headed out on the sand trails and slid down deep sandy crevices, through California coastal scrub, and up steep inclines of iceplants, led by Cassarra, a veteran dog walker who knows every inch of the terrain. We wound up and down and around for about 1/4 mile and finally could see the coyote’s white remains way up the cliff, close to the top where the scrub forest began. We headed up. As we got closer, I thought to myself: OMG, this coyote is much bigger than what I expected, how am I going to carry it back? And it looked bigger and bigger looming above us as we approached it . . . . maybe it was the lighting, maybe just the way it stood out perched on the cliff on the iceplants. When we finally reached it and actually stood over it, we could see its true size: it was tiny, and pretty dessicated.

By just seeing the body, we can gather a lot of information: usually age can be determined by looking at the teeth, sex, possibly why the coyote died. We gather DNA from samples to determine even more information about the individual and his/her family clan.

Cassarra led the expedition: she knows every inch of Fort Funston through her dog walking

This coyote was approaching being a mummy — he/she was dried-out to the extent that I could not sex her/him. There were few whiskers, but I got some. Saved a good portion of the ear in ethanol. Got a handful of fur from his/her back which I put in a baggie and labeled, all per instructions of UC graduate student Tali Caspi: all of these samples are for DNA analysis so we can know more about his/her family group and who else in the city she/he is related to which will lead us to its dispersal history, hopefully. I got pictures of the teeth. Small size, especially of the head and length of the snout, led me to believe it was a youngster, but wear on the lower front teeth may tell a different story.

The most interesting thing was that, although from a distance he/she looked so peaceful lying on the brightly colored ice-plant carpet, this coyote was found with an expression of agony on its face, jaw agape and something stuck in its throat or windpipe. We are left with the impression that he/she died because of this, trying to get it out: the young coyote had choked to death. Had he or she found something, been tossing it in the air and caught it incorrectly, when it became the deadly suffocant? We don’t know, but it looked like this is what happened. These kinds of freak accidents happen in nature. I remember seeing a photo of a fox hanging on a limb by its back legs. Apparently it had leaped up and in the process the back legs became crossed and hooked on that limb, and that’s the way the little fox died — hanging there with an inability to do anything about it.

After gathering the samples, I bagged the coyote. As I said, he/she had been there a month and therefore was dried out and partly mummified, so he/she was extremely light — I weighed it when I got home: it turned out to be a mere 4 pounds. We’ll have to wait several months for the DNA testing results. I’ll give her/him a proper burial.

%d bloggers like this: