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.

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Hidden Wilderness: A Coyote Story, by Claire Gilchrist

I haven’t always been interested in coyotes. In fact, I lived in Vancouver, Canada, for over a decade before I even realized that coyotes were living there! That all changed one fateful night, a night that spurred my fascination with coyotes and eventually pushed me to write my novel Street Shadows.

It was late one evening and I was biking home from a friend’s house. I was almost home, passing through a dark cemetery with my dog Baker running easily by my side. I had done this route many times and was pedaling on autopilot, lost in thought.

Suddenly, a yelp caught my attention and I saw a grey shape surge out of the darkness, heading straight toward Baker. I had no idea what it was, and screamed. Baker, equally terrified, raced away from me. Pursued closely by the shape, he did a lap of the cemetery before turning to head back toward me. As he drew closer, fear made me jump off my bike and lift it above my head, yelling incomprehensibly. A few moments later, the shape retreated into the darkness, and I fled from the cemetery with Baker, feeling like I’d just barely escaped with my life.

It wasn’t until later, when my heart had stopped racing and I was sitting at home in front of a computer, that I realized that the mysterious shape was actually a coyote, and that it most certainly was not trying to kill me! In fact, judging from the time of year and local online reports, it was most likely defending a young litter of pups and threatened by my off-leash dog, who weighs about twice that of the average urban coyote. I’d probably caused the coyote a lot of panic, racing past its home with an unleashed dog by my side.

The encounter surprised and fascinated me because I’d always drawn a line between ‘urban’ and ‘wild’. I love nature, and have spent immeasurable hours getting myself and my family out of the city and into the wilderness, to places so remote we didn’t see another human for a week. What I hadn’t realized until this moment is that I didn’t actually have to leave the city to tap into wildlife. A hidden wilderness was happening right outside my front door. I had never seen it because I wasn’t looking for it.

Over the next few years, extensive research and a very active imagination turned into Street Shadows. An adventure tale of two urban coyote friends, the story focuses on what happens when humans develop some of the coyote territory into a housing development. It’s fiction, but explores a conflict that happens in our cities on a daily basis. I hope young readers will enjoy the glimpse into this hidden world, and perhaps even start to see their cities in a fresh light, with a new appreciation of all of their neighbours, both human and furry.

Street Shadows is geared toward kids ages 8-13, and launches across the USA on September 24th. I am excited to be able to share my fascination and imagination with others who are curious about this hidden wilderness.

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