Carl Safina: A Talk at WildCare

Carl Safina is one of my great heroes, as he is many other people’s.  All my views about sentient wildlife, examples of which I see daily as I watch my coyotes, are confirmed by Carl. When he speaks, I feel as though he is taking the words right out of my mouth — every single word and thought about animals as feeling and thinking critters. The difference is that he is an academic, and to have an academic stand up for these things is an important turn of events, though late in the coming. Academics have long separated humans absolutely from all other species and they don’t tolerate anthropomorphizing which they consider unsupportable and therefore fanciful. In fact, accurate anthropomorphizing is no longer thought of as unsupportable: it’s the path that behavioral research is now taking.

I see a lot of coyote behavior for many hours each day. I have spoken a lot about coyote feelings and their intense family lives — lives which really are not so different from our own in a great many respects. I’ve had some academics pooh-pooh what I say. But Carl, as Jane Goodall, who has actually spent time watching the animals as I have, supports these same ideas. Theories and studies of focused slices of animal behavior do not cover the same ground as being in the field watching the whole picture: an animal going about its life.

It’s because an animal feels hungry that he eats, feels tired that he sleeps, feels joy that he plays, feels affection that he caresses another. It’s what they feel that actually drives their lives. Above that, their amazing family ties and lives are a wonder to watch: a microcosm of your favorite soap opera, with a cliff-hanger every day!

Carl says that our need to see ourselves as above anything else speaks volumes about our insecurities. In fact, what makes humans different is that we do things to the extreme, which animals don’t do: We are, at the same time, the most compassionate and the cruelest of the species; the most creative and the most destructive of them. This is what makes us human. Having emotions and emotional bonds are not what distinguishes us as human.

Please make sure to check out Carl’s recent book, which now can be obtained in paperback: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

I took notes at Carl’s talk, but rather than present them here, I’m linking to a video of the exact same lecture given by him elsewhere: straight from the horse’s mouth.

 

Father and Son

Coyote fathers are totally involved in the raising of their youngsters. Here, Dad and five-month-old son spend a few moments watching the goings-on around them before Dad then grooms the pup — probably removing ticks — and then son prods Dad for some food, unsuccessfully.

Pestering?

In the video, after sirens sounded, first there was a howling session, then some greeting and hierarchy interactions which included nose touches, dominance displays, body contact, submissive displays and confirmations. And then this! Pestering? Teasing? Demand for attention? Challenging? Provoking??? Or maybe he’s just simply not doing what she wants him to do?

The two coyotes *of interest* are an older mated pair with a family of yearlings and pups. I’ve seen an established routine of antagonism between the two whereby the female snarls, and grunts at *him* and he simply ignores her or turns away after, often, responding with a snarly grimace. She continues to groom him sometimes, but also they tend to walk right past each other as ships in the night without acknowledging the other’s presence. The male is a rather easy going fellow. The female appears to be older than he is — she’s the one doing the prodding. The territory is one in which the male was born and the female then joined him and they’ve been together ever since.

I know another mated pair where there seems to be more antagonism as the pair has aged. The male is much older than the female: he is 8.5 years old and she is 4.5 years old. They’ve raised two pups over the course of three seasons who they keep well hidden. Their relationship began with the male being very solicitous and careful. More recently, and maybe it’s because he’s quite old and in pain, I’ve seen him become grouchy on occasions, even throwing *her* to the ground when she pinches him by mistake while grooming him. She ducks or falls on her back, and then, when his anger is over, she continues grooming him because he apparently demands it by standing next to her: her job is a chore now though it didn’t used to appear that way.

Hi Dad, Wanna Play?

The pup has received a strict and heavy-handed (and probably not-expected) retort and rejection to his enthusiastic, happy invitation to play. He responds, expressing his feelings through tucked chin, ears swiveled back, squinting eyes, tight jaw — not so different from our own painful grimacing to such a retort. The flopping over is rather melodramatic, but I know human kids who might have done that!  :)) I’ve seen coyote pups react this way many times — usually when they are conflicted: it’s as though all synapses fired at once without a clear outcome!

Four Month Old Pup Howls Back at His Family / Dispersal Behavior

This video is a very short (20 seconds) clip of a youngster coyote, a little over four months old, responding to the howls of his family after a siren had sounded. He is on one side of the park alone, independently and very self-sufficiently, exploring and hunting on his own. It’s late dusk and there’s almost no light, but the camera was able to focus on this. Notice that the youngster is listening intently for the rest of the family which is far in the distance, in back of where I’ve standing to video. When he thinks he knows where they are, he takes off in their direction, running.

Interestingly, as he approached them, he veered off and went the other way, never meeting up with them. The howling had stopped by the time he reached them. Might he have decided to avoid what was going on between them? There were four other coyotes who were at the site, including Mom, Dad and two yearling siblings born last year.

I say this because it’s at this point that I and another onlooker heard strong deep warning growls. We heard them again, and then a third time. It’s not often that we hear coyotes actually growl like this because it seems to be limited to use within the coyote world between themselves, apparently to express anger or discipline. Unfortunately my recorder did not pick up the low frequency sounds.

I strained to see what was going on but could only make out that one coyote had pinned another one down and was growling at it. By focusing my camera on the light in the background, I was able to get these two photos below. Once home, where I could actually see the image, I could tell clearly that Mom was standing over her yearling daughter, exercising her dominance. Dispersion time is coming soon for that young female. Punches, nips and dominance displays as this one will increase in order to drive the youngsters off. This is an important part of the coyote’s life cycle: it keeps the population down in claimed territories.

Interestingly, Dad still grooms this female for long stretches of time and very affectionately, reconfirming his bonds and affection for her. In the families I’ve observed, it seems to be the Moms that drive out the females (who I suppose could become competitive with them), and the Dads, or sometimes male siblings, who drive the youngster males out.

Coyote Family Life: Bantering, then Grooming

Bantering and play are a big part of life for coyotes

Teasing and provoking by pulling on your friend’s leg or neck, ducking and evading, a swing to the left and another to the right, baring your teeth and lowering your head — all the while keeping your ears in a low, non-aggressive position. This is how coyotes play, and they usually do so at their *rendezvous*: after spending daylight hours sleeping and apart, they come together for their social activities around dusk time.

Afterwards, there is a grooming session, where they accept the grooming caresses from each other as they calm down.

happily worn out from the exuberant play, it’s time to calm down for a few moments

This play can involve a mated pair, it can involve a parent and a pup as long as the pup shows proper obeisance, and it can involve adult siblings who actually live apart but continue their childhood relationship for a while.

grooming each other is another way to interact

Four Years Later, by Charles Wood

Protector 1

About four years ago the pair of coyotes I watched for several years were supplanted by their daughter Mary when she pledged herself to an older scallywag male coyote that I named Rufous. The new couple kept different hours than the ousted Mom and Dad coyote I had been watching. Recently I saw coyotes in the same place as before. Now I am trying to get their story.

Protector 2

I suspect that the two coyotes pictured together are mother and child. I assume the mother is the one looking into the camera and I suspect she is the mother because she looks like she is showing, this being the time of year where she would be showing. The protector coyote is a male and there is no reason yet to be sure that he is the presumed mother’s mate as opposed to being her son. Likewise, the presumed mother’s stare reminds me of Mary’s, but I can’t yet be sure that it is her.

Protected

I wish Rufous would have showed up to do the protecting. But I haven’t seen him. Had he shown up I would have recognized him because he is a big handsome fellow and four years ago he looked like he had a blind left eye.

Protector 3

It may be wishful thinking on my part, but the protector coyote has a reddish coloring and Rufous was a markedly reddish coyote. I know there is a fourth coyote among these three, and there may be more than four. Also, the protector coyote has eyes that remind me of Mom coyote from 4 years ago. The showing female has a harsh stare. The protector coyote, like Mom, has something tentative in his expression. Yet despite Mom’s shyness, like today’s protector male, both get the job done in good form. The job is to make their claim to the territory known and to nudge Holtz and me away. We did leave, very slowly because Holtz is now about 15 and wobbles when he walks.

Posting written by Charles Wood. Visit Charles Wood’s website for more coyote photos from LA: Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

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