Puppyhood and Wildlife

A coyote showed up near our place the day after we brought our puppy home. We first spotted it during an early attempt at crate training. Once the cage door swung shut Oni began to whine. It turned to yips, concluded with full blown howls, and after a brief ceasefire started all over again. I went to the window and looked out at the dewy morning field. The coyote was trotting towards our apartment.

The field is bordered by a short hill topped by a grassy landing where kids play and a shared greenhouse sits, a buffer zone between humans and wild animals. There were a few evenings when a tagged elk made appearances, putting him twenty feet from our front doors, but it was relocated shortly after.

To see the landing breeched by the coyote that morning stopped my breath.

My first thought was it could hear our spazzing puppy through the windows. But they’re thick-paned, relatively new. Maybe it picked up Oni’s desperate energy? This kind of thinking aligns with my armchair panpsychism—the idea that everything, the sidewalk and grass and bramble separating dog from coyote, has consciousness. Regardless of what tipped her off, a mystery was afoot, one sparked by a coyote that had now slipped beyond eyesight.

Had it made a pass out of curiosity? Or hunger? Or was the coyote, however it sensed her, heeding a call for rescue, the howls like a bat signal? Of course the whole thing could have been a coincidence. But I don’t think it was that.

The night before, our first night with Oni, I took her out to pee. Nearby coyote cries sliced the chilly air. The pup and I stood still. I had to eventually pick her up to get her to go back in.

As I carried the furball up the stairs I was surprised by the fierce protectiveness that washed over me. I’d never had a puppy, never had to care for a little living animal. Her scent was out there for the coyotes and bobcats and who knew what other killers to pick up.

Adopting Oni, whose malamute-shepherd mix gives her a somewhat wolfy appearance, has coincided with research for a story I’m writing about wolves returning to western Oregon. Before that night and the following morning I had never really felt the livestock perspective of the story. Livestock often get classified as the antagonists in modern wolf stories. Part character, part setting, livestock and their owners are lumped into the anti-wolf camp by the pro-wolf side—pragmatists versus romantics is the oversimplified division.

Like many binary caricatures, this one fails to get at the complex heart of the matter.

The wolf had to me always been the symbol of pure wilderness; the wolf, like the grizzly bear, was pumping vitality back into lands hammered by overuse. It wasn’t the wildness of the wolf: it was wildness itself that the wolf was helping restore.

While I still retain these sentiments, it took feeling the vulnerability of one animal to another to understand the perspective of why someone might fear wolves.

Around this time I spoke with the owner of a lamb farm who’d recently lost a handful of her animals to a pair of cougars. This was not a largescale ranching operation like I used to think about when I thought about livestock. It was a small farm up on the Alsea River. Of course she had a deep relationship with her animals. She noted she was neither pro nor anti-wolf, that she would work with state management to optimize the situation for all.

That afternoon I saw the coyote again. Oni and I were down on the grass, and it was fifty yards out in the field pawing furiously at the ground, sandy soil flying. It thrust its snout into the hole, went back to digging. After a couple minutes of this it was able to stick half its body into the hole. Likely it was searching for field mice. The slow way its bushy tail swished, the perfect curve it its back, struck me as graceful. Oni, on a leash clasped in my hand, noticed none of it.

Nor did she notice the owl that night.

It was sometime around 3:00am. A cold and moonless night, the stars shone crisply. A perk of puppyhood, I realized, was being out at times I normally slept. Something big and white hovering silently over the field caught my eye.

We’d heard the barn owl’s raspy shrieks many nights, but never seen it. The ghostly bird was out hunting. Besides small rats and young rabbits, they like to feed on field mice, and given that it was working above the hole the coyote dug, it’s possible it was capitalizing on another animal’s labor.

Oni, indifferently chewing a late-night stick, wasn’t that much bigger than a rabbit. My feeling of awe watching the quiet swoops was tempered by that protective sense. As cartoonish as the image might’ve seemed, it struck me as a faint possibility, and so to avoid watching our puppy carried off into the night, I again plucked her up and went back inside.

It’s taken years of living in this semi-rural place to understand what we call wilderness in a way I hadn’t understood it while living in cities. Research has likewise taught me that the image of wolves howling before glacier-clad peaks is a kind of romantic error. Wolves follow prey. Those pretty higher elevation areas are less biologically diverse than down in the forests. Down here is where the people and animals and all their interests overlap. It’s where we’ll need to deepen our understanding of the needs, both perceived and real, of humans and animals if we’re going to have a working relationship to the wolves scientists are confident will one day be returning.