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Wild and Wiley

the coyote
Daniel O. Stolpe

Canis latrans

By Christina Waters

THE COYOTE ENDANGERED? HA! "The human race will go extinct far sooner than the coyote ever will," chuckles artist Dan Stolpe. Stolpe knows a thing or two about the subject, having interpreted Native American visions of the mythic Coyote as Trickster for the better part of 20 years. His edgy and potent coyote images have illustrated everything from books and articles to gallery walls and PBS specials on the resourceful North American omnivore.

When the coyote is "under siege" from hunters or farmers, Stolpe points out, "they simply double the size of their litters," fooling us dumb humans once again.

Stolpe loves to show off the incredible staying power of this canine cousin, Canis latrans. Here's their distribution covering most of the American West, circa 1900, he says, opening a book up to a page of maps. Then he grins as you notice how that territory has filled in from sea to shining sea, from Mexico to Canada. The coyote has overflowed the desert and taken to the streets. The coyote has been sighted in New York City. The coyote has got survival down.

Why? Why should an innocuous, earth-toned, four-legged mammal a little bigger than a fox and not especially impressed by human beings not only survive, but flourish?

Is this intelligent wild dog our planetary companion? An over-sexed prankster, is it the animal "familiar" we both love and hate? Or is the coyote just along to interpret the punchline whenever we fail to get the cosmic joke?

Well, yes, yes and double yes.

A biologist would probably point out a few obvious reasons for the hardy proliferation of this family. Coyotes breed each winter and give birth in the spring to substantial litters of four to six pups. Dens are chosen for convenience--anything capable of providing a bit of camouflage and cover will do. Remember: Pickiness leads to extinction. And the survivalist coyote is a hard-core generalist--adapting well to just about any terrain, as at home in the Alaskan tundra as he is in the Sonora desert.

Impressive.

Perhaps the strongest factor in the coyote's ability to populate our slice of the globe is his omnivorous appetite. The coyote likes to eat just about everything that isn't nailed down. Partial to rodents and rabbits, small stuff easy to catch and dispatch, the coyote will--if hunger comes calling--take on the chicken coop, nibble on goats and inhale pliant sheep. Adapting their diet to the seasons--like gourmet environmentalists--coyotes go for deer during the abundance of fall and winter, and in summer will happily chow down on melon (they're crazy about watermelon) right along with corn and zucchini.

Leaving hard science far behind for a minute, there are other, less quantifiable reasons why the coyote survives and fires the cosmological rockets of indigenous peoples throughout the American West.

With apologies to ranchers and farmers, the coyote has soul. Soul, heavy medicine and more than a touch of shamanistic magic.

At moonrise, somewhere in the distance, a high-pitched yipping can be heard deep in the heart of the land. Sometimes this communication continues as midnight chatter. Other times the cries lengthen into true, blood-chilling howls. Coyotes howling at the moon. Coyotes serenading the stars. Coyotes talking it all over with the other spirits.

John Wayne in his finest hour couldn't conjure the West any more indelibly than those sounds of the wild, so close and yet impossibly far from our busy, messy world. Coyotes suddenly appear, like the answer to a question we've been asking, usually at the edge of a foggy road. To see one in daylight, to have one lope across our path, connects us with some primal time when we were closer to the real source of it all.

The Yuma clapper rail is endangered. The bald eagle is endangered. The human race is endangered.

The coyote ain't.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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