Complications of coping with killer coyotes

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE SPANIEL DOG is old now and growing deaf, and her jaw hangs slightly askew, neurological damage from a coyote attack years ago.

Sometimes when Spats barks with her nose raised into the emptiness I just ignore it.

Then sometimes I take her seriously.

One recent morning she was barking, pacing, and sniffing the air, so I strode out onto the deck for a look. I scanned the ridge behind my house and after a while I picked out the grayish shape of a coyote slinking across the hill. I watched as he neared the aspen grove.

It was then that I saw the doe. She started walking down toward the coyote and as she drew nearer she quickened her pace and charged with her front hooves flying. I realized at once what was going on. Somewhere on the hill she had a fawn, and knowing how coyotes work, somewhere on the hill there was at least one more of the varmints.

Right or wrong, the first thing that comes to mind is intervention.

Nature is as nature does. Perhaps it’s natural to want to come to the defense of the attackee, no matter who or what the attacker. I rooted around the house and found a rifle, then went outside and walked toward the action.

The spaniel was attacked back in 1991, on July 4. I had let her and our other dog, Golden, out early that morning, and then snoozed for a few more minutes. When my wife and I did arise, Golden was there but Spats was not.

We called and looked around. Then called some more. We were just getting ready to go out searching when we heard something plop on the front porch. We opened the door to find a limp and bleeding spaniel dog that had obviously been attacked by coyotes and had just managed to drag herself back home.

The only vet we could reach on the holiday was in Pueblo. Though I thought it would be a futile trip, we rushed to the city with the now-comatose spaniel. Spats was treated with various injectables and topicals for her many wounds. I’ll never forget the puncture wounds and hematoma on the top of her head. A coyote had grabbed her by the skull and shook her by the cranium in an attempt to break her neck.

Her survival was still questionable. For two days she slept in a box full of towels. Every couple of hours I squeezed water and food down her throat with a syringe. Then one day she just woke up and shook it off.

She’s been leery of coyotes ever since, and the palsied jaw remains as a reminder of the attack.

Last August Golden disappeared without a trace, following the half-dozen or so cats that have also vanished from here over the years.

On my approach, the doe bounded up the ridge and out of sight. The coyotes had seemingly fled the scene, too. I walked farther up the hill, wondering if I’d catch a glimpse of them, or find a dead fawn.

When I stopped to survey the area, the branches of a large bush just 15 yards to my right started to shake. Then a coyote walked out of the other side and lumbered up the hill. I shouldered the rifle and found the sights. The coyote stopped not 25 yards away and turned broadside to me. I drew a bead on his head and slipped off the safety.

But I did not shoot.

Soon the little faux wolf ran off and I just stood there wondering what had kept me from shooting. Just the evening before, I had noticed that a doe antelope that I’d been watching nurse twin fawns a week ago near my homes was now all alone. Coyotes had attacked one of my dogs, probably killed my other dog and my cats, and now they were stealing a deer fawn from a doe right in my pasture.

Suddenly the bush started to shake again and out ran a second coyote. He’d been there all along, reading my mind, listening to me think.

Before I could even take aim he bounded over the hill. I walked toward the bush with the rifle raised but no more coyotes ran out.

In the middle of the thicket lay the dead spotted fawn. It struck me that most animals seem to die with their eyes open, staring off into eternity. So it was unnerving to view this fawn, stretched out and still, with its eyes closed as if it were sleeping.

I wished that I had shot both coyotes.

By the time I got back to the house, the doe had returned. She paced back and forth over the hillside, bleating to her dead fawn. As the day got hotter she bedded under a piñon tree. When the afternoon cooled she resumed her pacing.

The doe was doing nothing to help me accept that nature is cruel and that I should just let things be. In fact, by evening she had me very much convinced that I myself was just as much a part of nature as she, her dead fawn, my wounded and departed dogs and cats, and the coyotes.

I’m no real fan of trapping because it is an indiscriminate method of taking animals, and the suffering it inflicts is just not right. But I also believe that trapping is part of our heritage, and that it was the only thing that kept certain predators like coyotes in check before it was banned in Colorado by popular vote a few years ago.

The ban seems like a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the majority of voters who live in suburbia and don’t have to deal with these critters on any regular basis. Nature, after all, is arguably just as cruel and indiscriminate as trapping. In California the knee-jerk reaction was even more powerful than in Colorado, and you can’t even buy a mouse trap there now because they are illegal.

COYOTES HAVE FEW natural predators and in the years since the trapping ban their numbers have grown, as have their attitudes, bolstered by unchecked development that has forced them to live in close quarters with people who rarely take shots at them. Cottontail rabbits, which used to be quite common on my property, are now comparably rare.

The sun was still fairly high in the sky that evening when one of the coyotes walked right out into the open. I sat down on my deck with the rifle and took aim. He angled away and then stopped.

I didn’t like the shot, so I waited.

Then he turned slightly and stuck out his head. He was more than 150 yards away, but I aimed right at his head. When I touched the trigger, dust and rock exploded right beside him, followed by the report of the rifle. He spun and ran back the other direction. Never had I seen any animal run faster.

Until I saw the doe.

She angled down the hill toward the running coyote and got on his track. They screamed past the bush where I knew the fawn was lying dead.

When I last saw them topping the hill, the doe was still bounding after the coyote.

As an apology for my crummy marksmanship, I could only hope that she caught him.

Hal Walter writes and lives close to nature near the defunct mining camp of Ilse, in Central Colorado’s Wet Mountains.