By Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
Despite the cold and the ever-present winter breezes that blow across our hill these days, I often find myself, even in the blue evenings, standing on the walk near my cabin, looking at the stars or watching for the last red-tailed hawks of the day as they float by in the drafts. I hear the coyotes in the fields across the wetlands from our place, too. Their howls are lonely and frightening, and they make me glad that I am standing where I am and that I have water and woods between us.
Ask anyone who lives away from the lights of towns, and they might tell you that coyotes are thriving. They are more numerous than in the past, at least it seems to me. Just a few years back a state representative pushed legislation to put a $5 bounty on coyotes, and you’ll meet more than a few folks who believe that ’yotes are the reason for fewer rabbits and game birds.
I’m not so sure about that. Oh, I know that coyotes run off with the occasional sheep, and they are notorious murderers of housecats, but, for the most part, they tend to make the majority of their snacks at the expense of field mice, although, they aren’t above raiding an available henhouse or dog bowl. The coyotes around our place seem to be heard much more often than seen, for it is only rarely that I’ll catch a flash of brown fur sprinting across an open field or broad-jumping a roadside ditch. Otherwise, they are mostly invisible.
Because I own no livestock nor enjoy hunting, I hold no grudge against coyotes. Even though they are labeled as “nuisance” wildlife by our Department of Natural Resources, I take that appellation with a grain of salt, for the beavers that work in the wetlands below us, the gray squirrels I see scaling the huge sycamore tree outside my window and the woodpeckers that visit our frontyard feeders are listed as such, too. So are red foxes and Great Blue Herons and the aforementioned hawks, but I have no ax to grind with them, either, and I have simply chosen to leave them alone.
The most egregious sins committed against coyotes are by a select few who have captured them in the wild, then “trained” hunting dogs to tear their captive prey to shreds. Some pens have even been equipped with hot wires that shock the animals while they try to defend themselves. It is people like these who give the sport of hunting a black eye. My father and my grandfather were hunters; neither would have allowed a coyote to die that way, and I don’t think any of my friends who hunt would allow it, either.
CeAnn Lambert runs the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center in Bringhurst, a small town midway between Lafayette and Logansport. She says that loopholes in our state laws have allowed coyote-fox kill pens to exist under other names, like “dog training grounds” and “penning.”
“Eighty-six percent of Indiana citizens do not hunt or trap, and most of the ethical hunters in Indiana are against this activity,” Lambert says. “The Indiana Wildlife Federation, HSUS [Humane Society of the United States], PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and Born Free USA have also come out against this horrible bloodsport that is so enjoyed by a small percentage of our citizens. Many people in Indiana still can’t believe that this is really happening to our precious wildlife.”
Indiana law does allow land owners to hunt and trap coyotes on their own property year-round without a license, while licensed hunting and trapping seasons run from mid-October to February.
Last year, my wife and I found a dead coyote along the road we walk. It was both larger and prettier than we thought it would be. It was hardly the scruffy indigent that I’d always imagined coyotes to be, and we admired its fine fur and clean teeth and beautiful tail. We though it had been hit by a car, for there were no obvious bullet holes in it. A chicken coop was within sight, though, so I’m not sure its death was mere coincidence.
If you haven’t read John Steinbeck’s great travelogue, “Travels With Charley,” I suggest you pick up a copy. Like most memoirs, Steinbeck’s book is often seen as his swan song, as his statement of discontent, of his longing to return to an America that wasn’t around anymore. I don’t see the book as that at all, and one passage — about coyotes — shows me that Steinbeck, by the time he wrote it in 1960, had simply come to accept the fact that his country was changing, and so was he.
Late in the book, Steinbeck included a passage about his encounters with two coyotes as he drove across the “terrestrial hell” of the Mojave Desert. As he took a break with his traveling companion — his poodle, Charley — Steinbeck drank a can of beer in the shade of his camper (named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s battered horse). He spied the coyotes as they watched him from 50 yards away. Slowly, he brought the animals into the telescopic sights of his .222-caliber rifle and its “long-ranged stings.”
“They were favored animals, not starved, but well furred, the golden hair tempered with black guard hairs. Their little lemon-yellow eyes were plainly visible in the glass,” Steinbeck wrote.
In his mind, Steinbeck considered the coyotes “vermin,” that they “steal chickens” and “thin the ranks of quail,” that “they must be killed,” that they “are the enemy.” But he didn’t shoot them.
“… I did not fire. My training said, ‘Shoot!’, and my age replied, ‘There isn’t a chicken within 30 miles, and if there are, they aren’t my chickens,’” he wrote.
Steinbeck said he guessed he was “too old and too lazy to be a good citizen,” when it came to his civic duty to kill the coyotes. He went on to relate how he not only spared their lives but also he acted on an old Chinese proverb he’d once heard, that a man who saves a life becomes responsible for it. He emptied two cans of Charley’s dog food for the coyotes before he hit the road again.
The coyote hunters out there will have to forgive me, but I suppose I’d have done the same thing.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his third book.