We can’t lose the wild to save the domestic

A few months ago, a coyote ate one of our cats. But I would never kill it for revenge.

 

Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Oregon.


I come home with a chicken or

a rabbit and sit up

singing all night with my friends.

It’s baroque, my life, and

I tell it on the mountain.

I wouldn’t trade it for yours.

— from William Stafford’s poem, “Coyote”

We live on a small hill in a narrow valley not far from the convergence of Oregon’s Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges. On the valley floor, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and geese share land with increasing numbers of vineyards and marijuana grows. As they’ve been doing for tens of thousands of years, coyotes come down from the mountains at night to catch what they can. We often hear them yipping and howling, and occasionally, just after first light in the morning, we spot lone animals or pairs prowling the pastures and farmyards.

A few months ago, a coyote killed and devoured one of our cats. My wife, Hilde, discovered what was left of Whitey — little more than a head and tail and four legs — under a pine tree close to our storage shed. I buried him nearby. 

I’m fairly certain that the same coyote that killed Whitey is back to try for his brother, Red. Not long ago, I walked out our back door in mid-morning to split some of the firewood logs stacked against the shed. A brief movement caught my eye, a quick flash of darkness behind a shrub. I stopped, looked hard, saw nothing, and then, when I took a single step toward the shrub, a coyote sprang from its cover, landed on all fours, big ears cocked forward, black-nosed, narrow-snouted head turned to stare at me with bright yellow eyes. This was a healthy, handsome animal, with thick brown fur tinged with black and a bushy tail held high, but I had no more than a second to admire it.

A coyote stands in sagebrush in Wyoming.

The coyote sprinted back behind the shed with the kind of speed that made it seem to simply vanish. I had time to take just two steps toward the shed before it reappeared, after coming up against our next-door neighbor’s fence. This time it didn’t pause to look at me. Our wire fence, four feet high, separates us from a neighbor down the hill, and, after a sharp right pivot, the coyote, at least six feet from the fence, jumped over it with no apparent effort, easily clearing the wire. It took me a few seconds to reach the fence, and by that time the animal was out of sight, into brushy cover a hundred yards away.                  

Since my encounter with the coyote, Hilde and I have been talking about it. She says she would kill the coyote if she could, to protect Red. I care about Red, too, a lifelong outdoor cat, and we’re doing our best to keep him out of harm’s way. But I don’t believe that leg-hold traps or canisters of cyanide or rifles should ever be used against coyotes.

My respect for coyotes — call it love — dates back to a night many years ago when Hilde and I cross-country skied an old logging road down a mountainside under a full moon. Cross-country skis sliding through powder snow make a lovely, muted hissing sound, and I think that sound, along with the full moon, were what started the coyotes howling. A pack of them followed us down the mountain. One would bark, then yip, then produce a long drawn-out howl, the note rising shrilly as the volume increased. The louder the howl became, the closer it seemed, and when the animals joined in chorus they seemed very close indeed.

We looked back often enough, but of course we never saw one. They followed us all the way to our car, and it wasn’t until the skis were lashed to the roof rack that they finally fell silent. No sound on earth could be wilder, freer, lovelier than what we heard that winter night.

Thoreau wrote that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” and though I don’t know exactly what that meant to him, I do know what it means to me. Wild animals are superior to the domestic species that people breed and train, and far superior to the beasts we slaughter to eat.

The advantage that wild animals have over all of us is that they live where and how they were meant to live, and are lucky enough to have no way of knowing that they won’t exist exactly as they are forever.        

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