It was an early morning in August. We — our two dogs, Toby, a black and White Great Pyrenees, and Maisie, an all-white Chihuahua-Terrier mix, and me — were on our daily walk.
Maisie smelled her first (I think her) and started to lunge and growl. Maisie believes she’s a much bigger and more threatening dog (she weighs all twelve pounds).
Then, from out of the arroyo, about ten yards away, she appeared, ears up, facing us, and began to bark. Not howl or yip, just bark. She was skinny and looked young.
Toby, as a Great Pyrenees — his ancestors evolved over thousands of years to protect herds of sheep from predators — immediately began to howl and strain at his leash.
On our rural road in Santa Fe County, we see and hear coyotes regularly. A trio of coyotes followed us one day. They were curious or, maybe, interested in Maisie as prey. At night the “song dogs” are constantly howling and yipping; it’s part of the magic of living here.
And yet I’ve never seen a coyote bark. She was agitated. She continued barking at us, and as I pulled our dogs down the road, she followed us. She never got any closer than about ten yards, but she was sending us a message.
Maisie has slipped out of her harness on more than one occasion, so I was paying extra attention to her — and looking around for a rock to throw if the coyote decided to go after her. Note: not to hit her, but to scare her away if she got more aggressive. The former governor of Texas, Rick Perry, may think it’s cool to shoot and kill a coyote while on a run with his daughter’s dog, but I’ll settle for making noise and throwing a rock.
Fortunately, after I towed our dogs up the road, the coyote turned and disappeared up the arroyo. Crisis averted. The dogs calmed down, and my adrenaline surge abated.
And I thought, what the hell was that all about?
We got home, I fed the dogs, and after they ate, they jumped up on the couch, in front of the fan, for their morning nap. By the deep-sleep twitching of their paws, I’m sure they were reliving the adventure.
I went to Google.
It turns out there are a lot of opinions on coyote vocalization and specifically on barking.
Pups. Territory. Calling the pack.
First, protect the litter. Coyotes whelp in the spring, and by August and September, the puppies are big enough to head out with “mom” to explore the world. This coyote might have been a mom, her pups were hiding in the brush, and she was warning our dogs to stay away.
Next, territory. I did not know that coyotes are territorial. I thought they were more wandering hunters. But no, they protect a domain, which could be a few acres or a few square miles, from other non-related coyotes, dogs, and humans.
Warning. While she was barking, I heard another coyote howl in the distance. So maybe she was attempting to warn her pack that danger was afoot: two dogs and a nervous human.
Interestingly, two days later, on the same walk, I heard what I thought was a dog barking in the same area. But listening, he or she had the same cadence and urgency as our coyote. I can’t be sure it was her, but I’d lay money on it.
I did wonder for a moment what it must be like to be a young female coyote raising and trying to protect her pups in our arid landscape, with all sorts of threats, from bobcats to humans, to poisons and traps, to cars — not to mention the scarcity of food and water.
And there is this more significant and more urgent thought for us humans: that the benefit of living in the rural parts of the country is we get to see and experience the wild world. Whether it’s a barking coyote, a mountain lion banging his head on our sliding glass door, a red racer snaking through the garden, the morning raucousness of crows and Pinyon Jays, or that rattler sunning herself on our back portal (that caused me to jump higher than I ever have before), we share this place.
This is an existential responsibility in 2023 and for the generations that will follow us. Wildness, wilderness could disappear, along with the coyotes, snakes, jays, and mountain lions, if we do not pay attention and take responsibility. It’s not an issue of “Who wants to live in a world without wilderness?”; instead, our existence depends on the delicate balance of nature, of healthy ecologies — of, for example, pollinating bees.
I don’t think our barking coyote was thinking any of this. But maybe her actions, her barking at us, whether to protect her young, claim her territory or call her clan, are metaphors for this larger issue. Wildness, as Thoreau reminds us, is the preservation of the world. One coyote, barking at a human to stay away, signals that she and her brood want to persevere and pass their genes down through future generations.
And I, for one, want to live in a world that has wildness, that offers encounters with coyotes and lions (if they are on the other side of a glass door).
Sometimes it takes a meeting with a barking coyote to wake us up from our somnolence and remind us of our responsibility: we share the world with multitudes of species. It is not “our” planet for us to do to it what we wish.
I have this persistent dream. A developer looks upon a hundred acres of prairie. She sees lush grass, bees pollinating, and a red-tail hawk circling above, looking for prey. Maybe her dog, off-leash, runs through it with abandon. And she thinks, “This is good. This is enough.” And she walks away.
It is good to walk away. We must hold wild spaces in our collective imaginations and do whatever we can to protect them.
Go for a walk on a rural road. (With your dog!) Introduce yourself again to wildness. Maybe meet a coyote or a Pinyon Jay. Imagine that you can hear their hearts beat. (We share this planet with beating hearts.) Do not feel hopeless or powerless. In the Talmud is this lovely line: “You are not obligated to complete the world, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Let’s not abandon the mother coyote or all the others who depend on us to keep the earth wild.
Hersch’s latest book, “Dog Lessons: Learning the Important Stuff From our Best Friends” Will be released on September 5th, 2023 and avaliable at your favorite bookstore! Support you local bookstore and Library!