|Photo from Microsoft Clip Art|
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, we had our share of wildlife sightings. Squirrels scolding us from tree branches were plentiful as were the rabbits hopping through the yard. Cute chipmunks, which my father was forever trying to exterminate, ran freely in the wood piles. Occasionally in the woods that used to be at the top of the street, we’d see graceful deer. There were probably other animals around--skunk, woodchucks--but I don’t remember seeing them very often in our domesticated neighborhood.
I always wanted to live in the mountains, so when the opportunity came up for my husband and I to move to western Colorado, we were thrilled. Being a citified gal, it never occurred to me to think about what beasts might be lurking in our less tamed wilderness. We were fortunate just shortly after moving, to rent the quintessential mountain home. It was log with thick beamed ceilings, hand made stained glass windows and a rustic balcony. A gurgling stream with a quaint covered bridge ran behind the house, followed by acres of fields dotted with grazing cattle, all against a backdrop of mountains. How serene. How bucolic. And yet…
One of the first warnings our landlords gave us was to watch for our dog with the coyotes. I didn’t understand. “Well, he explained, they like to call your dogs out in the evening, tricking them into thinking they are part of the pack, just playing. Then, when they have ‘em in the field, they’ll surround your dog and attack him.” I gulped. Evidently the Wile E. Coyote name was well-deserved but not near as cute.
Keeping his cautions in mind, I began to watch for the canine-like animals. In the early morning hours, they wandered to the creek behind the house for a morning drink. In spring, the high-pitched yips of pups learning to imitate their elders would wake us up. If we were lucky, we'd catch a glimpse of their scrawny, still adolescent bodies. How did a critter start out so cute and end up so menacing?
Eventually, we were able to identify a few of the coyotes. One was easily recognized by his three-legged appearance. He’d lost a leg at some point in his life-journey. Maybe he'd got caught in a trap. It wasn’t unusual for the ranchers to set them. I hated to think about it—the spring-loaded claws seemed so cruel, but I knew it was a reality in many ranching communities. We nicknamed this hearty fellow, Tripod. Many mornings we’d stare out the window until we saw him. “Here comes Tripod,” one of us would call out.
My first encounter with a coyote in the wild happened while hiking with my husband. We had moved from the log house and into our new home. It backs up against undeveloped acreage managed by the Bureau of Land Management providing open wilderness as far as you can see. On this particular hike, we trekked along a trail following a creek with our newly acquired Weimaraner, Blue. We ventured out as far as the trail would take us, enjoying the water and marveling at the rock formations. Being able to go no farther without bushwhacking our way through low brush, we decided to head back home. We crossed through an open area and heard the familiar yip and howl of a coyote. Quickly glancing up, we scanned the landscape until we recognized the tawny and lean dog-like animal halfway up the hillside watching us.
We made sure Blue stayed near us and kept a wary eye on the critter. Not only did the coyote keep up its howls, he began to follow us, slowly easing down the hill as he traveled, getting nearer and nearer. My husband urged the dog and I ahead of him and grabbed a couple big rocks, muttering that next time he’d be sure to bring his gun along. I picked up a couple large rocks too. Blue looked up curiously from time-to-time to see what was making all that unnecessary noise, but he didn’t seem too eager to join the coyote or too disturbed by him either. We kept walking, nervously eyeing the bold animal. We must have finally reached a point where he lost interest or felt we were no longer encroaching on his territory. To our relief, he quit trailing us and turned back around.
When I think about mountain life and the people I know in this small community, I don’t usually stop to think about the critters who also live among us. But when I do--when I meet a bear or fox or coyote along a trail--I try to keep in mind and respectfully remember, this is their home too.