Lately Alfred Lord Tennyson’s line “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (“In Memoriam A. H. H.”, Canto 56, line 15) keeps popping into my head. Wild animals lurk in trees surrounding our lot, but this is not unique. Even in our closely packed southern California suburb, raccoons, possums, squirrels appeared in backyards. We share our environment with some tough neighbors. Occasionally these denizens of the forest lash out and remind us that they were here first. Nature is not gentle.
The idea of living in a forest is romantic, like living in a fairy tale; but, in truth, the reality is more blood and guts. Our house is on a set back or flag lot. We have a long narrow driveway to a lot behind three houses. Before the houses were built, the city planned a road that would follow the path of a turn of the century road almost now forgotten and connect our street to a nearby cul de sac. For whatever reason—wetlands protection, right of way conflicts–the road was never built. People who have lived here a long time refer to this open stretch of land between houses as the Horse Guard road because the Governor’s First Horse Guard has a right to ride there (and up my driveway). It also serves as a corridor for wildlife.
From the windows of my house, I can watch nature slink by in this small woods. Deer routinely graze in there and on our lawn. A Barred Owl often sits aloof but unperturbed in the trees. A fox has been sighted. Numerous bears have tramped through. A skunk was seen waddling along a nearby road. This summer yellow jackets made a nest in an old chipmunk burrow in the front yard. We tried spraying the opening, but the next day the yellow jackets would have carried out their dead and continued their daily activities. Then one day early in the fall, I walked out of the house to find that major excavation had occurred. Someone had dug up the nest. Someone with large claws. Nature can be dangerous, especially when you have no fence.
This weekend, on a lazy Saturday morning, we neglected to put the field collars on the two German Shorthaired Pointers. We have no fence but the dogs know their boundaries. The collars (yes, they are technically shock collars) can make a beeping noise to let you know where your dogs are while hunting. My dogs think that the beeping sound means ‘come here now.’ So when one steps over the boundaries, disappears from sight, I merely press the locator button. The dog returns. It doesn’t work if the dog isn’t wearing the collar.
In the time it took to pull the newspaper from its slot under the mailbox, Peanut and Dude disappeared. Peanut was barking (squirrel, deer??) in a neighbor’s yard and came barreling back when called. Dude did not. We searched; a neighbor helped. We called, we whistled, we beeped the collar that he wasn’t wearing. No Dude. Finally we went in the house and called the police. (Animal Control is closed on the weekend.) A few minutes later, the police dispatcher called back. Someone had called to say that she had found a dog. We drove around the corner to find Dude with a woman who obviously loved dogs. She had given him biscuits and cleaned a puncture wound on his leg. “Maybe he ran into a fence?” she suggested. But as we examined him, we realized that this was not a small nail wound.
My veterinarian’s office is open on Saturdays. I rushed Dude over. The vet examined the dog. Her first analysis was that it was definitely not a domestic dog’s bite. The puncture wounds were in too narrow of a pattern to be a bobcat; they were too large to be a fox; a bear would have done more damage. The canine teeth marks strongly suggested a coyote.
I had seen the neighborhood coyote. I thought I was seeing my first wolf in the wild. While western coyotes run 20-35 pounds; eastern coyotes weigh between 30 and 50 pounds. Several sources including the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection note that eastern coyotes are larger because genetic research has found that they have crossbred with Canadian wolves. I have had minor encounters with western coyotes while walking my dogs in my old neighborhood. After I saw my first eastern coyotes, I kept the beagle and Peanut on short leashes at night. Eastern coyotes are a force to be reckoned with.
Sometimes I wonder about Dude’s encounter with the coyote. Did Dude think it was another dog and go bounding up to it, wagging his tail? Or did they both chase after the two neighborhood turkeys, running into each other as they looked for lunch? Was Dude attacking? Did he reciprocate? Or was the leg bite given as Dude retreated?
The answer doesn’t matter. Dude needed minor surgery, antibiotics and pain medication. He now wears the doggy cone of shame in an effort to keep him from licking his wounds. For the most part, he is unaffected. The morning after his encounter, I took his cone off so he could eat and sniff the yard. He immediately took off again. Fortunately he was wearing his collar. He stands at his perimeter, watching, guarding. He seems to be looking out for that coyote.
A friend told me that someone who lives on a neighboring street saw a coyote traveling toward a local turkey farm. She called the farm to warn them that a coyote was in the neighborhood. “We know,” the farmer said. “He’s gotten five of our turkeys.” This is an efficient coyote.
Two wild turkeys had been crisscrossing our yard since spring. Yesterday afternoon only one showed up. That one danced on the hood of my truck. Did the coyote get her friend? Did Dude, tracking the turkey, run into the coyote? Was she on the truck to get out of the coyote’s range? Or to thank Dude for saving her?
I can only speculate about Dude’s encounter with the coyote. Dude isn’t saying anything. But even if he could talk, he probably wouldn’t say anything. That’s the type of dog he is. He broke the rules; he’ll live with the consequences. He’s a westerner, stoic like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne character. One takes one’s chances; one takes one’s consequences.