While splitting firewood behind my house not long ago, out of the corner of my eye I detected movement about 50 yards away and pivoted in time to see a lone coyote loping through the snow.
This was no scrawny, Roadrunner cartoon caricature, but a bulky, muscular animal the size of a German shepherd, with a thick, silvery coat.
I froze, the coyote froze and we stared at each other for about five seconds before it trotted off into the forest, in no particular hurry. The animal evidently perceived I represented neither a threat nor prey, and though initially startled I never felt as if it were sizing me up for its next meal. A moment later I hefted my maul and resumed whacking at logs.
Like most people in our region I see coyotes more frequently and have grown accustomed to their nocturnal yips and howls.
The other day, though, staring at photos taken by a neighbor gave me pause. They showed a pair of coyotes devouring a live deer in broad daylight.
The neighbor witnessed the deer tearing through her yard, coyotes in hot pursuit. Then the hapless animal made a fatal error: It dashed out onto a frozen pond. The coyotes sprinted along a peninsula and pounced.
Within minutes there was nothing left except a blotch of red on the ice – not a hoof, not a tuft of fur, not a tooth.
Circle of life: The deer died, the coyotes lived to hunt another day.
Every so often we homo sapiens are reminded that though we’re pretty high up on the food chain we’re by no means at the top – though I’m fairly confident we’re still above Canis latrans. According to various reports the last documented fatal coyote attack on a human was a young girl in California killed more than 30 years ago.
Dogs and cats are another story, and pet owners don’t need to see photos of an attack on a deer to realize that coyotes are extraordinarily efficient hunters. They’re also opportunistic – the deer population has exploded, therefore more coyotes have moved in for the feast.
Nobody wants to see Fluffy or Rex devoured, but I’m sure a few people feel less sentimental about deer, especially if one has damaged their car or devoured their garden. We rank creatures as pets or pests. As George Orwell reflected, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
When it comes to deer vs. coyotes, I don’t think man should get involved. I’d rather have coyotes roaming the woods than have to call in hunters to “manage” the deer population, as has been the case on Bluff Point in Groton, Block Island, eastern Long Island and many other places close to home.
We may recoil when encountering a scene from “Wild Kingdom,” but must remind ourselves that nature isn’t always pretty. Often it’s brutal – survival of the fittest.