Drinking her coffee one sunny winter morning, Pamela Karaz looked out the window of her home in upstate New York and saw a coyote walking up the driveway. It was an uncommon sight – coyotes tend to be secretive – but what happened next was even more surprising. The coyote marked a tree with his scent, strolled across her yard, sniffed at a few tracks and then noticed a bright blue plush toy Karaz had bought a few days earlier for Bristol, her golden retriever.
Bristol had left the toy outside, as was her habit. Now the coyote sniffed it, picked it up in his mouth, dropped it, picked it up again. Then the coyote started to have fun. ‘He tossed it up in the air. It fell down. He picked it up again and bucked around,’ Karaz said. ‘At no point do I ever think he thought it was prey. He wasn’t trying to tear it apart. He was literally playing with it, like a dog.’ This went on for about 10 minutes before the coyote trotted away with the toy still in his mouth.
Karaz is a wildlife photographer, and the photos she took had a moment of internet fame. They resonated: a fierce wild animal, behaving like a pet! Or, as Karaz noted, like a dog. Which of course coyotes are, albeit dogs who embody the very complicated relationship of humanity to canines.
Some dogs exist inside the circle of human domesticity: beloved companions and friends, respected and often pampered. They sleep in our homes, sometimes in our beds. We buy them plush toys. Other dogs live outside, free and independent.
They possess the essential cognitive and emotional faculties as our dogs; domestication has introduced refinements, but the raw material was already there. They have personalities, memories, love their pups, and are devoted to their packs. Every so often, they play with toys we don’t bring inside.
They’re also treated arbitrarily: sometimes respected, sometimes ignored, and frequently persecuted with extreme prejudice if not outright cruelty. It’s a dissonant state of affairs, and one that sometimes makes me wonder about the future of wild dogs. Not about whether they’ll survive through this century and beyond, but what sort of lives they’ll lead. Whether they’ll thrive or live on our margins, fearful and broken, a perpetually abused canine underclass.
Karaz, who considers her dogs to be family, is a coyote advocate. To her, they’re just wild dogs trying to survive. But if she’d wanted to kill that coyote and had a hunting licence, she could have. For $22, or $100 for out-of-state residents, people can kill as many coyotes as they want for six months a year in nearly all of New York state – which, compared with most parts of the United States, is quite restrictive.
In many states, coyotes can be killed year-round, day or night, in just about any way: poisoned, lured into range with electronic calls that mimic their voices, chased from planes, shot with semi-automatic assault weapons or sniper rifles. They live in killing fields.
Coyote-killing is different from hunting deer, elk or so-called game birds, traditions that are steeped in an ethos of stewardship, provision and even fairness. It’s killing for fun. YouTube abounds with videos that revel in the death of a coyote; in many parts of the western US, so-called coyote derbies are common, documented in photographs of stacked bodies – the kinds of photos we associate with the rapaciousness of the 19th-century frontier.
The advocacy group Project Coyote in northern California estimates that 500,000 coyotes are killed every year in the US, roughly one-fifth by the federal government for the purpose of reducing harm to livestock (the effectiveness of which is scientifically debatable) and the rest for their fur, to increase populations of prey animals we’d prefer to shoot ourselves, or simply for pleasure.
‘Think of a 35-pound dog, lying on the couch, and people doting on it,’ said the ecologist Shelley Alexander, leader of the Canid Conservation Science Lab at the University of Calgary in Canada. ‘But coyotes, some people enjoy killing, even torturing. And they’re the same animal.’
For Alexander, this disparity challenges the fundamentals of conservation – not just the obvious institutions and organisations, but the mindset guiding human concern with the natural world. A few small advocacy groups and the Humane Society, which is powerful but generally viewed as an animal welfare organisation, raise objections to the cruelty of coyote killing. But mainstream conservationists tend to be silent on it or, in the case of governmental wildlife agencies, actively support it.
Even among those who don’t like it, says Alexander, wanton killing is tolerated because coyotes reproduce quickly. Their populations are not threatened. It’s populations and species rather than individuals that are the focus of wildlife management for conservation.
In cities and suburbs across the US, coyotes have been greeted with unease and fascination, symbols of wild nature in unexpected places
That animals have inner lives, a fact made abundantly clear by cognitive science and animal behaviour research, is not considered in these calculations. Nor are the ethical considerations that naturally follow from those insights. Which isn’t to say conservationists don’t care about animals as thinking, feeling individuals – many do – but those concerns are considered separately. Individual lives matter only when there’s few of them, and coyotes are in no danger of extinction.