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Nature Column: Coyotes, Cats, and Suburban Skies

Coyotes and suburban residents intersect


Coyotes and suburban residents intersectScience / Nature:

coyotes, cats, and suburban skies

On a walk near their Southern California home, a father and son encounter coyotes on the hunt,  leading to profound reflections on the nature and a rare moment of bonding.

By Steve Creech, President, Wyland Foundation

It was my son who spotted the coyote. In the shadows of the early evening, it appeared as if one of the neighbor’s dogs had gotten loose in our suburban enclave in the hills outside of Los Angeles. We had been walking our dog, a bristly American bulldog rescue, who stiffened at the unusual sight of one coyote, then another, who appeared, looking as surprised as we were, with a neighborhood cat slumped in its mouth. As we pressed forward, the coyote dropped its prey in a planter, then moved into the background, keeping a careful eye on us. It was a lesson for my twelve-year-old son, who knew little about wild animals, and had never seen true predatory behavior beyond television and you tube. The three of us stood there, myself, my son, and the dog, unsure of what to do next. The cat was still breathing. If we left, the coyotes would have torn it to shreds. It would be normal and rightful behavior.

But being a soft, squeamish suburbanite, I elected to call animal services and stand guard against the coyotes whose silhouetted ears I could still see a few dozen feet away against the backdrop of yellow full moon. My son nervously asked me about the coyotes.

What would they do next? Would they hurt us? What was going to happen to the cat?

I honestly had no good answers. I was in the same boat he was, having grown up in the suburbs, and sharing the same general ignorance that most people in our insulated world would have in a similar situation.

I called animal services, who explained that it would be at least an hour until they arrived, and so we elected to stand guard and wait. In the meantime, my son continued with his questions. He is a precocious, curious kid, who seems astonishingly informed by YouTube. It’s not uncommon for me to share something interesting in the news, a whale stranding, election drama, or some esoteric science discovery, and before I can complete my thought, he will finish my statement, and then we are off into the wilds of the topic.

But amid the time crunching schedules of school, work, sports, and the social activities of our lives, the moments of where we are together, free from distractions, with a clean slate of time in front of us and no one to disturb it, except perhaps the looming threat of two hungry coyotes evaluating our next move, are exceedingly rare. And, so tentatively at first, we caught up on his life, his anxiety about moving into middle school, his pride for his brother who had been selected for student government at the next school. In between, we’d circle back to the cat, whose breathing had gotten shallower, and the coyotes shifting in the darkness. Being in this position, between the fading life of the cat, who would most certainly be euthanized, and the hungry coyotes, made me feel a bit sheepish. At this point, it would have been fair to let the coyotes at the cat. What difference would it make now. But we had waited this long. We had committed to seeing our task through.

My son looked at the sky and asked me where the border of the universe was? I didn’t know, I said. I tried to explain the big bang and how the universe was expanding, and I really didn’t know at what rate. I just knew it was really fast, but that eventually it would slow down and stop, and then I had no idea what would happen. My son asked how long it would take to get to another galaxy.

“Practically forever,” I said. “We don’t have the technology.”

Then he brought up the recent fusion breakthrough at ITER. Here was my son, an average student, who struggles through math and sweats at the thought of writing his name in cursive, explaining the how hydrogen atoms fuse to create sustainable energy. Curiously, I asked how he knew about all this stuff. “Inside edition,” he said. Everything at that point was fair game. We watched the stars. We marveled over the tug of war between an object and the earth’s gravity that kept satellites in orbit, about how the tilt of the earth creates the seasons, how a plane’s wings keep the plane in the air, even if that plane weighs 500 tons.

Eventually, animal services arrived. The animal control officer looked tired. Thanks for waiting, he said. If we hadn’t, there would have been an even bigger mess for him to clean up. He picked up the cat. Rigor mortis had set in. My son asked him what rigor mortis was. He dutifully explained the contraction of muscles after death. My son nodded. We watched him bag the cat, load it into his truck. Then, we finished the walk that we had started two hours earlier. The moon had risen higher, now filling the sky. The coyotes, who were most likely fed up with the incessant noise of the creatures standing between them and their dinner, were gone.



Steve Creech, a father of two residing in Laguna Hills, California, serves as the president of the Wyland Foundation. This Southern California non-profit organization specializes in promoting the education and stewardship of coasts and waterways.


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