When we came upon Number 15 the last time, he’d already been killed, having been shot fatally by local law enforcement in a Northwest Georgia carpet-manufacturing city, which had been getting complaints about the thirty-pound adult coyote daily for weeks. 15 had reportedly been roaming the streets, resting at times beneath the shady dogwoods of the neighborhood lawns, showing little fear of humans, even when the summer’s fireworks were being shot off, which was what really stunned the concerned locals.
It was daylight when 15 was fired upon that last time, and according to reports he’d been cowering underneath a neighborhood pickup truck.
When I saw him lying spread out in a private citizen’s driveway on my arrival to the scene there was a part of me that wanted to cry, if only because I remembered how 15 had nearly already eaten its feet to the bone back when I’d collared him two years earlier in a failed attempt to extricate himself from one of our research traps, in which it was possible he’d squirmed for up to two full days.
I was struck by how once again here was an example of my knack for arriving to a scene with unfortunate tardiness. I also knew with certainty that at one time 15 had wanted to live because of the way he’d fought for his freedom, and that maybe he did still up until the very last moment of his life.
On seeing visual evidence of 15’s gruesome suffering before his death, beyond the pistol fire of the officer, we sent his corpse up to Chattanooga for a necropsy, and the results came back about what we had expected, sadly. Such days are the ones that make you question what you do for a living. Is keeping an objective distance for these studies getting anything done? Separate from the bullet wounds, some ribs were broken, which appeared to be the result of being hit by a car in recent months. 15 was also blind. He had almost no hair left on his body, and his spinal cord was infected, likely from a large sore at the tip of his bare, mangled tail. His stomach contents, on lab analysis, were mostly Cheerios. He had originally been a good-looking animal, with tan and gray fur, the high-pitched yelp of his breed, no readily apparent wolf blood, quick and wily, and eyes with the sincerity of a domestic dog’s.
I have devoted half my adult life to the study of the coyote, only on rare occasions questioning my commitment to the job, for the most part satisfied with my choice for a career. Lately, we have been seeing a strong correlation in our studies between individuals that live in or near cities and poor health, compared to individuals living in tightly controlled territories away from human development. The city coyote also tends to acquire mange, like my first dog out in the country of my youth.
While it’s notable that on occasion the urban coyote will attack family dogs or small children, there haven’t been any attacks on children yet in our area. Attacks on kids are rarely exhibited nationwide, and when they do occur are usually done as what’s called an “exploratory bite,” where we believe the coyote is only investigating the possibility of humans as a food. However, when coyotes are on the edge of civilization looking in, sometimes even the act of watching children playing in the yard, running around playing tag, or playing soccer on the lawn, some believe can excite unrealized predatory instincts. On the other hand, since coyotes are often by far the largest animal our growing human urban populations encounter of a wild carnivore, some of these human urban dwellers seem to be “exploring” themselves, feeding the coyotes and making them lose their natural fear of man and climb up on the city’s back porches for a family meal at night.
I think all the time of the day I captured 15, before releasing him back into the wild with his tracking collar. At the time, he still weighed about forty-five pounds, much bigger than a fox, but still smaller than some of the neighborhood dogs. You could hear other coyotes whining in the distance. The coyote’s societies aren’t as complex as wolves, we believe, but when they choose to hunt in packs they can sometimes take down larger prey such as deer. After I tagged 15 on his ear the day I found him, I held him down like a bigger coyote might do when it was younger to assert dominance. His eyes resigned that for the moment it was I who was in control, and he paused for a moment there even after I let him go, seemingly trying to figure me out.
If one weren’t familiar with the look he gave me, they might have mistaken it for the animal not knowing whether he was domesticated or not. But that wasn’t the look. I know these things intimately since I’ve done this work for many years. It was a look meant to question my intentions. It was a sort of philosophical disagreement the coyote held. From the beginning, he knew there was nothing that would be done by me to help him now that he was freed from the trap to lick his self-inflicted wounds and given a number to pass for a name. Further, the animal wanted to let me know that he didn’t believe much in my cause, and that he didn’t care so much at that moment how many of his coyote cousins’ children we’d someday save through our research. And if I believed that 15’s mind changed on this matter during his gruesome deterioration of living in the woods and later in the streets on up until the moment he was finally killed by jittery law enforcement officers, I can only reconcile that with my blind faith in the possibility that things aren’t always as bad as they often seem, and I’m very probably allowing myself to be misled. I just don’t know anything. After a few seconds of staring at me the way he did, he appeared to regain his wits and ran away like all the others have, off into the wild.
The crazy thing is, now that they’ve invaded our cities, you hear people at the churches and grocery stores complain about them, how they sing their high-pitched songs into the darkness in a language no one can understand. But when I hear a high-pitched coyote whine out in the woods, even though it will wake me too sometimes, it’s also the last sound left that will let me sleep. And I find some comfort, in fact, that they’ll never kill them all and sleep will always come.
GREGORY LEE SULLIVAN is a writer based in Philadelphia. His short stories appear in The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Permafrost, Barely South Review, and other journals. He also has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Toronto Star, and other outlets. Read more at his website.