Peter and the Wolf
They are objects of fear and fascination, but it's not exactly clear how to categorize the Cape's coyotes. Tag along with wildlife specialist Peter Trull on the trail of what he suspects are actually indigenous wolves.
"I'VE HAD COYOTES IN MY FACE," says Peter Trull. "I've had all the hair stand up on my neck and my arms. I've been around coyotes in the pitch-black."
Field naturalist Trull is Cape Cod's resident authority on the large, opportunistic predator that has taken up housekeeping at the top of the food chain on the Cape.
"You tell me something about Eastern coyotes," he says, "chances are I've experienced it."
It is a typical afternoon in the field, and Trull, the 53-year-old author of Coyotes in the Neighborhood, tall and lean, with straight sandy hair, not only appears to be outfitted entirely by L. L. Bean, he seems to be wearing one of everything that L. L. Bean sells -- blue jeans, sneakers, a V-neck sweater, and three kinds of shirts.
When you talk to him about coyotes, he tends to do all the talking. For the past 15 years, he has been tracking the animals, photographing them, recording their habits, investigating their history, and in general making a pest of himself in their habitat.
"You get in their face. . . ."
"They get in my face," he says.
And they get there, says Trull, because that is where he wants them.
"I squeak 'em in," he says.
Putting his fingers to his lips and drawing air, Trull emits a loud, piercing squeal, reproducing the high-pitched sound of an animal in distress.
"That makes a coyote's ears stand up straight, makes it turn around, and makes it trot casually -- if not run -- in your direction," says Trull.
Which is not the direction in which the ordinary citizen would choose to see a coyote run, especially the large Eastern coyote, a hybrid that, according to Trull, actually marks the return to New England of the indigenous wolf.
THE ANIMAL WE CALL THE EASTERN coyote first appeared in the Commonwealth's western parts as early as the 1950s. By the 1970s, the animal was breeding virtually everywhere east of Worcester County. In 1985, an officer at Otis Air Force Base, coming upon a den there, was the first to report the presence of a breeding pair on Cape Cod. Experts pretty much agree that the early arrivals reached the Cape the same way the rest of us still do -- by crossing either the Bourne or the Sagamore Bridge.
Trull saw his first coyote in 1989, while working as education director of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, when the dog officer of the town of Harwich carried a dead, lactating female -- a roadkill -- into his office. Until then, it was difficult to engage Trull in a conversation on the subject of coyotes. Today, you cannot shut him up. Trull has been collecting tissue samples from all the dead coyotes he can get his hands on and sending them for mitochondrial DNA sequencing to geneticist Bradley White of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Trull was education director and researcher for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown when he met White, who at the time was doing work on rightwhale genetics. The sequences that Trent has sent back to Trull show the Cape animals have either Texas coyote or red-wolf DNA. Mitochondrial sequencing reveals the maternal line of the DNA only.
"All the coyotes we see here on the Cape," says Trull, "are likely to have wolf DNA."
Jonathan Way, a Boston College doctoral student who grew up in Barnstable, has in the course of a six-year study boxtrapped 25 Cape Cod coyotes. Radio-collaring the adults, he fitted the pups -- whose necks were still growing -- with surgically implanted transmitters.
"We caught a couple in the 50-to-55- pound range," says Way. "That's about as big as the species physically gets."
And that is substantially bigger than the standard coyote, the wily creature of the American West, which weighs in at about 30 pounds.
Way and Trull, with geneticist White, maintain that what is known as the Eastern coyote is a hybrid of the Western coyote and the wolf believed to be long indigenous to Northeastern North America. (There are some in the scientific community who question whether the Northeastern wolf might not already have been part coyote.)
According to Way, wolves, which "actively kill coyotes," historically acted as a barrier to the latter's eastward expansion. But driven to the point of extinction, the indigenous Northeastern wolf began mating with, rather than killing off, its competitor on the fringes of its habitat, leading to the hybrid we see today. "In about 50 years," Way says, "they colonized the entire [continent] east of the Mississippi."
"THESE ARE ALL COYOTE tracks right here."
It is an overcast afternoon on Nauset Beach in Orleans, and Trull has picked up the trail of a coyote that was foraging, probably around dawn. "They like the beach, because there's a lot of mice."
Mice, meadow voles, and other rodents are a dietary preference, but Eastern coyotes will take bigger prey when they can. The largest upland game available to them on the Cape is white-tailed deer. And they have taken to eating what the ocean offers up.
"We've seen coyotes killing seals on this beach," says Trull, pointing south to where he and a friend interrupted one such encounter.
Preying on one another is, of course, what animals do. But it has been a while since an animal with very large teeth, a predator that can weigh up to 60 pounds, has wrought such slaughter out in the open around the Cape. And it is the coyote's visibility as much as its size that has captured the attention and fueled the imagination of people all over the Cape.
Other killers, Trull explains, "live in a secret world." The coyote, with no fear of man and few natural predators, chooses to operate in plain view. An inveterate trail follower, according to Trull, "a coyote wants to be walking through a yard or down the road, following the path of least resistance."
Coyotes travel the byways of Cape Cod as if the roads had been paved for them.
"And that's what flips people out," says Trull.
Some people are flipped out. But few are without an opinion. On the Cape these days, when people are not talking about real estate prices, they are talking about coyotes. What drives much of the talk is a disturbing trend in the animal's eating habits.
IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that the longtime star of the R-rated gorefest that Mother Nature screens for us on a continuous reel -- and not just on the Cape -- can be found curled up in front of the fireplace or lapping cream out of a bowl marked "Tabby." Now, with the appearance of the coyote, every cat on the Cape is looking over his shoulder.
Coyotes on Cape Cod are devouring house cats, and they are killing domestic dogs or leaving them for dead -- acting in self-defense or treating the dogs as competitors for territory -- in fairly compelling numbers. Small dogs they occasionally eat.
"There have been so many domestic cats taken," states Wellfleet Police Chief Richard Rosenthal, "that one must conjecture [coyotes] now consider cat as a regular part of their diet."
Hysteria runs especially high in April and May, when the coyotes' pups arrive, and there are that many more mouths to feed.
Rosenthal, concluding that coyotes present no danger to humans, says that he has two problems to deal with. "One, their habituation to human beings: They're not afraid of us, and that's a bad thing. And two, they're becoming food-conditioned to us, and that's a very bad thing."
People, he says, are feeding them, some purposely, some inadvertently, either by not securing their garbage or by placing food outdoors for their pets. (Placing the pets themselves outdoors pretty much amounts to the same thing.) Coyotes come to associate humans with food, says Rosenthal, "and guess who gets the call: 'I got this coyote in my yard, and he won't go away.' My officer shows up, the coyote won't leave, so we kill it and have it tested for rabies." Do the animals a favor, says Rosenthal, and do not befriend them. To befriend them is to kill them, he says, "except I will be the one compelled to pull the trigger."
THE COYOTE HYBRID ROAMING the Cape is also known as the brush wolf, the Adirondack wolf, or the Tweed wolf. It may very well be the same animal the New England colonists knew as the deer wolf. "It doesn't matter what you call them. It's not what they are, it's that they are," says Trull, who is characteristically evasive on the subject of nomenclature.
Rosenthal says he understands why. As soon as the term "wolf" is employed, he says, "what should be a straightforward discussion has the potential to become a highly politicized, polarized debate." Simply put, the word has a way of inspiring hysteria, and everyone is afraid to go near it.
Notwithstanding its size and bite radius, the Eastern coyote is more coyote than wolf in its habits. Wolves are pack animals, hierarchical in their social structure. They live and die -- and kill -- as a team. Coyotes are family animals. Groups consist of a mated pair and their offspring, but only until the young disperse. Kills are always one-on-one.
The family will remain together into the fall, while the pups learn to hunt. With the approach of breeding season in January, the young will disperse to seek their own mates and territory. If they survive past the age of 2 -- only about 20 percent do -- they may live as long as 10 years.
The adaptability of Eastern coyotes to their environment differentiates them not only from the larger wolves but also from a variety of other carnivores. They will eat almost anything, variously feeding on fruits, berries, and vegetables as well as garbage and pet food. They appear to be able to flourish anywhere. "There have been sightings around the Hancock building in Boston," acknowledges Chrissie Henner, furbearer biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
SERIOUS DISAGREEMENT PERSISTS over precisely how many coyotes there are on the Cape. Jonathan Way, with the use of radio collars, demonstrated fairly early in his study that population estimates were being skewed by the animal's movements.
"They move 10 to 15 miles a night," he says. "We've had animals go from eastern Barnstable, just outside Hyannis, all the way into Falmouth in the middle of the night."
"They're huge foragers," explains Trull. "They just take off." And contrary to popular belief, he says, they range both day and night.
Fisheries and Wildlife does not maintain an official figure for the number of coyotes on Cape Cod or anywhere in Massachusetts. Restrictions on the types of traps allowed, enacted in 1996, make it impossible, Henner explains, to mark the minimum number of animals necessary to generate a count. Trull and Way see the Cape's carrying capacity as limited -- Way's research shows that on the Cape, a family unit of three to four coyotes requires up to 12 square miles of territory. They offer a population estimate of between 75 and 150, but many people, especially hunters, think that figure is extremely low.
"I'd say you could safely triple that," says Mark Palmer of the Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans, the largest outfitter on Cape Cod. Supplying hunters, and a hunter himself, Palmer has been swapping information on coyotes since they first appeared in the area.
There could be 100 or 100,000 Cape Cod coyotes, for all anybody seems to know. Most coyotes taken on the Cape are not shot for their pelts (then "tagged" and counted at a Fisheries and Wildlife office) but are killed as a nuisance and simply left for dead.
"Just as I have a strange love for coyotes," says Way, there are others who "have a strange love for killing them."
Of all the animals that have wandered into his box traps, Way says, the coyote is the most submissive. "They cower their heads; they hide." Being bitten by a coyote, says Trull, is as likely "as a red-tailed hawk coming down and grabbing you by the shoulder."
In fact, coyotes will not attack humans even to protect an active den.
"Not only will the coyote run from you," says Trull, "but it will immediately go through the task of finding a new place to den."
"Coyotes want to have nothing to do with people," says Way.
"THIS IS ALL coyote habitat," says Trull, walking the low, rolling dune that runs from Nauset Marsh to Chatham Harbor. "Look at that big hillside over there. From there all the way down to Pochet, they've got miles and miles of embankment, with lots of shrubbery. That's where they make their dens. On any given day, coyotes are going to be out on these marshes."
Trull does not describe coyotes in terms of their curiosity, their boldness, their fear of people, or the absence in them of any of the foregoing; he sees them as defined most accurately by their manifest lack of concern. "These animals that are here right now are living in their own world," he says. "They're not really concerned with our world and what we do."
Nor should we be especially concerned with them.
"They're just another wild animal," says Trull. "When a red-tailed hawk kills a rabbit, you don't see headlines. . . .
"Nature is very, very wild. It's live or die. That's what I'm about. I like the wildness that's around us every day, everywhere."
It is a sentiment (or lack of same) coyotes can embrace. Trull is their kind of man. Though unable to disguise his affection for them, Trull is at pains to point out, "I am not the coyote defender." He prefers to be portrayed as a conservation biologist whose interest is purely scientific. In the wild world of Peter and the wolf, the wolf can fend for itself.
"If you shoot them," Trull says, "just send me the samples."
Robert Sabbag is the author of Snowblind, Smokescreen, and other books. He lives on Cape Cod.