In the animal world, the coyote is considered by some biologist to be the ultimate survivor. For over 300,000 years this cunning canid has hunted prey in the forested mountains, grassy plains, and arid deserts of North and Central America.
Depending on their environment, coyote colors range from a salt and pepper gray to a sandy beige. Coyotes in the wild are often mistaken for wolves, foxes, and dogs. The ears of a coyote stand erect and some folks claim they look like a scraggly undersized German Shepherd. In the north-eastern parts of America, coyotes weigh about fifty pounds and have bushy tails with black tips. In Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, coyotes have tails with white tips and are generally smaller. Some can weigh under thirty pounds. But make no mistake, all coyotes are dangerous.
During the last Ice Age, coyotes not only survived, they prospered while 40 species of larger North American mammals became extinct, including its most formidable predator, the American Cheetah. Today, the only natural enemies of the coyote are wolves and mountain lions. However, it should be noted that mountain lions, which are also called cougars, will rarely attack a healthy coyote. Cougars are picky predators; they prefer prey that will not fight back. That phenomenon, along with the massive decline of the wolf population during the twentieth century is causing a serious problem. There are not enough predators on the continent to keep the coyote population in check.
The earliest record of the coyote originates with the Aztec civilization of Mesoamerica. In Aztec mythology, the propitious god of dance, music and mischief is the deity called Huehuecóyotl. This ancient god is often illustrated as a dancing coyote with human feet and hands. Aztec myths portray Huehuecóyotl as a benign prankster whose tricks often backfire and causes more trouble for him than his intended victim. The traits given to the coyote by the Aztecs are quite similar to the traits of the popular modern day cartoon character Wile E. Coyote. In the cartoon series, the innovative plans of Wile E. Coyote to catch the elusive beep-beeping Roadrunner character always fail and usually backfire in a grand manner.
In North America, many Indian tribes gave the same characteristics to coyotes as the Aztecs did. Several Native American stories portray coyotes as benign mischief-makers. A common tale shared by many tribes tell a story about a coyote stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. This mythological good deed by the coyote is part of a legend that shows how the coyote helped the Indians survive the harsh winters of North America. However, not all tribes have benevolent tales of the coyote. Some Native American tribes believe the coyote is malevolent, especially the tribes dwelling in the dry southwestern part of the United States.
The Navaho Indians of Arizona abhor the coyote. They believe that coyotes harbor evil spirits. If a coyote crosses the path of a Navaho, they will end their journey. They are convinced that something bad will happen to them if they continue. The Navaho belief is very similar to the unreasonable fear some superstitious people have in today’s world; especially when a black cat crosses their path.
Another mutual story that many Native American tribes share is the legend of the coyote having the ability to shapeshift. A widespread shapeshift myth passed down by numerous tribes tell of two warriors tracking a pair of coyotes to the edge of a high cliff and just as they put arrows on the strings of their bows, the two coyotes take the form of eagles and fly away.
Mythologists claim that there are often tidbits of truth in these stories. And, although shapeshifting legends about the coyote are common, it is believed the tales about shapeshifting coyotes sprout from the natural evasive traits of the animal and not from some kind of paranormal power. But, no matter how present-day scholars interpret the ancient myths of the coyote, the characteristics of the coyote of yesteryear is nothing like the creature it is morphing into today.
The benign trickster of Aztec and Native American myths is on the verge of becoming the most dangerous animal on the North American Continent.
Twenty-first-century coyotes in the wild are nothing like the human wary animal it was when European settlers first arrived in America. Their bloodlines have been altered. For the past two hundred years, conservationists have known that coyotes in the wild will occasionally mate with dogs. But, they also knew that the resulting pups had a poor survival rate, and those that did survive were often sterile. However, in the last ten years, for reasons that have confounded wildlife experts, interbreeding in the wild has become more prevalent and the pups are not only surviving, they are multiplying at an alarming rate. The resulting hybrid is called a coydog and it is larger, smarter, and a better hunter than a normal coyote.
The nearly nonexistent presence of predators allows the coydog to thrive. Coydogs hunt small and medium-sized game and they are excellent scavengers. Nocturnal raids on garbage cans by coydogs usually guarantee a delicious meal. Local animal control officers and dog catchers are finding out that they are being outwitted the wily coydog. All normal trapping methods are useless against these animals, and poison is not an option in most communities. Reports of coydogs killing family pets, such as cats and small dogs are increasing. Coydog bites are also on the rise. These bites are normally not from an outright attack by a coydog, they mostly occur when a foolish individual approaches the animal to pet it.
Intentional breeding is another reason for the increase in the coydog population. Apparently, there is a market for these animals. The number one rule cited by individuals who breed or own a coydog is; “You have to constantly let the coydog know who the pack leader is, or it will turn on you.” And sadly, when a family discovers that the coydog is not the animal they thought it would be, they usually drive the coydog a few miles from town and release it. Many of these discarded animals return to the wild and breed with other coydogs or with purer strains of coyotes.
The bottom line is; pure blooded coyotes are now extinct. DNA testings have confirmed that the coyote of the past has morphed into a complex creature. The animal that most people believe to be a coyote is essentially a hybrid. Recent DNA results show that all so-called coyotes have varying degrees of wolf and dog in their DNA.
In the November 3, 2015, issue of the Smithsonian magazine, Marissa Fessenden wrote an article with the heading; “Coywolves are Taking Over Eastern North America.” At first, the heading seems preposterous but the author backs up her statement with indisputable scientific facts and studies. Further on in the piece, Marissa wrote, “Coywolves are not ‘shy wolves’—they are coyote-wolf hybrids (with some dog mixed in) and now number in the millions.” Marissa goes on to explain that the dogs that usually mate with the wolves are often larger dogs like Dobermann Pincers and German Shepherds.
Marissa’s article is frightening, especially for anyone living in the eastern regions of North America. But, as bad as the eastern regions have become, the southwestern regions of North America might become the home of a more vicious hybrid.
Mexican wolves have been virtually extinct in the southwest for nearly a century. However, because of successful captive breeding programs by different wildlife groups, Mexican wolves are currently being re-introduced to parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Wildlife conservationists believe their endeavors to bring back the endangered Mexican wolf to the southwest is good for the environment. But, ranchers in these areas have a much different opinion. The ranchers and sheep herders of the southwest are fearful that the well-meaning conservationists, who are interfering with nature, are on the verge of creating a southwestern coywolf that will cause more harm than good.
At this time, there seems to be no clear solution or resolution with the cross breeding of species and the reintroduction of endangered species. And, the general consensus on the matter seems to be the old adage; “Whatever will be, will be.”