Maybe we are the coyotes. We’ve invaded those tidy realms of whiteness, and we did not duck our heads. We acted like we owned the place.
The Facebook HOA group is at it again. They talk coyotes all day long. Posts about wild canine sightings pop up on my notification screen, each cheerful ding belying the threat beneath. My neighbors post grainy photos of gaunt roamers in the snow, their sharp faces averted, tails brushing the ground.
“Just heard a pack of coyotes celebrating their kill in the woods.”
A group of coyotes is called a band. A band celebrates. I imagine bonfires lighting up the svelte bellies of the arching wild dogs. How they’d yowl and twist as they danced. A fluted revelry. Unbidden, I think of the rallies. Grown men brandishing confederate flags and handguns. How one group’s jubilation can summon fear in another.
“I saw a coyote near our backyard. Not even hiding. He acted like he owned the place.”
Coyotes once covered the terrain in central Ohio, where my family and I live. Then, due to urbanization, they disappeared to the thickly forested areas. They slumbered. Now they’re back, and they dare to be seen. They don’t cower. I can sense the outrage in my neighbors’ words.
“Another coyote spotted at the entrance of the neighborhood. Seems to have ill intentions.”
“My husband and I are convinced the coyotes are after our cats.”
The coyotes eat squirrels and rabbits, both in abundant supply in our neighborhood, which butts against a large, open park. Once, my then-four-year-old daughter and I found a nest of baby rabbits, kits, so young that their eyes were still glued shut. Their bare little bodies shivered. I knew not to move them, lest my scent scare the mother away from her own young, but I was terrified that a predator would find them first. How to explain a kit carcass to my own kit? I gently placed the rabbits in their burrow and told my husband not to mow the lawn that day. Eventually, they were carried away, by their mother or by some silent enemy.
I tell our nanny not to take my daughter walking by the pond, where coyotes have been known to congregate. The nanny gives me an odd look, as if I’ve said unicorns are breeding in our yard. The stuff of nature is mysterious and mythical, and she thinks I’m a helicopter parent. She’s not wrong. Still, we stay close to home for a few days. My daughter presses her nose against the glass, as if she could smell the animal fur in the air.
When we first moved into our current neighborhood, we saw an older Asian couple walking hand in hand. I felt a tingle of home as I watched them move slowly and deliberately on the sidewalk. If I squinted, the couple might look like my own grandparents, though they’d never be caught dead holding hands. Every time I saw a person of color in our neighborhood, my heart vaulted. I’d just moved from a small former farm community with a thriving KKK chapter, and any shade of brown made me feel more at ease.
After the 2020 election, my husband, my daughter, and I ran to our front yard to yell “Go Joe!” We saw the parades in the big cities on television and wanted to mount our own celebration in the quiet suburbs. Another neighbor waved at us. The air was light with promise. After a few years of pained dearth in our old town, we felt the largesse of community here. We glutted ourselves on our own sense of security.
Through the slick accumulation of wet leaves in fall, then the fluff of winter, we saw the older couple walking. They wore matching beanies. Sometimes my husband and I would wave, but, more often than not, we’d pass them in our car, smiling to ourselves. Wondering if we’d be like them someday.
One day, we read about eighty-four-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee’s murder in San Francisco. A ninety-one-year-old man slashed on the New York subway, the cut so deep he couldn’t speak. A sixty-four-year-old grandmother robbed and assaulted in San Jose. Elderly Asian Americans were falling. No, they were pushed. Violence as retribution for a deadly virus that stalked all communities without shame or discernment.
I thought of my grandfather, born in 1933, who liked to walk around outside his garden in small circumferences, meandering loops that split the hours. Before he moved in with my mother, he tended his cherry trees and red pepper plants until dinnertime. He’d been known to mutter to his plants, feeling their sentience as surely as he felt his own. Now he sits inside all day, sleeping mostly, sometimes listening to Vietnamese radio about news a whole world away. I used to lament the slow tightening of his social circle, but now, I’m glad that he’s not out in the world. That’s where the coyotes are.
But then, maybe we are the coyotes. We’ve invaded those tidy realms of whiteness, and we did not duck our heads. We acted like we owned the place.
One night, the coyotes mate or fight near us, their yowls so bloody that we all wake in our respective beds, reaching for our phones. It’s midnight, but the HOA doesn’t sleep.
“Did anyone hear that?”
“It sounded like murder.”
“Everyone’s dogs okay?”
It’s strange that domestic dogs are pitted against their wild canine counterparts. No longer brothers, but predator and prey, aligned as enemies by human narrators. I wonder what the tiny Pommerpuffadoodles would think if they encountered a coyote. Would they flinch or wag their tails in recognition? Does wildness burn in us all, just a yowl away from conflagration?
Soon, I feel a kinship to the coyotes. I’m not eager to meet one, but I also don’t want to hunt them to oblivion. The HOA begins to shift their characterizations to something more sensitive as well.
“The coyotes are crying at 9:15 on Wednesday night.” I’m touched by the demarcation of the hour. Jamie F. hears them, she really does.
“Sorry to jump on the coyote bandwagon . . .” Keith Z. recognizes there’s a bandwagon. He knows that the coyotes are persecuted, and he’s reluctant to pile on.
He knows that the coyotes are persecuted, and he’s reluctant to pile on.
I wonder what my neighbors discuss outside the HOA group. My husband and I have friends here, but we’re new enough—and the pandemic has raged long enough—that we don’t have a huge circle yet. We’re reluctant loners. Does the coyote-talk transcend the Facebook HOA group? Is there an informal neighborhood watch set up? The posts started in 2017, a year before we moved in. I’m admittedly much more fascinated by the coyote reporters than the coyotes themselves. I imagine the neighbors pinned to their windows, eyes alight, tongues lashing for release.
I haven’t seen the elderly couple in a month or so. The holidays were busy for everyone, and then, of course, the bitter cold of January and February. It makes sense that they may have hunkered by their hearth fires, as my grandparents did. Or were there other reasons? I feel guilty for not checking on them, for never asking their names. I don’t even know where they lived, exactly. Part of my own comfort was in the namelessness. We could just coexist without engagement.
Coyotes now range in forty-nine states—all except Hawaii. They’re poised to make their way to South America. Nomads or colonizers, depending on the narrative. City-walking coyotes are called urban coyotes. I think of the absurdity of stiletto-heeled canines holding red Birkin bags. They don’t stalk; they strut. They are the knowing, cigarette-dragging antithesis to our wholesome Midwest.
Coyotes are known to claim territories for their families, even unconventional ones like bustling downtown streets in Chicago. Like me, coyotes blossom in familiarity. I admire their resilience, but I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it to go outside one’s circle, to migrate to an unwelcome place. Of course, they have no choice. They are driven to roam where the food and comfort beckons.
Coyotes are monogamous and care fiercely for their pups. Sometimes, coyotes breed with dogs, spawning the portmanteau coydog. When searching for information about the pups, a suggested question pops up: “Do coyote pups make good pets?” I’m baffled. They want to hunt coyotes, then to nurture them with monogrammed dog beds and organic kibble? We’re an absurd species indeed.
February is peak mating season. I imagine the orders of Cheesecake Factory arriving on my neighbors’ doorstep via Doordash or their convenience app of choice. I think about how they’ll light candles and plate their double-chocolate cheesecake with a picturesque swirl. “Just like at the restaurant!” How their own indulgence becomes a sigh and a celebration. So too the coyotes mate, regenerate, repopulate. Their identities elide into each other and, sometimes, their dog and wolf counterparts. They intermarry and blend.
There have only been a handful of HOA scuffles in my time in the group. One was over moving the date for trick-or-treating, which prompted a sainted diplomat to write, “Please remember: we’ll all still be neighbors after Halloween.” Another HOA conflict was around the coyotes.
Someone in the HOA group sent out a link to a wildlife organization, with tips on how to avoid wild canine conflicts. The sum of the argument was clear: Coyotes are misunderstood. It turns out, they were never the interlopers. We were. The link felt pointed, like a chastisement. It got fewer than five likes, mine among them. The conversation around coyotes died down in general, out of shame or boredom. A misunderstood foe was not as interesting in real life as he might be in a story.
Still, I studied the link, which says you mustn’t act a victim in front of coyotes. Such passive behavior encourages them to chase you as prey. It’s instinct. If possible, make noise. Yell; throw things. Become bigger than you are.
The sum of the argument was clear: Coyotes are misunderstood. It turns out, they were never the interlopers. We were.
In one coyote discussion, an HOA neighbor brags about his gun. “I know what to do if they threaten me and mine. Only thing to do is cull the herd.” You can almost imagine him patting his holster, his smirking face.
The HOA comments are disgusted at his bare violence. They react to the comment with angry emojis.
Amy S. says, “How about we don’t hurt the wildlife that live in our neighborhood?”
Ash W. is more confrontational: “Try making noise rather than being evil, hateful, and ignorant.”
A line has been crossed. We may fear the coyotes, ostracize them, villainize them—but we don’t actually engage. There’s no hope for coexistence, but we do not take action upon ourselves. We’re too civilized for that.
I wonder if I’d have the wherewithal to stand my ground during a coyote conflict. Would I be able to grow tall and dominant? Could I protect my daughter if it came to it? I like to think I’d gnash my teeth, pull out my claws, and pounce with an instinct grown in me for millennia.
If someone shoved me on the street, I’m not sure I’d know to stand up, to yell and throw things. I might just play dead.
The thing is: Coyotes who are bold around people have become so because they’ve been habituated. Humans who leave food around or outright feed them (who the hell feeds a wild coyote?) breed a level of comfort that entices the coyotes closer. They are lulled by their own sense of safety.
Coyote attacks can be classified as predatory or investigative. They’ve certainly attacked humans and children, killing one young girl in 1981, one of only two recorded fatalities in the United States. The Humane Society tells us that we need to modify our own behavior to guard against encroachment. We have to be preventative.
When my grandparents call, they’re usually in their pajamas. They ask me what I’ve done that day, their questions skittering across the surface of what they really want to talk about.
“Are you safe? Are you staying inside?” The silent questions press against me.
I say, “I’m not going anywhere. We have our groceries delivered. We don’t take walks anymore.”
“Good,” they murmur. “Good.”
I lie to protect them, and to protect myself against their worry.
The groundhog saw his shadow, so we’re in for six more weeks of winter, at least. The coyotes will mate through the snowy blizzards. They’ll continue to roam, leaving their tracks over our neighborhood and our lives, all in search for the easy life in the city. I may not see a coyote this year, or next, but I feel certain I’ll encounter one within the next decade. Our circles will overlap. We’ll lock eyes, investigating one another’s motives, deciding once and for all who is predator and who is prey. We’ll ask ourselves how much violence we must endure before we migrate yet again.
Thao is a writer and editor working out of Ohio. She's interested in exploring the intersections of identity and culture. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from Mariner | HarperCollins.