Sunday, March 9, 2008

Coyotes chase but cannot catch a rabbit

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando SentinelMarch 9, 2008)

Encounters with wild animals are always exciting, especially if the critters being watched don't realize they're being observed. That's what happened the other day when I watched two coyotes chase a rabbit.

I was sitting at the table in the kitchen when I happened to glance out the window toward the lake. Ralph was talking to me -- I have no idea what about -- because my attention was drawn to a tawny blur dashing along the path along the water's edge. I got up -- Ralph was still talking -- grabbed the binoculars and went out to the porch.

There it was again. Definitely some sort of large animal.

My first thought was, "Maybe it's the bobcat." The last time I saw a bobcat on the property was several weeks ago by the compost pile. Ever since, I've been anticipating its return.

But no, this animal's stride was decidedly un-catlike.

"It's probably just a big dog," I muttered to myself feeling slightly embarrassed to have gotten so excited by something as ordinary as Lassie-gone-astray.

But just as I was about to return to the kitchen, I saw it again. Another movement -- rather doglike, but not exactly. Too big for a fox.

"My gosh!" a light flashed on in my mind. "It's a coyote! And what's it doing? Chasing a rabbit!"

"Ralph! Come quick!" I shouted. "There's a coyote across the lake chasing a rabbit!"

I was so glad he was there to confirm my sighting. On so many occasions, I've been the only one around when a wild animal appears. Although my family seems to believe my excited reports, I often wonder if there's a layer of suppressed suspicion in their nodding responses.

"Wow," they might say following one of my breathy accounts when what they're really thinking is, "Sure, Sherry, you think you saw a (fill in the blank: deer, wild pig, fox, etc.). It was probably just a dog."

Well, not this time. This time I had a witness to not one but two coyotes attempting to run down one panicky but agile little rabbit.

Ralph and I stood together in the porch before moving out to the front lawn for a better view. We watched as the pair of predators sniffed the ground, doubled back and gave chase to their prey. Although it was two against one, small and nimble reigned supreme. The rabbit managed to elude its hunters by slipping into a dense tangle of bamboo.

The whole episode lasted less than 15 minutes, but it was as thrilling a spectacle as any I've encountered. The only other times I've seen coyotes nearby have been while driving, and three of those four times, the animals were dead. Twice I saw animals that had been hit by cars, and one coyote was shot. I know it had been shot because I got out of my car to observe it up close. While my knowledge of weapons is practically nonexistent, there's no mistaking a bullet hole through the head.

I was disturbed for days after seeing the murdered animal and tried to understand why someone would kill it. Perhaps they were worried the coyote would attack their livestock -- it lay slain on the outside edge of a fence enclosing goats and horses.

Or maybe they felt threatened for their personal safety. If that were the case, they acted under false assumptions. While coyotes that travel in packs may take down a cow or goat, a solitary hunter is more likely to prey upon rodents, birds, small animals or carrion than a calf or goat. Then again, the coyote I saw could just as easily have been killed for sport -- something many people feel they have an inherent right to do.

Whatever the reason, a dead female animal was the end result. Hungry young cubs waiting for a parent's return might also have perished because of one bullet through their mother's head.

The other day as Ralph and I watched the two coyotes try unsuccessfully to capture a cottontail, I was reminded how difficult the life of a wild animal is. The coyotes spent so much energy on a meal that got away. If they were dogs, they would be fed out of a can and be considered man's best friend, but as wild animals, they must fend for themselves. They're on their own to not only find food, provide shelter and raise their young but also to avoid dangerous situations that put them in contact with people.

It isn't every day you get to see nature at work. My previous sightings of the dead and live coyotes moved me emotionally, but this recent spotting elicited a response beyond all expectations. I can only hope that as development continues to reduce wild areas, more and more animals will find refuge in places like our property where bullets will never be fired and wildlife encounters are moments to treasure instead of events to fear.

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