You almost have to feel sorry for Wile E. Coyote. The cartoon character always seemed to have the worst luck, being outwitted by the Road Runner at every turn.
Director Chuck Jones created the pathetic character in 1948. Mr. Jones was inspired by a passage in Mark Twain’s book Roughing It.
Twain depicts the coyote as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”
As sorry as the creature described by Twain may appear, there seems to be little sympathy for coyotes on Martha’s Vineyard.
Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the last two holdouts in Massachusetts free of this cunning creature. Coyotes have made their way across the United States and are found in every state except Hawaii. They arrived in Massachusetts in the 1950s, found their way to the Cape by 2000, and now might be making a move toward our Island.
Last Friday, a dead coyote was found in the swash line at Lambert’s Cove Beach. Most likely, this animal had swum from the Elizabeth Islands, which since 1986 has had a population of coyotes. It was only the third time a dead coyote had been found washed up on an Island beach; the other reports were recorded in the fall of 2004 and the summer of 1996.
However, as news of the finding spread, there was speculation that it might be the elusive coyote that is rumored to live in up-Island woods. For years, there have been credible reports of seeing and hearing coyote on the Island. The presence of one animal was likely confirmed in 2010 when a DNA sample of scat found on the North Shore was analyzed and identified as coyote with a certainty of 97 per cent. Since one coyote is obviously not a breeding population, the species hasn’t yet gained a foothold here.
Regardless of where the deceased animal came from, its presence caused much concern. Coyotes are opportunistic animals and are impressive in their talents: they can seemingly take advantage of whatever habitat and food supply they find themselves in the midst of, and thrive in virtually any environment. They will eat almost anything from a berry to a small deer and can wreak havoc on livestock and poultry, so farmers have reason to be alarmed.
Pet owners are also expressing concern, as coyotes are known to kill cats and small dogs. And, tragically, in one California case, a toddler was fatally attacked. More likely, though, if a coyote population took hold here, it could drastically change our fauna, including reducing rare species and wreaking havoc on other prey populations.
Coyotes have been successful across the country for a variety of reasons. They can survive in many habitats, are active year round, and are generally successful breeders (producing up to eight pups a year). They also can travel 400 miles outside of their home range, and have been known to island hop more than six miles.
Many folks are hoping that coyotes don’t get established here. We love to root for underdogs, and coyotes are such adaptable and superior predators that it is no wonder that we instead cheer on the local species, hoping they can kick up into the air like the Road Runner, utter meep meep, and elude that coyote one more time.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.