Hungry wolves, bears and mountain lions. And this
is no joke.
Obviously, 'Knock Knock' jokes aren't my forte. But my point is that if you live in a cosy village where the most feared animal is your neighbors toy poodle, it can be hard to identify with the circumstances of the first colonists in our area.
In Their Own Voices - Oral Accounts of Early Settlers In Washington County, New York Winston Adler has edited stories originally collected by Dr. Asa Fitch in the mid 1800's. Some of the elderly that Fitch spoke with had memories stretching back before the Revolution, to the times of first settlement. Wild animal encounters are among those memories. One, from the 1700's, is the time Hamilton McCollister entered his rough cabin in Salem to find a dead catamount lying on the floor, apparently the victim of ingesting unguentum kept there. Later that night McCollister saw two gleaming eyes peering thru the hole the big cat had gnawed in his door. Eventually he took a shot at the eyes and in the morning found a second lion, perhaps the mate of the first, dead at his door. Then, a few years later, his wife watched helplessly as a bear carried away their sow pig from in front of the same cabin.
In 1789 Moses Harris of Queensbury killed another panther with a trip wire to a gun pointed at a hog carcass the animal was feeding on. Then there was the 1801 wolf hunt in the Kingsbury Swamp which eliminated ten or eleven of the large predators. Stories were told of sheep being chased by wolves where the terrified flock ran into homes for protection. Over in the eastern hills, John McEachron remembered the time a steer turned up missing. After some searching they found a bear feeding on the animal. Neighbors were called to help but when their dogs attached, the bruin just swatted them away like they were flies. It took 13 bullets pumped into him before the beast was finally subdued. It was claimed that the bear weighted 1200 - 1300 pounds!
In our area (the upper Hudson Valley) the relationship between humans and wild animals has been evolving since the last glacier receded some 13,000 years ago. As the land warmed and vegetation returned, grazing animals moved in. Wooly mammoths, mastodons, moose-elk, giant longhorn bison, caribou and musk oxen were followed and hunted by Paleo-Indians. It's theorized that some of the big mammals were actually hunted to extinction. As the climate warmed and fluctuated the connection between game and people morphed. Moose, deer, bear and smaller prey were killed and eaten but they were also respected, becoming an important part of the civilizations mythology and culture. To the Iroquois turtles, bears and wolves were highly revered.
As we've already noted, the early European settlers, with their domestic livestock and agricultural traditions, saw wild animals as a threat. Over time and with increasing security and leisure, the idea of hunting as sport took hold. Today, hunting is still popular in Washington County with white tailed deer being the most sought quarry. While blood sports are a cherished tradition among some, they are not without controversy, with others considering them as outdated and barbaric as slavery and child beating.
Particularly controversial is the practice of hunting coyotes with dogs. This involves releasing hounds with GPS collars in an area where coyotes might be. The handler remains parked in his pickup truck, tracking the dogs until they stop, indicating that they have cornered something. He then follows the signal to the dogs and shoots the coyote. In New York the season runs from October 1 to March 27 with no bag limits while in neighboring Vermont there are currently no regulations whatsoever, although public outcry has resulted in proposed legislation. Even some ardent sportsmen/hunters seem uncomfortable with the activity.
My experience here on the farm is that coyote hunters never ask for permission. The dogs are, of course, oblivious to property lines. You can tell where the hunters sit and wait by the Stewarts coffee cups they throw out the window. Once the hounds have circled their prey the hunters feel they have an absolute right to recover their dogs and kill the coyote whose body has no use and is left to lay where it falls.
This is considered sport by some but it's not hard to see why it's repulsive to others. There seems to be an arc to our killing of other living things. Initially it was for food and survival, then to eliminate threats and now just for idle amusement. Everyone will have their own take on the social and ethical issues involved but man's propensity for violence, whether to our own or to other species, is hard to deny and harder to justify.
Coyotes are one of 37 species in the canid family of mammals. Found world wide, these carnivores range from the over six foot long gray wolf to the diminutive fennec fox at less than a foot. Of course, the most familiar member of the family is the domestic dog with an estimated billion plus 'Fidos' worldwide. Wild canids found in our area include the red fox, the gray fox and the coyote. Wolves were once common but are now gone from the state.
Coyotes (C. latrans) evolved in the midwest and moved into New York in the 1930's, taking over the niche left by the extirpation of the wolf and the mountain lion. Genetic research finds the eastern coyote to be 64% western coyote, 26% wolf and 10% domestic dog. At one time they were called coy-dogs. They weight between 35# and 45#, being smaller than wolves but larger than foxes, and capable of running for short bursts up to 40mph.
They are not pack animals but do form family groups. They have a home range, are monogamous and mate for life. Their familiar vocalizations include yelps, howls and yaps often heard at night when the animals are most active. Litters average about six pups and coyotes are most territorial when they are denning in late spring and early summer, at which time they can be a threat to wandering pets. There have been a couple of records of them killing humans but this is extremely rare. By comparison, on average 650 people are hospitalized and one person killed by domestic dogs in New York State every year.
For a few years there was a three legged coyote who would trot along side me while I was mowing hay. She probably lost one limb in a trap, the same devices that cause havoc with dogs. This gal knew that the mowing machine left field mice exposed and thus an easy meal. She and her family also kept my fields free of woodchucks. Their holes and mounds are a problem that can damage farm equipment. It's also possible that she kept deer in check, a valuable ecological service in the absence of other large predators. It was a sad day when she turned up missing, no doubt the victim of hounds and hunters. Another bit of wild and free nature taken away.