by Bill McCarron
Late in August, just as the days were approaching their shortest length, the last group of visitors moved past the coyote exhibit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
"The Museum closes in five minutes," a docent (trained volunteer) told the visitors.
"Look at what the sign says," a tall, thin-legged man told his friends. "Darn coyotes are scavengers. Says they eat rabbits, mice, even cactus. Cows, too, my brother tells me."
Juanita the Coyote was pacing her area, head drooping and tongue hanging out at the fading late afternoon sun.
"That coyote sure is scrawny. His coat looks like it could use a trip to the dry cleaners," a female visitor said.
"It is a female coyote, ma'am," the docent corrected.
"Hey, you scruffy, mangy, overgrown dog!" the thin-legged man yelled.
Juanita stopped her pacing and sat on the ground facing the visitors. She held her head high and let out a long, menacing howl.
The three straggling visitors jumped back. Juanita ended her howl, turned abruptly, and strode off to her den.
"That's the five o'clock whistle, folks," the patient docent said. "Please, let's move toward the exit so our animals can have their evening meal in peace."
A full moon was rising into the night sky as Juanita lay in a corner of her den catering to her brood of pups. Walter, her husband, dosed in the far corner, resting up for his own concert of howls that he would give once the moon had risen to its highest point.
Several of the pups finished their meal and licked each other's noses and mouths.
Stephanie Coyote, the runt of the litter but the most outspoken, said in the loudest voice she could manage, "Mother, please tell us one of your tales about running free in the wild."
"I will, Stephanie, but only if you lower your voice. Your father is sleeping."
"Sorry, mother," Stephanie said in a whisper.
"I want a story, too," Guillermo said. "If Stephanie gets one, I want one, too," he sulked.
"Children, please bide your time. I usually recite only one bedtime story each night. In honor of the full moon which coyotes love so much, I will tell a Stephanie tale and a Guillermo tale this evening."
All six pups quickly gathered around their mother in a semi-circle.
"Here at the Museum," Juanita began, "the keepers feed us and we don't have to worry about hunting for rats or beetles or an occasional wounded bird.
Out there in the wild, things are very different. A coyote is only as strong as her next meal, particularly when she has hungry pups to feed."
"What did you eat out there beyond the fences, mother?" Stephanie asked impatiently.
Juanita held the tip of her paw to her mouth, signaling silence. She did not like interruptions when she was telling her tales, except when the interruption was invited. She waited a full minute until all six of her children were paying attention.
"Out there we chased down the human's cows one night and their sheep the next," she said and showed her flashing coyote teeth.
"Really?" Benita Coyote uttered in amazement.
"No, children, we don't chase cows and sheep. Coyotes rarely attack the human's animals, though the humans blame us nearly every time one of their animals is mutilated. Humans rarely blame the wolves or the mountain lions or their neighbors' dogs."
"Like what Victor the mountain lion did to the deer," Alfred said, remembering the story which his mother had told him about the puma's attack back in the summer.
"Correct, Alfred. My diet was mostly made up of small wild animals which I encountered during my hunts. Field mice in the spring. An unwary rabbit in early summer. Grasshoppers in late summer were always plentiful. The fall and winter presented the hardest times because cold weather in the mountains keeps many wild animals and insects underground.
Still, I managed to feed on wild berries. The early fall was the best because the birds would come and gorge on overripe berries, then fall to the ground and stagger around because the berries made them dizzy. Oh, the birds I have eaten: blue jays and pine jays; tanagers and warblers; purple martins and finches. My favorite has always been the white-winged dove. They were plump and juicy and delightful to a coyote's taste buds."
"Did you ever kill one of the human's animals, mother?" Benita asked meekly.
"Only once, Benita. During one harsh winter, ice and snow covered the mountain meadows and trees. I had eaten only nuts and bits of dried cactus which I had stored in my den. I was starving. I headed for lower ground where I knew the humans lived in greater numbers. One moonlit night I snuck into a hen house and stole two chickens. The whole hen house was in an uproar. I knew the humans would come and investigate. So, I ran as fast as a coyote can with two chickens in its mouth."
"What did the humans do?" Benita asked.
"A man pointed a long rod in my direction. I heard a small clap of thunder and something whizzed by my head."
"That would be a rifle like the keepers sometimes carry," Tomas, the most observant coyote pup, added.
"Yes, I believe it was a rifle, Tomas. In any event, I dropped one of the chickens during my escape, but I carried the other to a safe distance before having dinner."
Juanita adjusted herself slightly and continued. "I have eaten other human food which they have discarded along roads or hiking paths: potato chips, hamburger rolls, bits of something called hot dogs, for example. These foods are okay, but I really prefer my food uncooked."
"I tasted a piece of crunchy orange corn which a human tossed in our exhibit last week," Stephanie said. "It tasted yukky. I like the food the keepers give us."
In the far corner of the den, Walter let out a hearty coyote yawn.
"Children, I think your father wants to go out and get ready to howl at the full moon," Juanita said.
"Can we go, too?" the coyote pups said in unison.
"Only grown coyotes can howl at the harvest moon," Walter instructed as he passed his children, bending down and licking each one, in turn, with the tip of his tongue. "You children can listen to the second tale your mother promised while I serenade in the distance." And, with that, Walter pranced outside into the light of the harvest moon.
Benjamin, the shyest of the six coyote children, at last spoke up. "I know it is Guillermo's turn for a second tale, but I'd like to hear once more the story about how you came to the Museum, mother. However, only if Guillermo agrees?" Benjamin said, lowering his head and afraid to look Guillermo in the face.
"Okay, okay," Guillermo said, just a little irritated. "Tell the story that will make poor little Benjamin happy. Maybe then he won't sulk and feel sorry for himself."
"Each of us has different personalities," Juanita said gently. "The humans think we are all the same because, to them, all coyotes look and act the same. Little do they know how different we can be, and that's what the second tale is all about." With that prologue, Juanita began her tale.
"Once upon a time, many moons ago, when I was very young and inexperienced I had my only other litter of pups. My husband at that time was a surly older coyote named Nicholas. Unlike your father, Walter, Nicholas was not a kind parent. He growled at our children constantly and forced me to do all the hunting while he lounged away in the den and did nothing. One day, because I had not returned with enough food to suit him, Nicholas bit me on the ear and began picking up my pups and started shaking them. I was fearful that he was actually going to eat them. That very night when he was sound asleep the children and I left quickly and followed a stream so it would hide our scent."
"What did you do then, mother?" Benjamin asked, quivering with fear even though he was safe and was only listening to a story.
"We traveled for three days and nights without stopping, except to rest briefly and eat a few water beetles," Juanita continued. "Travel by day can be very dangerous for a mother coyote and her siblings. We have our enemies, as I've told you. Mountain lions, like Victor, or a wandering bear or a large bobcat would consider small coyotes to be a hearty meal. But, thanks to the Great Coyote God in the sky who lives behind the moon, we all reached a remote area under the stream's bank. There was a den close by."
"That's when you met Mario, the widowed coyote," Benjamin inserted because he knew the story so well.
"Yes. Mario showed us his den and told us the tale of his dead wife, Sarah. Sarah had been killed by a hunter who used one of those flaming tubes."
"Rifle, mother," Tomas corrected.
"Thank you, Tomas. Yes, a rifle. Anyway, Mario was everything Nicholas was not. He was kind and patient. He hunted with me and later trained my children to hunt, too. But Mario was an old coyote and, as will happen to all of us, one moonlit night he told me, 'Juanita, dearest, I am very tired. I am going out into the thicket and lie down and rest.'"
"That's the animal way of saying, 'I am going to die'," Benjamin said.
"That is the usual way, children. All of us eventually get called to the coyote heaven of stars from whence we came," Juanita said gently.
"Skip to the part about how you came here, mother," Guillermo said impatiently.
Juanita did not appreciate this interruption. However, she only sighed and said, "It is getting quite late, and I am beginning to get tired," Juanita said with a yawn.
"Mother, you're not going to die, are you?" Benjamin howled in alarm.
"No, Benjamin. Life here at the Museum is much easier on a coyote, and I expect to live to see more passing moons."
All six coyote children sighed and snuggled in closer to their mother.
"As I was saying, once my children were raised and out on their own and I had endured the winter of ice and snow, I decided to take what the humans call 'early retirement.' From the top of a hill just west of here, I saw one moonlit night that there was a coyote exhibit. I spied Walter pacing back and forth and knew that he was lonely. I thought to myself, 'Juanita, how can you join him? You cannot just trot up to the admissions window and ask for a ticket.' So, I thought and I thought and I thought. The answer was right before my very eyes, but it took me a long time to see it. The next moonlit night I crept to the cyclone fence near where the keepers store their work clothes. I sat, pointed my nose toward the sky, and began to howl. I prayed that the humans would know how to capture me. I prayed and prayed they would not shoot me with one of their rifles."
"That is when you had some great coyote luck," Stephanie said, unable to restrain herself. "The keeper on duty that night was Martin Lopez, the very keeper of our exhibit."
"Stephanie, do you wish to finish my tale, or shall I?" Juanita asked, waiting for an answer.
"I'm sorry, mother." Stephanie bowed her head. "Please continue."
"Well, I will continue, but just with the conclusion to the tale. Mr. Lopez is a Tohono O'odham Indian and knows more about coyotes than any human being I have ever encountered. He let himself outside the gate and approached me slowly and with soothing words. He slipped a leash around my neck, and I let him lead me inside to an area I later learned was called the animal quarantine. For a month, I was given various shots and many medical tests. At long last, I was taken to Walter and properly introduced. We courted and fell in love. It took a while, but I finally had my second litter of pups. When you are grown, you will be taken to other places where you will prosper as I have here."
"We are so glad you are our mother," Benjamin said.
Benjamin and Alfred, Stephanie and Guillermo, Benita and Tomas approached quietly and each, in turn, gave their mother a coyote kiss.
Outside the den, the howling started as Walter began reciting his own coyote tale to the Coyote God behind the moon.
Martin Lopez, newly promoted to foreman of all the keepers, looked down on his coyote clan and smiled. He knew the tales they were sharing even though he had never heard them from Juanita's or Walter's mouths.
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