Island Life


There are times when it is short, sharp and to the point. Other times it could be construed as an insistent and inconsolable wail- that is if you apply the anthropomorphic filter to it, the one that supposes there is some recognition of loss with the requisite bit of mourning that generally goes with it. I am referring here to Sylvain’s varied bits of yowling as he circles by the front door, which formerly was his main, human-activated portal to points that are anywhere else in the neighborhood besides the field-fenced backyard. After his brother Sebastien’s recent, unscheduled departure from the planet, as recounted here the last time around, the fenced outback is now recognized as the only place out of doors around here that is safe from the figurative wolves at the door. Sometimes, and in some places, they are indeed known as prairie or brush wolves, but here I am of course talking about the coyotes that have invaded what once was a relatively safe space for pets, and apparently is no more.

From readings on the Vashon Nature Center website, it looks as though the first known recent sightings of Canis latrans on this Island was sometime in 2005. I kind of remember the rumors then, but never really heard the evening pack vocalizations that say that the coyotes have really come to town until ten or so years ago. At the time we had the entire ten acres here ringed with radio wire so our dogs could not wander beyond that border, but the cats could come and go as they pleased. As it was, our dog Taanker had a great dislike for raccoons and pretty much any other wild thing that might pass over the electronic borderline unbothered, so we did not worry too much about coyote intruders as long as she was on the job. She has since passed on the border watch to our new gang from her self-same branch of the Canis genus. However one of that bunch proved early on that, unlike Taanker before her, she had no fear of the invisible fence and the shock that ensues when a border breach is attempted from the inside. That is why we put up the field fence, although in a much smaller border loop. As it was, this barrier also has kept out the marauding deer and allowed small apple trees to not be turned into deer pellets, and there are a number of other plants that have thrived in this barricaded sanctuary of sorts as well. It also is a formidable deterrent to the coyotes.

Sylvain’s arresting and annoying yowling at the door does at times gain enough attention that he is permitted to temporarily escape the confines of house and fence zone to walk freely, with a minder, out in the front entrance path and driveway, where he and his brother once wandered and often sat and waited until we returned from an uptown errand run that only the dogs got to go on. But they were the sentinels that got to welcome us home, until one of them wasn’t anymore. It is still, and probably will always be, unclear as to how Sylvain perceives Sebastien’s disappearance and demise. There are points on the walkabouts where he pauses and smells the ground. There are other spots that he approaches cautiously and then stops to peer around shrubs and over grasses as if these are legitimate areas of concern- perhaps the place where a coyote seized on an opportunity and showed off its ability to achieve a forty mile per hour sprint- one that these cats had no chance of outrunning. I wonder if Sylvain was there- the one that won the luck of the draw in the coyote cookout sweepstakes- and whether or not he saw what happened, and if it was anything like how I see it in my mind when I think about that cat who is no longer here. I also wonder if all the people behind the seemingly daily parade of missing cat social media posts, and the posters seen on power poles around the Island are in some hopeful state of denial that Mr. Fluffy will somehow miraculously pop back through the cat door with tales of adventure and feline party time. I know the pictures conjured in my head are not pretty, and perhaps it was quick and painless. But I did find that pile of coyote scat with cat hair in it, and in truth, that is all the confirmation I would care to see, because even that was a bit too much to find.

It seems that we are now in a vortex that exists to shred the normal. The weather and the climate are no longer “normal”. Public health is no longer “normal”. Social interaction is no longer “normal”. Politics, well, yeah. What it appears is seemingly normal for Sylvain is to go out the front door, or one of the now closed fence portals, and wander up the driveway. There are certain moss-covered spots along the drive that seem particularly well engineered for lounging, and when he is out there he finds then with ease. Many times now we have gone out and looped around the front turnaround and then come back to the front porch, underneath which is soft dirt that appears cat box tried and tested. All of this was the norm for Sylvain, until now. And just the other day  he went and sat in one of his favorite observing spots and he stared into some tall grass, leaped into the air and the grass and then came out with a small mouse that he terminated in a fashion and quickness that hopefully Sebastien shared in his final moments. There apparently was no concern either felt or expressed by Sylvain that his brother had met a similar fate to this mouse. It is, after all, the wild kingdom here, and that is the way we do things, or at least they do.

It was the main reason we got Sylvain and Sebastien to begin with- to help in reducing the rodent population around the house, which had mostly gotten out of control by the time we got them. They did their job extremely well, and often left evidence of their hunting prowess along the path to the front door, perhaps so that we would see it prior receiving their greeting, and perhaps so they would get some bonus pets on the head, both for being there to welcome us home and for rodent reduction production. And then, when it dawned on us that perhaps Sebastien might not be coming home to this normal, the plugs went into the portals, creating a new normal that Sylvain still has neither understood nor accepted.

I am also having a hard time with this normal- the coyote normal- as it creates a whole new level of worry and uncertainty to the mix. I understand the “risks of the rural” and the “this is their home too” things, but the fact remains that for more than twenty of my first years here, coyotes didn’t fit into either of those categories- not here anyway. There is a quote on the Vashon Nature Center website that says: “the tricky part of living with wildlife is consistency on the part of the whole community.” In referencing consistency in relation to how we as Americans in general have dealt with things like climate change, the current occupant of the White House, racism and the covid plague, this does not give one a whole lot of hope. There does seem to be a bit more cohesiveness and unanimity of purpose in this community however, but it seems that given some of the solutions offered in terms of living with coyotes, I think more will be necessary than just a live and let live attitude in terms of getting through this. To start with, when my visualizations merge with the fact that a female coyote can give birth to from three to twelve pups every year, with no other predators besides the random, wayward cougar to limit growth, it doesn’t take rocket math to see that there may be more of a problem here than waving sticks and throwing rocks and “making yourself big” can handle. Not making friends with coyotes and scaring them off with inflatable, attention getting, scary man tactics might work just fine in places where there is somewhere else to go. But with water on all the borders here- even if it is as they say, that coyotes are great swimmers- there is mostly nowhere for them to go, except to leave and become a problem for your neighbor down the lane.

We have resolved to keep Sylvain in and to walk him when his yowling gets to be too much. If the coyote plague continues to grow and worsen, we have also resolved to not get anymore cats. It’s just too painful to lose anyone else, and too disturbing to live with the imagined path of their demise. Perhaps there will be a coyote population collapse at some point- nature does have a way of limiting these things. Or maybe, after the last cat is eaten and the tricksters just can’t stomach wild island cherries and blackberries any more they’ll all just swim away to the mainland and vanish into what is left of the woodlands. You know, just magically disappear, like Covid-19.