There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places animals way down the hierarchy, but we do just the opposite. "Angels," we think to ourselves or maybe whisper to each other--because sometimes that's the only word for the creatures that fill our world with love.
I should say right out that I am a lifelong member of this group. So it should not be surprising that I have been musing this spring about two special animals, one absent, one present.
The Absent One is our beautiful dog Snobie. My husband first saw her when she was a tiny puppy, wandering all by herself on the busy streets of Mission, South Dakota. He took her in and took her to a veterinarian, who told him she was only 4 weeks old--too young to be separated from her mother and littermates and therefore doomed to be psychologically stunted. He said she would never adapt to human beings.
How wrong he was! She grew easily into a loving and well-mannered member of our household. Here at Bird Runner, she was my constant companion. Throughout all of her 14 years, she shared a contagious delight in life. No matter how many troubles accumulated in our human world, Snobie could make us feel that this very moment in this very place was perfection itself--exactly as it was meant to be.
Now the hole in my heart has her shape exactly. I can't ask another pet to take her place. It wouldn't be fair, as I'm afraid I would blame another dog for not being her. I miss her as much today as the day she died, two years ago.
But now alongside this loss has grown up a new attachment--not to a creature who greets me eagerly or who follows me everywhere--but to someone who avoids me as much as possible and has her own agenda, quite apart from mine. This is a young female coyote who shows up repeatedly on our trail cameras. She is delicate and energetic, with a tail that narrows at the top, like a pony tail. After several daytime clips revealed her russet color, I started thinking of her as "Miss Red."
Seeing coyotes at all is fraught with meaning for human beings. Coyotes have endured and are still enduring the worst cruelties of which human beings are capable. Traps, bullets, poisons, bounties--government-financed eradication attempts and citizen-organized group hunts--all have targeted coyotes. Yet they are still here, surviving, adapting, confirming their legendary identities as Tricksters--or perhaps their special status as "God's Dog," the name given them by peoples of the Southwest. The very presence of coyotes is quite a statement.
It is a statement we humans struggle to answer. The refusal of coyotes to go extinct--like the resistance of the flint-rock prairies to the plow--is humbling for us humans, but also heartening. The ongoing Presence of what we have tried to destroy means we still have a chance to learn from nature.
Perhaps we can learn to fit into our ecosystem better, killing only to eat. Perhaps we can learn to untwist our psyches and stop killing just to kill.
Coyotes are good medicine. Their healthy presence suggests healing for Homo sapiens, too--a chance to do it right next time, to come into our own within a land community.
Recently, the camera has caught Miss Red in friendly interaction with a large male, whom we call Big Gray. She sidles up to him, wagging her tail: He scratches the earth and marks it with a splash of urine. She paws his shoulder, then licks his face: He stands stockstill, enduring her kisses. He chews on a carcass, while she approaches: He lets her eat.
Sometimes, they call to each other, back and forth. Their howls come through loudly on the trailcam audio--full of meaning for them, full of mystery for us.
When I hear their strong voices or see their lustrous coats, or when I stumble across a burrow, perhaps the nursery for this-year's pups or perhaps only a reserve refuge in case their real home is discovered, I feel a rightness in the cosmos--just as I did whenever Snobie looked at me, wriggling in joy.
Snobie's ashes are scattered in one of her favorite spots, a patch of native prairie above our house. I like knowing that she is out there, a part of the Wild.
Thanks to Miss Red, that Wild comes to visit from time to time, brightening my world, betokening health--becoming a companion I greet enthusiastically and whose trail I follow gladly, wherever it goes.