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The Coyote Hunt

I walked up the mountain in the howling snow and the drifts and the flashing of the moon behind the clouds, looking for coyote traps to sabotage.   The coyote hunt was on that weekend, and I heard there were traps up on Hubbell Hill.

It was snowshoe, mitten, balaclava weather.  I brought several flashlights in case one or the other went dead, and I wished I’d brought a gun, because you never know.  A 19-year-old folk singer in Canada was killed not long ago by coyotes.  Nothing amiss with the animals.  They were healthy and strong, no rabies, not starving, which are the usual reasons wild canids attack and kill people – and we should remember they almost never do so.

Here in New York State I get into arguments with both sides, the hunters who kill with a passion and the animal rightsers whose love is as irrational.  I’m told by the hunter crowd that coyotes in a ravening state will eat your balls off.   God bless the coyotes! Let them feast – especially on New Yorkers, who are too many and need to be culled.

With the wind-ripped saplings of fir pulling like oarmen, with the branches of the hardwoods toppling into the fat of the snow, with the light of the moon behind the storm emitting an obscene purple light, up the mountain I go.   My snowshoes plummet and splash, the wind in the trees seems to cavitate the sky, the old oaks groan and call, and a cold white exploding pillow-fight of down blinds me.

Into the ice temple among the hemlocks: these last pillared behemoth remnants: the sad lone grandsons of the firs that once covered the Catskills, raped and pillaged for the chemicals in their bark, chemicals that tanned leather for a short while before the rapists moved on to other more efficient means of tanning.

Beyond the hemlocks, a bluestone wall is buried under a foot of snow or more, and beyond the wall is a vast field where the trees were cleared a hundred years ago.

And beyond that is the height of Hubbell Hill.

I went out one night during the annual February coyote hunt to a local restaurant off Route 28, in the valley below Hubbell Hill, where the owners, Tina and Doug, keep a stuffed coyote at the door to the kitchen.   Doug, the chef, joined in last year’s contest, but he regretted he couldn’t make it this year.   Last year he used a caller and a rabbit pantomime and scent to draw them toward his hunting blind.

Sometimes he uses a turkey call.  “They come right to it,” he said.  Then he excused himself to get back to the kitchen, as it was a busy night, and Tina, who was tending bar, explained that she was an animal lover – but the love did not extend, for some reason, to coyotes.  “I can’t stand killing.  When the men go out and bring back a deer, I don’t wanna even look.  But coyotes. I don’t know why.  That’s the only animal I could shoot.  I just hate them.  Maybe it’s that screaming at night they do.  I can’t think of anyone up here who likes coyotes.”

Her dishwasher, a fresh-faced man no older than 20, emerged from the kitchen and showed me a picture of a handsome coyote he trapped on Hubbell Hill. In the photo he holds the animal by its hindquarters so that its body stretches out and straightens, forelegs pointed down, as if diving into deep water.

Tina called across the room to a party who were celebrating a birthday.   One of the men in the group had attended last year’s hunt in Sullivan County, the county to the south.  Immediately he went to swiping at his smartphone, looking for a photo of the trophy he had gotten.   It seemed that everybody in the place, at one time or another, had been busy trapping or shooting the poor dogs.

Tina said again, “It’s that horrible screaming at night.”

“Coyotes need to eat too,” I told her.  She poured me another Jameson.   We talked for a while.  I told her that I had spent time around coyotes.  We talked about how they sing complex songs – it isn’t screaming – how these are family groups singing together, talking with one another, establishing territory, how sometimes it’s a form of play, an expression of joy that has no purpose beyond expression.

We talked about the pups and their play, the way the families stick together, the cohesiveness and fidelity of coyote families. “It’s like they’re around a campfire, like us? Well.” She thought for a moment.  “Now I feel bad about bad-mouthing the coyotes.”

I told her I thought it was a form of madness to kill wild animals who no one would eat, whose only purpose in death was to serve as a stuffed manikin at the door of restaurants.

A few days later, another storm.   The usual crashing white wind of the Catskills, brought from the Great Lakes.   It was a burning bush of white, and after it passed the coyotes sang and I went up to Hubbell Hill to sabotage whatever traps I could find.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out next year from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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