Saturday, March 5, 2022
I’m struggling. Something happened today that was terribly disturbing. I need to work through it, write about it, see if there’s a way to turn a terrible negative into something a little bit positive.
It’s evening, I’m listening to the soothing music of Eamonn Karran streaming over the Internet as I type these words. The music helps calm and distract me, but can’t erase from my brain what I heard this afternoon.
Conall’s struggling, too.
Finn, nearly deaf, was spared, although he could see from Conall’s body language that something was off.
The boys and I were moving across the fields and through the woods in the 300 acres across the road. Owned by neighbors who are away for the winter, it’s our refuge, our sanctuary, our playground. I wore snowshoes, but the snow is retreating and the boys we able to easily move without punching through too much.
Sound carries easily out there. There are stands of forest, big open fields interspersed with ponds, surrounded by similar parcels with an occasional house.
Not long after we started out, Conall stopped and listened, tail down, sniffing the air moved by a strong and steady wind. Approaching the Big Pond, we were still below the knoll that overlooks it. At first, I thought Conall spotted something on the side of the knoll, or in the trees – last fall we often saw turkeys there – but eventually he continued following the track through the snow we set yesterday to the top of the knoll.
When we reached the high spot with its 360-degree views, Conall stopped again, listening. I also listened. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a dog’s sharp bark. Slowing my breathing and listening more carefully, I heard the distinctive yip of a coyote. Two or three yips. While not as common a sound as when we lived in Idaho, I’ve heard coyotes here on occasion, so I didn’t think too much of it, other than it was 2:30 pm and I’ve only heard Vermont coyotes vocalizing at dusk or night. Strange, yes, but I urged Conall to continue on our route.
As the boys and I passed the pond and turned south toward the break in the tree line which leads to a wooded path, the yips became more scream-like, and more frequent. We stopped again, listening. We heard loud, urgent, insistent vocalizations coming from the other side of a wide swale, traveling clearly through the cold air.
Screams. Impossible to ignore.
Clearly an animal in distress, and likely in excruciating pain. The more I listened, the more certain I was that it was a coyote. And the only explanation for such screaming was that it was trapped in a leg-hold trap, set by a human.
Tail down, body still, Conall was upset. But he wasn’t displaying fear. He was willing to continue along our route, if warily.
I, on the other hand, was angry, and a little fearful. I couldn’t help but hear the agonizing barks and screams of the coyote, even over the sounds of my snowshoes crunching through the top layer of crusted snow. With each passing minute its cries became more frantic and frenzied, in pain, screaming out so loudly and frequently that it was uncharacteristically alerting any and all to its location in broad daylight.
Only a desperate coyote would do that. And those screams would bring the trapper – or some other human – right to it, to finish the deed.
I hate people at times like this. Not just the ignorant morons who trap wildlife and thrill in the catch and kill, but everyone else who condones it or ignores it and allows it to continue as a legal form of “recreation.” I hate that people can be so cruel, that they are my neighbors.
Helpless to intervene, the boys and I kept walking. Normally, our snow-covered path through the forests and fields would give me peace and joy. Not today. An animal was suffering needlessly, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. Not only is it illegal for someone like me to “interfere” with a trap, to free a trapped animal, but it’s dangerous to try. Any animal trapped and in such pain – even one’s own dog – will bite the hand that tries to free it.
Some twenty minutes after Conall and I first heard that poor coyote’s cries, we heard two quick rifle shots. Finally, I thought, the poor creature’s suffering is over.
Conall freaked. For him, and for me, hearing the rifle shots was like suddenly being back in Idaho, walking Campbell Road in the snow one February afternoon and hearing the crackle of a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle whizzing past our heads. The sight of four dead coyotes laid neatly in a row on a snow berm near my house that same winter flashed through my brain.
The rifle shots caused PTSD for both of us. I had hoped that leaving Idaho and moving to Vermont would put the horror of nearly being shot behind us. I was wrong.
Conall wanted to get home to safety as fast as possible. Even though he was wearing his bright orange Do Not Kill Me vest, I worried about him getting too far ahead of me in his haste to get away from the killers. (Trust me, that’s what he’s thinking when he hears gun shots. After our close call in Idaho, I’m positive he knows guns and bullets are lethal.) I thought I knew, roughly, where the coyote was trapped, and thus where the rifle shots came from, but what if was wrong? What if they were closer? What if these were yahoos out killing as many coyotes as possible on a sunny Saturday afternoon (which is, sadly, legal in Vermont)? What if they mistook Conall for a coyote, failing to see his orange vest in their haste to kill anything resembling a coyote?
A minute or so after those rifle shots, as I struggled with connecting the boys’ two leashes and attaching them as one long lead to Conall’s collar, I heard the coyote’s screams again, for another two or three minutes. Excruciating. Then, silence.
I tried to make sense of what I’d heard. Did the trapper fail to kill the coyote with the first two shots, then decide to save his ammo and kill it by bludgeoning it? That is, sadly, a common tactic of trappers. It hardly bears contemplating. It’s all so cruel and senseless.
I leashed Conall and kept him near me. He pulled me fast through a wooded section toward home, Finn close on my heels, struggling to keep up in the soft snow.
Back home, just before dusk, Conall wouldn’t settle. He paced. He climbed the stairs to the loft, something he does only when highly agitated and frightened. He heard something outside I couldn’t hear. Panting, sitting on my foot as I sat at my computer, seeking my touch if my hand left his fur…, I got up and stepped outside. That’s when I heard what Conall had: a distant neighbor, target shooting. We’ve heard it before, usually on a Saturday, sending Conall up to the loft in fear. I haven’t figured out who, or where, exactly. It wasn’t coming from the same area where we heard the poor coyote crying in pain and fear, but the target shooting is near enough for Conall to become distressed when he hears it.
Ever since that Idaho close call, whenever Conall hears rifle shots, he assumes they’re coming for us. I don’t know how to assure him otherwise.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, nine days ago. Horrible. Horrifying. The conflict has the world’s attention, distracting us from all the other suffering in the world. My frustration level, as a result, was already high. Then hearing that coyote’s screams, I’m overwhelmed with anger and impotency. I can’t fix geopolitics and the moronic despots who start wars, and I can’t even fix that trapping is legal and condoned in so many states, Vermont included. But I can vote, and maybe persuade other voters with my words. There is, at least, some movement in Vermont’s legislature this year to ban leg hold traps and the use of hounds to “hunt” coyotes and bears. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m far more hopeful than I ever was in Idaho.
Despite all the horrible news of Ukraine on my computer screen, all I hear in my mind are the pitiful cries of one trapped coyote. It echoes in my head, an endless loop.
I’m too sensitive, or so I’ve been told. I feel too much of the pain of other living creatures. I absorb it, but don’t know what to do with it. The anger and frustration consume me. And so, I write. I vent. I advocate. I try to change minds. I try to stop the cruelty.
Sunday, March 6, 2022.
I tossed and turned all night. I couldn’t stop thinking about the coyote, about the implications of its cruel end.
This morning, I hesitated to venture back out into the fields and woods. It’s still the weekend, I thought. Killers are more likely to be out there. Maybe we should stay safe, at home, and wait until midweek. But a beautiful, sunny, late-winter day beckoned.
Whenever something scary happened that might make me reluctant to do an activity/sport again – like falling off my bicycle as I was learning to ride – my father would say, “You have to get back on the horse.” Once, after literally falling off a horse, his words rang in my head as, shaking, I grabbed the reins and climbed back into the saddle.
My father was right, of course. His advice was always sound. Face and overcome the fear right away, before your imagination turns it into something larger and darker.
I decided to take the boys back out into the fields and woods. I didn’t want Conall to become wary of venturing into our playground. I didn’t want to live in fear, either. It was hard, but we’ve had practice. I had to get back on the horse after we were nearly shot walking along a rural road in Idaho. I had to get back on the horse after Conall and I were confronted by angry hunters in Idaho.
I get tired of climbing back on this particular horse so often. But I will. I must. I can’t let the bastards win.
Making sure Conall was wearing his vest, we three headed out at 2:30 pm. Thankfully, our outing was peaceful. I didn’t hear any human-caused sounds beyond my own footsteps and occasional words of encouragement to the boys. No coyotes screaming in pain. The sun was shining, the snow was firm yet quiet underfoot (no snowshoes needed), and the wind soughed gently through the bare tree limbs above us. I let my thoughts drift to how much I’ll enjoy watching the trees leaf out, my first spring in Vermont.
After crossing two open fields and traversing through a stand of trees, we came to the field where we were standing yesterday when the violence of rifle shots tore through the air. In the exact spot where I stopped and struggled to connect the two leashes into one so that I could keep an anxious Conall close to me, we found a message: coyote scat. Right on my snowshoe tracks.
Unlike dogs, who mostly prefer to poop well off a trail, coyotes are known to communicate with their scat by leaving it in the middle of trails, on an obvious rock or log, or at the edge of a territory they want to keep others away from. Roads are another favorite location. Once, years ago, I marveled at all the piles of coyote scat left right on the white fog line of a road through Jasper National Park in Canada. Coyotes have precise aim and “speak” clearly.
I decided the most favorable interpretation of this message is: We’re here, and we’re staying.
I hope the coyote who left this particular message knows the boys and I are not the problem and are not a threat. The Pollyanna in me also wants to interpret the message as assurance that the frightened, injured coyote is now in a better place, free from pain.
Yet I continue thinking about that poor coyote. In hindsight, I wonder if I should have recorded its pitiful cries, a way to drive home to those far removed from the realities of rural life just how horrific trapping is. But I didn’t think of it yesterday, an opportunity lost, perhaps, although it would have been incredibly difficult to stand still and record. In the moment, I just wanted – needed – to keep moving, hoping the creature’s suffering ended as quickly as possible, ashamed at my helplessness to intervene. Ashamed to belong to the same species that caused its suffering.
I spend too much time wondering why we’re still in a place where this scenario – trapping and torturing wildlife – is considered okay. What “civilized” society can ever condone such intentional suffering as leg-hold trapping? And what sort of person in today’s supposedly enlightened world inflicts that pain, willfully, regularly, with no remorse?
Why is “sport hunting” okay? Why is killing animals considered sport?
A friend recently shared an article with me. She appreciated the writer’s style and thought I would, too. But the piece was about the male writer’s boredom during the pandemic and his new-found desire to win a cooking contest put on by an outdoors sports show in Maryland. To enter, he had to teach himself to cook muskrat. His article included photos of several dead muskrats laid out neatly on a table after a killing contest. He wrote of buying a dozen frozen muskrats and the various ways he tried to tenderize and deodorize the meat as he experimented with recipes. I was offended, but my friend sent the article so I kept reading. When I reached a photo of children engaging in an on-stage contest at said outdoor show, to see which could skin a raccoon hanging from a rope the fastest, I stopped reading. I wrote to my friend, saying yes, the guy’s writing style is engaging, but I couldn’t stomach the content. My friend was apologetic and appalled she’d even sent the article to me, knowing my advocacy for animals, and frankly, so was I. She’s normally very sensitive and certainly an animal advocate herself.
The fact that she did send me the article opened my eyes to just how inured to killing American culture has become.
There are so many culturally-approved ways in which animal cruelty is enabled, accepted, and normalized in our culture that even people like my usually-sensitive friend too often fail to see or question it.
That needs to change.
What if, as a small step in a better direction, we stopped teaching (indoctrinating?) children to kill – to hunt for “sport?” Stopped describing the torture and killing of animals as “manly” and “a rite of passage” or as “heritage” worth preserving and passing down? Dog and cock fighting have been outlawed as cruel. Animal neglect and abuse are now prosecuted in most states as a criminal offense. We recognize those things as damaging not only to the animal victims, but to society in general.
All of the animals “hunted” for “sport” are sentient beings, experiencing fear and pain as they’re stalked and killed.
What if we outlawed killing for fun, for recreation, for sport?
What if we recognized that every living thing is here for a reason, interconnected and interdependent, each required for the well-being and survival of all?
We’re already killing the planet with human activity and interference. Why pile on?
If everyone had to listen – for twenty minutes, as I did – to the cries and screams of that terrified coyote, maybe sanctioned cruelty would end.
In the meantime, I practice getting back on the horse.
I need to turn this experience into something positive. So, I will remember. I will speak out. I will donate. I will volunteer. I will vote. And I will keep writing and advocating. Because to accept the status quo, to keep silent while living in fear of the killers, to turn a blind eye to their depravity – is to let them win.
I refuse to let them win.
Feature illustration: Leap of Faith, by Lucy Campbell