I was doing a couple of location shoots last week and took my sheepdog along for the ride.
Somewhere in the middle of the prairies, she needed a walk and I punched “Rest Area” into the GPS, finding one a couple of clicks up the road.
Like most Prairie roadside stops, it was little more than a grove of trees in the middle of nowhere and as we approached I noticed what looked like a lump of roadkill on the shoulder.
But the pile of fur lifted its head to check us out. It was a coyote.
It’s not unusual for a coyote to bed down near a busy highway. They’re naturally curious animals easily entertained by our coming and goings – and there’s always the chance a passing semi will deliver a free bunny or skunk dinner as it rolls through.
I didn’t give the critter a second thought. What coyote’d be so bored he’d wander a few hundred yards up the road just to see what I was up to.
But I was wrong.
We’d only been out of the car a few minutes when the coyote loped into the rest area, eyeing my dog and, perhaps sensing it was a female, happily wagging his tail.
Now “Dusty” (my pooch) has had a close encounter with coyotes before.
When she was about a year old, we were on a late night walk when the coyotes in the conservation area the house overlooked made a kill, whooping it up like crazy as they celebrated the hot meal to come.
Dusty froze, listened a second and then made a beeline for home, terrified. No sooner were we in the door, then she went to the landing window facing the park and stared out through the glass.
Four hours later, she hadn’t moved a muscle, keeping watch on where the coyotes had been howling. She was still there the next morning.
Back in the rest area, I felt confident that a single coyote wasn’t going to mess with a guy and his dog. But I leashed up my pal to get both of us out of harm’s way all the same.
The dog was trembling, her eyes locked on the coyote as it took a couple of steps forward, still wagging its tail and, for all I know, sending “come hither” vibes.
Dusty wasn’t buying and she suddenly squared herself, digging in her heels. Not running but not attacking either.
Standing her ground, she turned from docile travelling companion to ferocious beast, snarling and barking ominously, daring the coyote to take one more step, her body language threatening deadly consequences if he did.
I looked down at her and could have sworn all of her hair was standing on end, making her look twice her normal size. Somehow I was now leashed to “Cujo” in full menace mode.
600 years of instinct and breeding was kicking in. This was the enemy, the animal she had been bred to keep from sheep and cattle.
And despite the fact that she’s never shown the slightest interest (let alone any affinity) for sheep or cattle, this intruder was getting the message that she was the last creature with whom he wanted to mess.
The coyote stopped wagging his tail, turned and trotted away.
We got back in the car and for the next half hour, Dusty sat in the back, making sure we weren’t being followed.
Back in 1954, Chuck Jones immortalized the conflict between Sheepdog and coyote in a classic cartoon entitled “Sheep Ahoy”. It was a tremendous hit, introducing the Wile E. Coyote character.
In his original incarnation, however, Wile E. was just a slavering, red-eyed villain without a name. But the popularity of the cartoon spawned several sequels featuring a sheepdog named Sam, a coyote named Ralph and the concept that both were just doing the job they’d been hired to do.
Like the generations of instinct and inter-species understanding I witnessed this week, those old Warner Brothers cartoons still pack a comic punch 50 years later.
Sam and Ralph. Enjoy your Sunday.