Sunday, May 09, 2010

Par for the Course

Mars and I never really met a coyote or a greyhound until we traveled to New Mexico.

We had of course seen both of them before that time. We knew about the wild canines from zoos and nature documentaries - and in Mars' case also from watching a coyote trot down the middle of our suburban Connecticut street one morning before dawn.

The domesticated ones were also spotted in our neighborhood, this time by both of us. A pair of them was sometimes observed walking slowly at the end of a leash held gently by a mid-eighties woman who lived several houses up the road.

At that time, if asked, we would unequivocally have declared the desert wolf to be, by far, the more dangerous of the two species. Our "up close and personal" New Mexican experiences only served to solidify that belief.

The first set of face-to-face coyote encounters occurred two autumns ago in the hills outside of Santa Fe at where we were dog/house sitting.

Audrey is a daytime, outdoor dog who takes very seriously the job of guarding her property. She has over the years had at least two losing encounters with some of the coyotes that wander through the sparsely developed high desert terrain wherein the residence sits. The wild canines are around pretty much 24x7x52 - but are most active around dawn and dusk.

Their call and answer cries dominate the otherwise totally quiet landscape and sky. These yips are kind of scary to easterners like us who are used to streetlamp lighting and background noises like automobile stereos and passerby family chatter. The noises both pissed-off and terrified Audrey who barked courageously while checking to see that an adult human protector was close by.

Mars, who apparently is attuned to such things, had our first southwest sighting when one of the lanky gray creatures jogged across the terrace during our morning breakfast. I didn't see it and spent the remainder of our dog care stint moaning about my missed opportunity.

On the last day of this pooch-sitting visit we went for our usual mid-morning hike along the high desert arroyo. Audrey as she is 99.999% of the time, was off leash. Her feline housemate "Kitty", also untethered, accompanied us as she normally did. Twenty minutes into our trek I saw a gray blur in my peripheral vision. Then Audrey, who had been wandering into the underbrush alongside the trail, went rushing by me. I immediately began to run after her.

When I looked up ahead I saw a tall, thin, gray canine running diagonally across the path, with Audrey in hot pursuit. Well probably not that hot actually. Although her body was performing the sprinting motion her speed was slower than she had previously shown she was capable of. For a few brief seconds I was actually gaining on her. She however was not catching up with the object of her pursuit.

I called her name and she stopped. The four of us agreed it was time to head back home.

A couple of months later some coyotes apparently killed the cat.

Since that event I have seen other coyotes on or near Audrey's land. She always barked ferociously and made a show of threatening them. They ran away. And we both quietly breathed sighs of relief.

That Christmas while Mars and I were in Santa Fe again, our daughter-in-law Monica and son Bram adopted a greyhound.

The four of us met Cheyenne for the first time at the home of a foster family with whom she had spent the previous five days. Prior to that she had been training and racing at a greyhound track in Arizona. She was two years old and a stereotypical castoff racer - house broken, willing to receive affection, docile, and as clueless about real world as a fourteen girl who had been raised since birth in a cloister.

Cheyenne bumped into glass doors, was baffled by sidewalk curbs and steps, and in general just didn't get the whole concept of interacting with a pack of people.

Now she acts like dog.

But a recent (4/26/10) article in the New York Times introduced a different view of the relative demeanor of these two canine breeds. And caused us to wonder if it is true that all of us people on this earth are really from the same planet.

"'Greyhounds are calm, gentle dogs, but they're also pretty efficient killers,' [John] Hardzog [cattle rancher and coyote hunting with greyhounds practician] said as he picked a clump of tawny coyote hair from one dog's teeth. 'This is exactly what they're born and bred to do. Yep, this is what they live for.

"'When you get the dogs running in a dead run after a coyote, now that's a sport,' Hardzog said before spitting snuff into a tiny gold spittoon. 'The coyote is just about the smartest wild animal alive because they always have an escape route. I respect them. They can outsmart you. But greyhounds are smart, too. I think they're the neatest dog ever made.'"

Now my definition of a "sport" includes games like golf, tennis and baseball. It also covers polo and horseback racing (probably because people are competing along with the horses), as well as athletic events where the winner is decided by subjective judges such as figure skating and gymnastics. It does not include watching greyhounds killing coyotes.

However, historically dogs chasing animals has been considered an athletic pastime. It is called "coursing" and illustrations of the activity have been found on Egyptian tombs dating back to before 2500 BC. Moreover, according to the Greyhound Racing Association of America, "[coursing] really was the precursor to greyhound racing."
"Originally, coursing was a sport that exhibited a single dog's skill in sighting and catching a game animal. During the 16th century, though, it became a competitive sport, with two dogs matched against one another in a race for the game. The owners of the dogs usually had a sizeable bet on the result and, at some coursing races, spectators also gathered and placed side bets on one dog or the other.

"The first official coursing meet was held in 1776 at Swaffham, Norfolk, England. The rules of the Swaffham Coursing Society specified that only two greyhounds were to course a single hare and that the hare was to be given a head start of 240 yards.

"In 1837, the Waterloo Cup Meet was established as a coursing tournament for greyhounds, and it's been run annually ever since then. During the late 19th century, the meet drew crowds of up to 75,000."

In all of the above the goal of the game was for the greyhounds to catch and dispatch their prey.
"Greyhound racing with an artificial lure was introduced at Hendon, England, on Sept. 11, 1876. Six dogs raced over a 400-yard straight course, chasing an artificial hare riding on "an apparatus like a skate on wheels" along a single track, according to a newspaper account.

"Dubbed "coursing by proxy," the race drew little interest and the idea was abandoned. But it was revived 31 years later in the United States."

In 1919 with the development of an "inanimate hare conveyor", a change of venue to an oval track, and the initiation of on-track betting greyhound racing became a successful business - and, in the common vernacular, a recognized sport.

"His way of killing coyotes, he insisted, is the most humane, but he worries that his favorite sport will be banned.

"'Probably 99.9 percent of the people that's going to protest it never been, don't have an idea of what a coyote is or what a greyhound is,' Hardzog said. 'To me, they don't even have a right to draw an opinion. They can pass all the laws they want to, but the good Lord is going to do all the judging.'"

Had Cheyenne been with Mars and I on our ill-fated walk, which she wasn't - and had she been off the leash, which she would not have been - I am certain she would have easily run down the coyote. (Audrey almost caught it and she definitely wasn't trying.)

Mark Twain famously said, "Golf is a good walk spoiled." But it is still a sport, i.e. "an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment". Coursing, on the other hand, seems like nothing more than a good hike, and a good pet, ruined.

1 comment:

Bram said...

NYT article's here. Judy Paulsen, quoted in the article, is the one who matched us up with Cheyenne.