To Err on the Side of Life
by Peggy Hentz
Photos by Linda Martzall
It was mid-June, right in the midst of last year’s baby season. We received a call that a litter of four coyotes had been orphaned in a rural area outside of Bangor. The mother had been either shot or hit by car (depending on who you talked to). We estimated their age at less than three weeks for we were told the pups’ eyes were still closed. They were in the hands of a local farm family and Hope Anwyll and I were trying to arrange transport.
Contact with the finders suddenly stopped as phone calls were not answered or returned–and then we received disturbing news: the finders returned the pups to the mountain and left them there to starve or freeze to death. All contact then stopped as the finders refused to communicate with us further.
We called the local PGC in case the finders were lying and had kept the pups. They promised to visit the family the next day.
Hope and I then sat on the phone most of the night trying to find the location of the pups. Tracing the finder’s phone number we found their address. We had been told the mother was found near the finder’s farm. Maps in hand, we searched for the most likely location of that “mountain” and settled on a nine square mile area outside of Bangor. This large area left us little hope of finding the pups at all, and that particularly cold night left little chance of them surviving until morning.
The next morning I received a call from a woman in Bangor whose boyfriend found a single coyote pup while four-wheeling. I asked her the location and it was within that nine mile area we had plotted. Relaying the story to this new person, I asked if they could look for more pups.
Although (according to Tom Wampler at the PA Department of Agriculture) rabies had never been documented in coyotes or coy-dogs in Pennsylvania at that time, the Eastern Coyote is one of six species on the Rabies Vector Species list. Armed with the information I gave them about rabies and how to safely handle RVS species, the couple joined members of a local four-wheeling club and set out to find the remaining pups.
By mid-afternoon two more pups had been found, one alive and one dead. The fourth pup had eluded them, and as evening drew near, the group gathered in a field atop the mountain to conclude the search. Everyone present agreed that what happened next was a miracle. A Red Tailed Hawk swooped down across the field and picked up the fourth unfound puppy, carried it high into the air–and dropped it! Rushing to the spot where the puppy landed, the group retrieved the last puppy–a female–now injured from the talons and the fall but still alive.
The litter of now three Eastern Coyote pups (one male, two female) were in my care that same evening.
The pups grew rapidly and the third little girl, smaller than the other two, healed quickly. They were bottle-fed until shortly after their eyes opened and were easily taught to eat from a dish. At three months old they were moved outdoors and we were planning the details of their rehabilitation: housing, hunting skill development and release details. The pups were weaned on mice and quickly advanced to rats, road-killed rabbits and deer.
Wanting to give the pups the best chance of survival, we decided that a spring release would be best when the pups were nearing one year old. Our WCO gave us permission to house the coyotes longer than the six months allowed but was skeptical of our ability to contain the coyotes once grown. We had called several other RVS certified rehabilitators to see if any could accommodate three coyotes over the winter, but none had anything larger than we could provide.
One of our dozen or so flight enclosures is an ugly, behemoth structure built by an Eagle Scout. It is a double-room enclosure, completely underwired, with a vestibule. The non-wood areas were double-screened with chain link attached to the outside. Twenty feet high, half the roof was covered and half was chain link, allowing for shelter as well as rain and sunlight. It also had the advantage of being buried
in our pine forest, secluding it from people as well as hiding its unattractive facade. The two rooms totaled over 2000 square feet. Although the enclosure met RVS standards, as I looked over the structure I still had my doubts on its ability to contain the pups.
We fortified the walls by attaching steel chain link-type panels inside, using the steel gates inside the doors. This created a triple door system where each room had two doors in addition to the vestibule door which opened to the wooded area. A sliding panel “doggie door” was constructed between the two rooms with the pull cable leading into the vestibule,enabling us to close the pups off in one room while we cleaned and fed in the other side. Our WCO was impressed and the pups were moved to their new enclosure.
Everything went smoothly and their progress was a rehabilitator’s dream until the pups acquired mange at four months old. Treating with Ivermectin gave temporary relief, but the mange kept returning.
Still puzzled over our inability to control the mange, the smallest female (the miracle puppy) started becoming weak and her joints began to swell. The two larger pups began picking on her and literally ran over her while running circles in the pen. A blood test on this smallest girl returned positive for Lyme disease. After several runs of antibiotics, the girl responded and was once again running with her littermates.
Caring for the litter in winter was easy enough. The fortified enclosure held up quite nicely and the pups’ weekly diet consisted of one whole deer, several rabbits and a half-bucket of rats. Live prey lasted a little under one minute as the pups’ killer instinct came to the surface.
Once again things were on track until the dreaded mange returned, first in our smallest girl, then to the others. The coming of winter made battling the mange quickly even more critical, but as soon as the pups would re-grow coat, the mange would return. I knew what the answer was, but I was hesitant to face the truth. The little miracle pup’s immune system was compromised by the Lyme disease; she became a reservoir for the mites that would then infect the other two.
I am not usually a victim of sentimental thinking, but I had a difficult time facing the fact that the best chance for the two healthy pups would be to euthanize the smallest girl. Surely she was “meant” to live. She had already survived being orphaned, a night on the mountain in the cold, being taloned by a Red Tailed Hawk, being dropped from thirty or more feet and Lyme disease. She was a survivor and I blamed myself for not being able to bring her past the last gauntlet leading to her release.
The decision could no longer be ignored when, during the most frigid days of late January, the mange returned with a vengeance–leaving bare patches of skin and open sores on all three coyotes. Adding to that, the smallest girl
developed a limp as the Lyme disease recurred. Even if she survived, she could never be free. Each coyote was netted (for they were extremely wild and not able to be handled by this time), the healthy pair was again treated for mange, and the smallest girl was returned to her Creator.
By the end of March two treatments eradicated the mange, and it did not returned. The coyote pair was fully grown, fully furred, and wild as can be. An April release was planned at an undisclosed location where road-killed deer will be provided for a time until they learn to fend for themselves.
The coyotes were release that Spring and were often capture on trail cameras in that area throughout the following year.
A now-retired Veterinarian whom I have known and respected for all of my adult life once gave me this sage advice which I live by: “If you are going to make a mistake, err on the side of life.” In the end I learned a bitter lesson on sentimentality, but I feel strongly that, throughout, I made the right decisions.
Take note of the wildness and agility of these animals.