She Wasn’t a Dog, She Was a Coyote and I Loved Her
That time when my sweet rescue pup grew up to be a coyote.
An organization called Remote Area Medicine facilitated trips for veterinary students, veterinarians and technicians to provide surgical services to remote areas of the country without access to regular veterinary care. The overwhelming majority of these destinations were on Native nations (formerly referred to as Indian reservations).
There was a tremendous amount that I did not understand about the historical context of any of the Native nations that I visited and worked on. Now decades later, raising multiple Indiginous children — I have a wholly different perspective. That’s another story. In those days, I was primarily motivated to use my surgical skills in a high volume spay/neuter capacity.
There were many animals in need of surgical sterilization in order to control populations that would otherwise grow wildly out of control. Unchecked populations of dogs and cats pose a public health problem and drain local resources. That was true in 2000 and it’s still true.
I understood little about the contentious relationship between white folks and Native folks. I was oblivious and therefore undeterred by awkward interactions and confusing situations — and focused on the animals. We’d quickly pick up tidbits here and there about values and reasoning behind many of the choices various folks made for the animals they cared for.
For any given trip, we’d all meet at a local airport or hotel — having descended upon the nearest airport from all parts of the country. After gear checking unpacking, checking, inventorying and re-packing our medical equipment — we would caravan to our first or next location. We’d find our contact on the reservation, who would lead us to the place where we could set up. We’d use any large space indoors that we could. Chapter houses, gymnasiums, auditoriums, rec centers, auto repair bays…. anything that could hold us and protect us from the elements, and had space for electricity or generators.
We’d unpack and set up 5 (or more) surgical tables, complete anesthetic machines with low flow oxygen setups and rebreathing bags, pre-op, prep areas, and cages to safely house animals waiting for or recovering from surgery. Once we’d unpacked, the truck would be empty and could easily house a few sleeping bags and tired humans.We usually slept close to our surgical setup, on the reservation, often camping in makeshift setups.
Each location we would setup in would become our home base for 2–3 days. The veterinary services were publicized in the community to varying degrees, with a lot of word of mouth and such. The first day would almost never be as busy as the second day — as the news would spread that we were there and folks would spend that first day catching their animals and figuring out who needed what — prioritizing which animals should come to the makeshift clinic.
We tracked the day on a large whiteboard, where we’d list the name of pet, species, sex, and procedures to be done (Spay, neuter, pregnant spay, limb amputation, Rabies vaccine, etc.) Each animal would go through an intake with the owner or adult guardian, and would then be examined by a vet student and pre-medicated with sedatives and narcotic for the surgical procedure.
This system would keep 5 surgical tables full for hours and hours — with rotating teams of anesthetists, surgeons, or surgical teams (when the situation called for this), until the animals reached the recovery area. A group of vet students and veterinarians would monitor the post-operative patients until they had recovered such that they could be safely discharged to their people. None of this was especially high tech, but it was all highly efficient while adhering to optimal patient care, biosecurity and disease control.
In addition to spaying and neutering, we’d see any animal that needed medical assistance of any kind. We would do our very best to help — with whatever resources were available. This included but was not limited to: de-quilling animals who had encountered porcupines — a common thing out west, animals hit by cars, animals with trauma necessitating amputation of a limb, and garden variety abscesses, parasites, pregnancy, and other woes. On small animal (spay neuter) trips, this also meant that occasionally a horse or cow would need assistance — and we’d provide whatever care we could.
We would spay/neuter and vaccinate all animals that showed up, no matter how many, performing upwards of 100 surgeries per day. We’d shift around to different geographical parts of any given reservation, allowing folks with transportation challenges to have a chance of getting their pets cared for.
Things that were commonplace and the norm on reservations — were completely foreign to me, having lived in a (predominantly caucasian) suburb of Philadelphia my entire life. Folks driving around with a pickup truck bed full of various sizes and breeds of dogs was normal. That is not normal in my suburb. The ways in which native folks respected nature and life differed from what I’d gleaned from my life, thus far, as a young white person. The fast pace and simple goal of the trips resonated with me, and I went on at least one but usually two such expeditions annually from 2000–2010.
One shocker was that some, but not all areas we worked in were dry. Not desert dry, although some were this also, but alcohol dry. Meaning — one could not purchase, procure or consume alcohol on reservation property. The one time we broke this rule, we were schooled ( though only a little bit) on the reasoning behind and importance of respecting the dry rez rules.
Other reservations had bars accessible just over the border, which we would frequent with enthusiasm and an endless thirst for alcohol. These trips were also a time when I’d intermingle with students and fellow veterinarians from my school — but also folks from all over the country.
We’d work very closely together, in a vacuum. We were a traveling band of vets and vet students, working as efficiently as possible for as many hours as we could, all while trying to have the best possible time while doing it. These trips always gave rise to unique friendships forged in sweat, animal blood, and the shared hope of making the world a better place, one spay surgery at a time.
When the surgical days came to a close, we retired to meet our basic needs for food and sleep. Whatever the particular locale had available — was where we slept — and accommodations varied wildly from one location to the next.
We usually slept close to our surgical setup, on the reservation, often camping in makeshift setups in Chapter houses, or occasionally in the back of our large truck. Some reservations had school dormitories that we’d stay in. Others had an on-site Casino and would house us in casino hotel rooms. On a reservation of the Sioux tribe, we stayed in a casino. This was awesome because a casino hotel room was really a cushy deal — a nice place to rest after a 12–16 hour work day. We also could eat meals at the casino restaurant, also quite a change from the majority of our other stays — wherein we’d eat meals with and cooked by native folks, and would sit and gather in a rec. room, sharing stories, mostly about animals.
Anyway, one day in Spring of the year 2000, someone brought a litter of small unthrifty scruffy (therefore extremely cute) pups to us. There were four of them, they were small, long legged, brown and black speckled, skinny little things, They had their adult canine teeth, an indication of an age around 6 months or older. All four of them were in the bottom half of a carrier — akin to a laundry basket with no lid.
They were all docile, presumably due to lethargy. The person who brought them in let us know that they’d been born outside and that the community could not afford the resources to feed them — and since they were sickly — one had a wound, another was too weak to sit and hold its head up, they handed them over to us for the purposes of euthanasia.
Sounds cruel, probably.
But it’s not.
We were, after all, there to help with population control. And this group of pups was unwanted, unplanned, unwell, and would drain resources for other animals that also needed care and had folks caring for them.
Ever the bleeding heart, before I learned to compartmentalize all those feelings, I had objected on principle and had a very unsettled and yucky feeling about euthanizing these pups.
I was comfortable with spaying and neutering, surgical sterilization as a means of population control, and eventually made my peace with euthanizing/aborting fetuses should we pull out a gravid uterus containing fetuses mid spay.
These puppies though.
These sweet creatures were alive, a few months old, and had presumably fended for themselves for quite a while — with some success — I felt really conflicted about now euthanizing them straight away after they survived this long.
The longer I hesitated, the more attached to the idea of saving (at least) one of these pups I became. Not surprisingly, my reluctance to euthanize them was shared by quite a few other peers. With the help of our leading staff veterinarians, we talked through the logistics.
It went like this:
OK, so two are clearly ill and very, very weak. They’re gonna need more care than we can get within the next 2 days.
That other one has a gnarly wound on the forearm. That wound will require a significant amount of time to close by second intention, and there’d be a faster return to function if we amputate the limb. The ‘long slow healing’ option will require more time than we have. (As the specific reservation we were on was opposed to amputation of the limb as this would leave a three-legged rez dog to fend for itself in their midst. I understood that.)
The remaining pup seemed to be medically sound.
She was the one I refused to euthanize. I could not wrap my head around it. I could not bring myself to even consider it, let alone do it.
Once we had the go-ahead from the Native folks who’d brought them in, specifically, they had no objection to me taking a pup off of the rez, so long as we didn’t leave any more population control issue type dogs running around willy nilly out there.
I was elated, and hurriedly sorted through all the logistics and resources available to get this dog to Philly.
I’ve long coexisted and frequently battled my impulsive nature. My impulsive (spontaneous) nature has served me well at times, but has also led me to do some really crazy shit. In this situation, I really just leaned into the impulse. For better or for worse.
Though I didn’t see it as such at this point, ultimately: crazy shit won — and I claimed this puppy, examined her, vaccinated her, obtained domestic travel documents (easy to do when you’re traveling with a group of veterinarians) and snuck her (under the cover of darkness) into the casino hotel room that night.
She had evidently never been inside a building (many of our clinic intakes are performed outside, for lack of viable space indoors as well as for the comfort of an animal population which lives mostly outdoors full time) and had not been introduced to what I knew as ‘the standard outfit’: collar, leash, etc.
She didn’t know what dog food was and refused to eat it. She did eat pizza hut pizza crusts that we salvaged from a staff dinner that evening.
Phone calls to the airline, pet transport documents, and then a shuttle to the nearby city Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were arranged. Two generous and kind classmates flew her back to our home state of Pennsylvania, in the cargo kennel we borrowed from our non-profit Remote Area Medicine organization.
When I arrived home from that trip — one day before the classmates and my new animal were to arrive, I had to break this down to my boyfriend, with whom I lived.
We already had a dog, a rescue Corgi who was acquired as an older adult, but sweet, adorable, and extremely low maintenance. Her name was Courtney — and she had come to us as a completely pre-trained self-sufficient housepet.
She was my first dog as an adult, not living with my parents. I explained to my then-boyfriend that I’d adopted a dog on the reservation and that she was flying home with some classmates — and that we’d need to go claim her at the PHL airport as she was flying as live cargo.
Thus, my poor rez pup, who (I anthropomorphized) had looked forward to a wild and free lifestyle out on the plains of South Dakota, went through so much. After she had been forced into hotel rooms, fed pizza crusts, shen was confined to a travel kennel for a shuttle van voyage to Sioux Falls, and then endured a live-cargo flight into the City of Brotherly Love.
After all of that, I expected that she would fit seamlessly into my life as a full time vet student.
Hey, what could go wrong?
True to form, no good deed goes unpunished.
What I subsequently discovered was that this was not a dog.
Sioux, as we named her, was a Coyote or a CoyDog coyote dog hybrid.
She was timid in the beginning, cunning and beautiful. She exhibited a quiet and intense aggression that resided just beneath the surface of her aloof exterior. Sioux slowly came out of her shell, and frequently beefed with our pre-existing dog over the perceived limited resources.
We had a fenced yard in our apartment, and she would run at speeds that blew my mind — faster than any dog I’d ever seen before. She would sprint and stop or pivot on a dime. For hours. Her prey drive shocked the living shit out of me, and made her especially difficult to parent — as she would absolutely chase anything smaller than she was.
She was not the type of dog one would ever be able to let off-leash, anywhere.
I came to understand that she was a wild fucking animal.
But should she have been living in a Suburban-Philadelphia apartment — NO! Absolutely not!
The phrase ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ speaks volumes in the context of my suburban coyote.
In hindsight, I could have just euthanized her, as requested, rather than subjecting her to this so-called civilization that she was not born for nor into. As I write that though, I feel conflicted because I did give this animal the very best life I could. Thankfully, she was highly intelligent and as she aged she became reliable as a pet, and grew accustomed to the finer parts of indoor living.
Sioux was extremely protective of me. As a woman who briefly lived alone between marriages — this became valuable beyond measure. When I separated from my husband, I moved into a loft apartment and lived alone for a year.
My husband and I had had three dogs at the time of our separation:
- Paper — the rottie/shep X with a broken leg that I saved from euthanasia at my first job — named paper because we got her on our 1 year wedding anniversary — in which the tradition is to gift each other something made of paper) and
- Mama (the boston terrier with a crushed pelvis who arrived at the ER I worked in in Florida — who had to have a C-section because she her broken pelvis healed in such a way that her birth canal would not allow passage of the pups) and
- the coyote: Sioux.
I left my ex-husband in the house, with the two cats and the two dogs Mama and Paper.
I took Sioux and moved into a loft apartment around the corner.
While living alone it was reassuring to have an undercover coyote protecting me at all times. One time, a random guy walked into my loft thinking it was his place (it wasn’t) and she was all up on him in 2 nanoseconds and scared the living daylights out of him. Rightly so.
Though she only grew to weigh 45 pounds at her heaviest, she was svelte, slick, wild, beautiful, and would coyote howl like nobody’s business at any loud music, fire truck, ambulance or siren. Lots of dogs do that, but not like my coyote.
Eventually I remarried, and my second spouse and I moved cross-country. We packed up all of our lives, a car, and my coyote, and drove all the way across the country from East to West.
A bicoastal Coyote.
Along the journey, she slept in hotel beds with gusto. We always got a room with two doubles. One for her, and one for us. Though anxious about being in the truck with us, she’d sit on the floor between the two captains chairs in our large 16” foot Penske truck and patiently wait for the next rest stop.
Sioux lived to be 12 years old.
I put her to sleep in 2012, after our first year in California. Her passing left a huge hole in my heart and my life, but the anxiety and hypervigilance that develops when you have a potentially dangerous wild animal in your care was a sweet relief to stop carrying.
I’d always been so careful. Protecting her from situations that would be challenging for her, protecting our neighbors, passers by from my coyote for so many years. I’d been bitten by her only once — breaking up a fight between Sioux and Paper — and I’d had to goto the hospital for my bite wound because it was one of the worst I’ve received in my 20 years as a veterinarian.
To this day, I carry a scar from Sioux on my left index finger.
She hadn’t intended to bite me, of course, I was her person — she would never!
I’d made a rookie mistake, despite knowing better. A fight was in the air, and my immediate reaction had been to put my hand in the line of fire trying to prevent her from tearing up our other dog over… you guessed it, something she perceived as a limited resource. She never quite understood amiable interactions with other dogs — she had no canine BFF, and for that I cannot fault her. It was my fault, for taking her out of her element and expecting her to be anything different than nature had intended.
Anyway: I loved her beyond measure.
I cared for her to the very best of my ability, though I would not recommend domesticating a coyote or coydog unless you wish to become hypervigilant and derail a decade of your life — always looking over your shoulder to make sure she doesn’t attack someone or something.
For my own protection though, during my short time living alone — she was a blessing. Absolutely nobody messes with a chick that has a coyote in tow. Nobody.
She warned numerous people, usually with a look, a stance, or rarely a warning nip — any of which was always enough to get people to back away from me.
Here’s a conversation I had about 400 times in 12 years with a coyote by my side:
“Oh she’s beautiful — what’s her name?”
“S? U? E? Sue?”
No Sioux. Like the Sioux Indians? Sioux Native nation? Reservation?
S. I. O. U. X.
Because she came from a Sioux indian res.
“Is she a wolf?”
“She’s so …. Wild looking.:”
Uhmmmm yea. She is.
Coydog for the win.