Creative Arts with Patrick Moore

Are Coyotes Superior to Wolves?
February 1, 2016, 1:45 pm
Filed under: ecology, live food, nature, science, soul, synchronicity, tucson

I read a lot. Currently I am reading Lawrence Kohlberg’s book on moral stages , Wolves by Mech, and Best American Science and Nature Writing of the Year. I also received training from a major natural history museum on interpreting coyotes and wolves for museum visitors. I find that by reading as widely as possible, new ideas combine in my mind. Some combinations are too broad and people I share them with don’t see the connection. Here is a thought I had while reading this morning, and you can decide if it is useful or not to you.

The Heinz Dilemma is a fictional story Kohlberg would tell: Heinz’ wife has a fatal disease and the pharmacist is overcharging for the medicine she needs to live. Then Kohlberg would ask the listener, should Heinz steal the medicine to save his wife’s life?

Last week I heard that coyotes around Tucson frequently break into chicken coops and take the chickens. What occurred to me while reading this morning was, coyotes are answering the Heinz Dilemma: coyotes are stealing the medicine needed to save lives.

Kohlberg does not think there is a right or wrong answer. Kohlberg asks the person to explain why they have the answer they do. For example, some people say, “It is wrong to steal.” Why is it wrong to steal, Kohlberg would ask. One person might say, “Because you will get caught and there are penalties.” Another person might say, “Civilization depends on humans following a social contract. If people break this contract, our human species could disappear.” Kohlberg would assess these two answers as different stages of moral reasoning. As you might guess, Kohlberg considers the avoidance of penalty to be a lower stage of moral reasoning (stage two) than the promotion of the species (stage six). Coyotes appear to be explaining their answer with, it is right to steal when this preserves a species that could be lost. If you would grant coyotes could have moral reasoning (a stretch, I admit), their answers would place them in stage six.

And I don’t know if that’s why coyotes are truly stealing chickens, to preserve life, as Heinz might steal the medicine for his wife. And what do coyotes have to say about the chickens’ lives? After all, Heinz doesn’t kill the pharmacist to get the medicine. All I am saying is I had this thought while I was reading this morning… Maybe the connection I made isn’t worth blogging about. But I still wonder, can we learn anything about human stages of moral reasoning by considering coyotes and other animals’ behaviors?

Soon after my first thought about coyotes, it occurred to me this morning that wolves think differently than coyotes. Wolves have a social system where the strongest Alpha delivers punishments to the others to keep them in order. The rest appear to willingly submit to this structure. Those who behave correctly are given food, friendly touches and sometimes the pleasure of mating. Could we say wolves are at a stage two moral development? May we deduce that coyotes are operating at a higher moral stage than wolves? Let’s leave this idea for a minute. I will come back to this.

I regularly give presentations standing in front of wolf enclosures and coyote enclosures. Sometimes the wolves or coyotes listen in as I talk to the humans. I pass around (to the humans) the skulls of wolves and coyotes. Notice they are indistinguishable except for the size. In fact all canines: wolves, coyotes, foxes and your dogs at home can interbreed and have live, healthy pups who can also breed. When you define “species” as those who can have healthy live young who can also breed, as some scientists do, all canines are one species–Dog. The groupings, “coyote,” “wolf,” “fox,” “greyhound,” and “terrier” are just different breeds, with different specialties and habits.

Dogs have one molar per jaw, which means they are designed to eat some vegetation. The rest of the teeth and jaws are designed for killing and cutting meat. So if you only had skulls to go by you might guess all dogs would eat 95% meat, 5% vegetation. It turns out however that wolves eat 100% meat, and coyotes here in the Southwest eat 50% vegetarian. Coyotes here especially love saguaro cactus fruit. In cactus fruit season, coyotes abandon all meat and survive on fruit, which shows a preference, since meat is still available. Last summer I picked up some coyote poop in a baggie, that was full of little seeds. I planted the poop and within a week had hundreds of little saguaro cactus babies:


saguaro sprouts a week after Patrick collected coyote scat

It appears coyotes are a prime planter of saguaro cactus seeds, plus fertilizer! What a service they provide nature! Perhaps this is one reason the Tohono O’odham in this region consider Coyote to be one of three beings who created the world (the other two being Raven and Big Brother).

The rest of the year coyotes eat mesquite pods, palo verde seeds and ironwood seeds when in season. When none of their favorite foods are available they return to meat in the form of hares and other rodents, lizards and other reptiles and insects, which are available here year-round.

I tell the people in my presentations that wolves prefer meat, and coyotes prefer vegetables when they can get them, even though their teeth and jaws are identical. They’re the same species. It’s their choices that are different, their preferences, their behaviors, their culture, their traditions. Wolves eat one thing–animals larger than themselves that it takes a group to pull down. Coyotes eat what they can find including lots of things with seeds. Wolves are set in their ways. And because of this, wolf numbers are declining in the current world. The large game that wolves exclusively eat is hardly available for them except in a few protected areas. Except free ranged cattle. And when they eat cattle, ranchers kill them. Wolves’ choices are leading them to extinction in this modern world. Wolf numbers are declining, with certain sub-species like the Mexican Grey Wolf endangered and extirpated.

Coyotes on the other hand are flexible. They’re wily. Not only are they flexible with what they eat, but appear to have nothing against human encroachment. Coyotes are happy to live in cities. Phoenix has a very high population of urban coyotes who live in the dry washes and golf courses. In Tucson we have coyotes in my neighborhood and yard. The neighbors hate packrats, rattlesnakes and wouldn’t tolerate wolves or cougar in the neighborhood, but coyotes they love. Some houses in my neighborhood are even decorated with coyote silhouettes, as if to honor or welcome them. Coyote numbers are increasing in this modern world while wolves are declining.

Is there a message here? Are coyotes superior? Wolves are too large, and their ways and traditions can’t work any longer in this world. Keep this in mind as you hear the next part. Several natural wolf-coyote matings have been confirmed in the wild. Both male and female wolves have chosen to court coyotes to have offspring with. Why? Could wolves be thinking, My kind is not long for this world, I had better do something? Could they be thinking, We need to get smaller and be more flexible like coyotes if we are going to make it? Do even wolves notice the superiority of coyotes?

Let’s look at it from an evolution model. If coyotes and wolves had a common ancestor, and split into distinct mating groups around two lifestyle preferences, this would be an example of what is called natural selection, or survival of the fittest. The competition between wolves and coyotes would be en example of evolution in our midst. Our current era would be an early stage in the differentiation of canines into different species. For if we were in a later stage, coyotes and wolves would be so genetically differentiated by now that they could no longer have live pups when mating. Wouldn’t it be exciting if we are living in the midst of an evolution process? Two groups of cousins with different strategies: Which will win? Which will survive?

According to the evolution model, the group that survives is “fittest.” The survivors are better, superior, more evolved. According to this model, later developments in any species are superior and better than their ancestors. In this model every species now living is fitter and more evolved than the bacteria that are all our common ancestors.

Which sounds a lot like Kohlberg’s view of moral stages. Kohlberg says that since younger children never have stage six reasoning but only older children and adults ever get past stage five, later developments must be superior, higher moral reasoning. In both cases: the evolution model, and Kohlberg’s model of moral development, later development is superior, fitter and higher.

But I’m going to throw a wrench in the gears of those models. If coyotes survive and wolves die out, does “survival” prove that the one species is superior to the other? Or does it only prove the one species is more adapted to the world we have today? If the world still had giant sloths, mammoths or even buffalo roaming around, wouldn’t it be wolves who would be increasing and coyotes decreasing? Instead of fitter, should we simply say, have an advantage in the current environment?

But if later-evolved does not mean superior or better, how can we explain humans’ strong sense we are superior to our pre-human ancestors? Are humans not superior to little primates and bacteria, but only better adapted to take advantage of the current environment?

Now apply these questions back to moral stages. In individuals, all Kohlberg showed was that older individuals tended to explain their moral reasoning using ideas higher on the six-stage scale than younger individuals. All he’s shown is that higher on the scale equates to older, not higher.

But if older does not mean morally superior, how can we explain that only people over 21 may vote and only people over 45 may be president? Are adults not superior moral reasoners to children? And how should we interpret the old saying, Be like the little children?

I am not trying to disprove any models. I happen to appreciate the models of natural selection and moral stages. But I don’t swallow them whole. I ask them tough questions. I don’t have good answers to these questions yet but if you do, please comment. Thanks.