My Encounters with a Trapped Coyote

It’s time to end inhumane wildlife trapping on public lands.

IT WAS A PLEASANT hike through the high desert until I glanced into the dead eyes of an emaciated coyote splayed beneath the low branches of a piñon pine. My husband, dog, and I were out enjoying a warm spring day, wandering the back acres of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary’s property in northwestern New Mexico where we lived and worked for the betterment of seventy canids rescued from the exotic pet trade. The carcass was only a five-minute walk from home.

​Forty-four states continue to permit trapping on public lands, endangering wildlife, pets, and people. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Though I didn’t know it then, this was our second meeting. In the first, the animal was very much alive. Now it was recently deceased, so fresh its eyes, skin, and patches of fur were still intact. I looked away as quickly as I’d discovered it, as if I’d seen something I shouldn’t, and called off the dog.

At the sanctuary I encountered death on a near daily basis, whether it was in sorting through barrels of raw meat, feeding roadkill to our rescues, or carrying out the occasional body when the animals inevitably passed away. Yet the unexpected peek at that coyote shook me. Years later, its hollowed eyes remain seared into my mind. The sunken pupils, petrified limbs, and mouth agape, the corners of the lips pulled back and frozen.

I tried not to dwell there, choosing instead to focus on the living, those animals right in front of me who needed immediate care, allowing the coyote’s corpse to become a memory.

Months passed. Suddenly it was fall, the air turned crisp. I took another hike, just the dog and me, our shadows flowing long over sandy elk tracks and wispy wildflowers, covering familiar ground. A dilapidated fence still partly strung with barbed wire half eaten by the caliche clay earth loomed to our left. A few more paces, and it would disappear into a clearing from which the sanctuary’s staff housing and wolf enclosures could be seen.

The chipped wooden fence called up a memory of those recessed eyes. I knew we were close. Not close. There. The dog was already sniffing around the tree, tail wagging, ears alert, pacing back and forth in the dappled light that shone through the branches.

On first look there was no body. At least not the way I’d seen it last. I hoped my mind had played a trick. But further inspection revealed the bones, sun scorched, brittle, picked clean by ravens, vultures, possibly other coyotes, maybe even the rarely seen local mountain lion. Pelvis, femurs, vertebrae, the skull in two pieces, top and bottom jaw.

Then I saw the paw — the finger-like metatarsals, the broken ankle, the single toe — the paw that was still wedged in the trap that killed the coyote.

I quickly realized this was my third encounter with the unlucky canine. I recalled the first, nearly a year prior when the coyote had wandered past our facility, the clink and jangle of the leg trap and chain ringing like ornamental bells over the wilderness.

Leg-hold traps are supposed to be staked firmly into the ground to prevent struggling animals from running away with them. A small measure aimed at lessening the cruelty of this practice, so the victim can be killed swiftly by the trap-setter instead of wandering off in an injured state.

After hearing the clop of the canine’s altered gait, our assistant director assembled the team to quietly track the distressed creature. We gathered with radios and nets, using our bodies to form a long, tight line between the trees while creeping cautiously closer.

As a group, we were highly skilled at capturing wolves this way when they required medical attention, but those animals were behind fences. This one was not. It proved wily. The baited and mange-ridden coyote evaded our advances, leading us up and down the boulder strewn, juniper dotted hillside before darting across the gravel road onto private property, and out of our reach.

THE DAY AFTER I found the coyote’s remains, the sanctuary’s director, my husband, and I went to retrieve them. On the bottom of the trap, where a number identifying its owner should have been, were simply the words “Made In Korea” etched in rough, flaky rust. There was no one to contact, no one to trace to the months-long suffering of this living being. It was just an anonymous trap laid by an anonymous neighbor in our small and isolated community.

We mailed the skull and paw to Project Coyote, a nonprofit promoting compassionate conservation, for educational purposes. (Project Coyote is a project of Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal.) That was in the fall of 2016. A few months later, my husband and I left the Southwest for other pursuits.

Years went by. I didn’t think much about the coyote anymore. Then one night while scrolling through Instagram my stomach tightened. A professional photograph of the paw lodged in those ruddy metallic jaws drifted across my screen. I rushed to read the caption knowing instinctively it was the limb I had found. The post was advocating for the Wildlife Conservation & Public Safety Act, or Roxy’s Law, banning traps, snares, and poisons on New Mexico’s public lands. Named after Roxy, a senior dog strangled to death by a snare while hiking with her owner on public land, the image of the paw appeared to have become a poster for the campaign.

I followed the legislation, heartened that the vice was being used to propel change. After nearly a decade of advocacy, Roxy’s Law finally passed in 2021. The hard-won bill became effective April first.

As the passage of Roxy’s law suggests, trapping is finally facing increased scrutiny, largely thanks to the advocacy of wildlife organizations and the use of social media, which has accelerated the spread of stories like Roxy’s and images like the coyote’s, leading legislators to introduce and sometimes pass laws limiting the practice.

Still, only two US states have banned trapping for recreational and commercial purposes altogether, and 44 states continue to permit trapping on public lands, endangering wildlife, pets, and people. Although over 100 countries have outlawed leg-hold traps specifically, this brutal tradition continues in the United States, killing millions of animals each year, maiming others, and leading many to suffer prolonged and often inhumane deaths.

I’ll never know who set the trap for the coyote I encountered, where they set it, or why. What I do know is Roxy could have been my dog, the coyote my toddler. That’s another problem with trapping — it’s indiscriminate, frequently seizing non-target species, including critically endangered ones like the Mexican wolf.

As the wilderness is continually ceded to development, countless creatures are being displaced, increasing the chances for conflict with humans and making it even more dire that we safeguard public lands for animals and people. Instead, the proliferation of these nameless snares in so-called protected spaces has become another symbol of the extreme lack of accountability we’re experiencing globally around issues like climate change, habitat loss, and extinction, which blaze on at a record pace while responsibility evades us. The ruse must be the belief that the problem belongs to someone else.

Much like Canis latrans – the barking dog – can throw their voice to confuse prey, predators, and competitors by sounding numerous when they are few, so can we fool ourselves with thoughts that tell us our actions are inconsequential.

Roxy’s Law isn’t just a victory for New Mexico: it’s a powerful precedent, a reminder that meaningful change can be made to protect wildlife across the nation, proving that coexistence is possible if we can avoid falling into the same old traps.

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