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Stories of RV Camping with the Sonoran Desert Coyotes

The View from the Desert

By Julee Meltzer

When people think of full-time RVing, they often picture themselves heading down an uncharted highway towards new towns and unexplored adventures. However, every now and then, adventures come to you when you’re sitting at a campsite on a warm summer evening.

Our first encounter with coyotes in Arizona occurred back in the summer of 1995. We were renting a small apartment in Scottsdale and observed two coyotes refreshing themselves in the cool spray of a built-in sprinkler system. With its manicured lawns, impeccable gardens, and imported trees, Scottsdale, Arizona has always succeeded in keeping the desert at a safe distance. But the coyotes still came anyways.

Ten years later, we had our second encounter with these controversial canines that had crashed Scottsdale’s suburban garden party so long ago. However, this time, we were in their territory and RV camping.

At the time, we were staying in our motorhome at one of the municipal campgrounds that was surrounded on all sides by the Sonoran Desert. The Sonoran is one of the world’s largest and most diverse desert ecosystems. As a result, people from all over the globe come to experience this strange and enchanted place.

Although the campground offered 50-amp electrical service and running water, the sites were visually primitive and exceptionally isolated. Moreover, in the summer months, the entire park was all but empty as a result of the desert’s unremitting heat. Our original plan was to stay in the area for about four months and leave before it got too hot. However, due to an unexpected medical problem, we ended up staying for more than eighteen months. The stories described here occurred during this time.

When we first set up camp, we were pleasantly surprised at the level and variety of wildlife that resided in the area. Hawks, lizards, desert hares, and mule deer were a common sight. In addition, we regularly saw a coyote or two every day or so. They would generally keep their distance and within a few minutes, would disappear back into the desert. Since we were usually walking one of our German shepherd dogs at the time, we wondered if the coyotes were curious about these “coyotes on leashes”.

The next encounter, a few weeks later, proved to be more interesting than any of the previous ones. I was walking our male shepherd in a large, open area of the campground that was used for group functions during the busy season. However, on this hot summer day, there was no one else in sight. That’s when I noticed a pack of four coyotes standing in the shade of a Palo Verde tree. At more than 200 feet away, the coyotes didn’t seem to notice or react to our presence. Knowing that they would scatter in a few seconds, we continued to walk towards the pack. However, as we slowly moved towards the coyotes, they began to respond in a way that I had never seen before. The largest of the pack started to move towards me very slowly. At the same time, the other three began to move off to each side. Suddenly, I realized that the pack was beginning to surround me. By this time, my dog was quickly preparing to defend our position. At 130 pounds, our male German shepherd is fully capable of taking on a coyote. However, he was on a leash and there were four of them. That’s when I decided to do what the coyotes always do when I encounter them. I backed up and disappeared into the desert.

When I later described the strange experience to my husband, Jack, he related a disquieting story that a park ranger had recently told him. The ranger claimed that coyotes sometimes utilize a highly orchestrated predatory tactic to overpower and ultimately eliminate domestic dogs. As the story goes, the pack of coyotes first surrounds the person and their dog. In this situation, most dogs tend to break free from their owners. Once free, the coyotes then chase the dog down as they do with much of their prey. Supposedly, the person is never harmed but the dog never comes back.

My husband had heard the ranger’s story several weeks before my encounter with the coyotes so it wasn’t one of those tall tales designed to fit the event. I really don’t know if this is an accurate description of coyote behavior or a cock-and-bull story created by an imaginative ranger. Since I didn’t stay around long enough to find out, I’ll probably never know.

During the next few months, our encounters with coyotes steadily increased. However, instead of seeing one or two coyotes, we started to see packs of four or five. In addition, we began to observe them more often near our RV. In short – they seemed to be moving closer and closer to our site. And we weren’t the only ones to notice the change.

As the coyotes moved nearer, our two dogs quickly developed a new sense of purpose. Their self-appointed job was to keep the coyote hoards at bay. As a practical matter, this was done in one of two ways. The first was to bark frantically whenever a coyote got near the site. The second was to bolt out the door of the motorhome (whenever it was opened) in the hopes of catching a coyote by surprise. When they weren’t barking or bolting, they would both stare out the windows looking for any movement that would signify a potential “attack” on our RV. On more than one occasion, one of our dogs would storm out of the RV and chase the coyotes into the desert. In this story, it was the domestic dogs doing all the chasing.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any weirder, we began to observe a new behavior on the part of the coyotes. It usually occurred when we were sitting outside, relaxing without the dogs. After we were sitting for a while, we would start to see a few coyotes carefully inch towards us until they were often less than eight feet away. Sometimes there would be two of them and other times, we would see up to six. When they were close enough, often just a few feet away, they would sit down. It was almost as if the coyotes were taking our dog’s place. At first, even the slightest movement would startle them and cause them to move back a little. But over time, we could even go into the RV for drinks and they would be in the same position when we came back outside.

Over the next few months, we slowly adjusted to this odd arrangement. We would sit outside with our dogs for a while. Then, after we put the dogs in the RV, the coyotes would move onto the site. Some we recognized. Others were newcomers. On moonlit nights, we would see them moving around the site. Frequently, they would howl and make yipping noises. If we were outside doing chores, there would always be a coyote or two watching us. We spoke to them but never approached them.

Eventually, our 2 dogs became so accustomed to their presence – they stopped barking at them. Over time, we couldn’t even take a walk without one or two of them following behind. For a while, things became so odd – we almost forgot they were there.

As the “off” season slowly came to an end, the campground gradually began to fill up with RVs and tents. At first, the coyotes were reluctant to give up their social accord. For a couple of weeks, other RVers would stop in front of our site and point to the coyotes that were sitting under out picnic table. Some well meaning campers even knocked on our door to tell us that we had coyotes on our site.

But as more and more people moved into the campgrounds, these shy and secretive creatures gradually slipped back into the desert to resume their wild and free lives.

Until now, we haven’t told anyone about our strange relationship while RV camping near the coyotes of the Sonoran Desert. Every so often, people tell us stories about their experiences with coyotes. Some portray them as vicious predators while others describe them in more benevolent terms.

As for me, I believe that it’s a fine line between the family dog and a wild coyote. The primary difference between a family pet and a coyote is in the way it survives. If a domesticated dog is abandoned, it will inevitably join a pack and begin to hunt and behave like a coyote. A ranger that we know actually witnessed a pack of coyotes that included a beagle.

On the other hand, if a coyote has an opportunity to live near people without any threats or demands, he will slowly start to take on some of the characteristics of a family dog. We witnessed coyotes playing with toys, caring for one another, fooling around, and communicating at a level that was nothing short of amazing.

On our last night, the campground was packed with RVs and tents. People were milling about and dozens of campfires crackled under the stars. Our motorhome was packed up and ready to go. Late that night, when everyone had gone to sleep, they came to our site one last time. The yelping, yipping, and howling lasted only a minute or so but it was enough to last forever in our minds.

Sometimes we think about going back to find our friends again. It’s been said that dogs never forget the people that impact their lives. We certainly will never forget the wild dogs of the desert that changed ours.

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