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August 25, 2011

Hybrid Coyotes: A Paw in Two Worlds

Two abandoned pups raised for release at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center find home at Black Beauty Ranch

by Pepper Ballard

Two blond coyotes taken to The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center as abandoned pups are being released to sanctuary after a startling discovery was made into their wild roots: the siblings who dig tunnels together and play tug-of-war are not only coyotes, they're dogs too.

"One minute they act like dogs, wagging their tails and whining to play. The next, they stare you down with bared teeth or are digging five-foot tunnels underground like coyotes. They are in a constant state of identity crisis," said Ali Crumpacker, director of The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, Calif. "They are not domestic no matter how you raise them and they can never survive in the wild simply because they will try to approach and interact with humans, getting themselves shot or trapped because they are seen as a threat or a nuisance."

Amber and Rusty—named to appeal to their domestic side—are being taken to Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, to live out their lives in sanctuary—the only homing option aside from a zoo for these hybrid animals, who are illegal to own as pets in many states, including California. While Crumpacker's staff routinely rears wild animals and releases them back to their home San Diego County territory, Black Beauty staff provide lifelong care for animals rescued from abuse and neglect, and have a 15,000-square-foot coyote enclosure perfectly suited for the energetic duo. Both facilities are owned and operated by The Fund for Animals and The Humane Society of the United States.

In the DNA

The animals' true identities weren't made known until they were about seven months old, and just weeks away from being released to the wild as coyotes—several months after they arrived at the center as weeks-old abandoned pups in March 2010.

A few months after they arrived, a California Department of Fish and Game investigation ensued involving another coyote pup—of the same age and odd color—who was found in the possession of a man who had taken the "pet coyote" to the Poway Petco for puppy milk. The man lived a few houses down from the spot where the other coyote pups were first reportedly abandoned, Crumpacker said. The coyote pup who was confiscated from the man who took him to Petco found a forever home at the Moonridge Zoo.

A DNA test was ordered for all of the pups, and the results came back as part-dog—breed unknown. The pups' blond coloring suggested they were likely bred with a yellow-coated dog, possibly a Labrador retriever, she said, adding that staff were surprised to hear that they were dog-crosses, but started to recall dog-like behavior from the animals over the months in their care.

"Their conformity and behavior are coyote identical. Only their coloring was unique, but that sometimes happens in the wild due to natural genetic mutations," she said.

Then, there were other signs that puzzled staff: Rusty "wagged his tail at human voices, made eye contact, was comfortable being approached—all extremely abnormal for coyote pups at 4 months old. The ones we have in rehab now run away at the sight of us, dig holes and hide behind anything they can hide behind when we enter their enclosure."

Dog-like behavior aside, the center's coydogs—as the hybrid animals are often called—are taller, stronger and about 10 pounds heavier than most coyotes their age.

"They're more unpredictable than a coyote, and anything unpredictable is dangerous," she said.

As wild animals raised in the rehabilitation program, the coydogs wouldn't ordinarily be named, but since they're part-dog, staff named the leggy blonds Amber and Rusty, and have started preparing them for a life in sanctuary instead of a life in the wild.

Making the transition

"Because they are going to be living a life in captivity, there are certain traits we do and don’t want to teach that we would normally work on for a wild animal," Crumpacker said. "We now want them to stay calm in the presence of humans and allow physical restraint for medical exams. We would never teach these things to a wild coyote, who is taught to run and hide at the sight of a human."

When they arrived at the center as coyotes, they were fed a diet of rodents, fallen fruit, berries and acorns—food they would naturally find in their habitat. Their food was never served in a bowl—a technique used to discourage them from seeking back yard pet food. Now, they eat dog kibble out of a dog bowl. They also get dog bones and squeaky toys for enrichment.

"They definitely have the coyote instinct to dig tunnels, and when Amber plays with her toys, she's hilarious," Crumpacker said. "Rusty is unquestionably the alpha. He didn't put himself in harm's way to protect Amber during her recent medical exam whereas she tried to keep us away from him when it was his turn. It was surprising that they went into full alpha and omega roles—that was another coyote moment."

Staff don't play with the coydogs, but they do work with them to lower their flight or fight instincts. Staff converse outside their enclosure to help accustom them to human voices and strangers. Coyotes rehabilitated for a return to the wild would be treated without conversation and limited to 10 minutes a day of human contact, largely spent replenishing food and water.

"We love these two and are so happy that we can transfer them to Black Beauty. It is a shame that they must remain in a cage for the rest of their lives, but if they must be caged then we want them to be it the biggest, best, cage available," Cumpacker said. "At Black Beauty they will have the space to run and dig when they want to be a coyote and they will have the staff and volunteers to shower them with affection when they want to be dogs. Amber and Rusty never have to decide who they are, they can be both—forever."

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