Willow – April 2, 2006 – April 1, 2019

Willow has left us. The little girl coyote who grew into a force of nature, who was ‘She Who Cannot Be Ignored’, according to Twister, passed away on April 1st. The next day would have been her thirteenth birthday

I have a friend, who reminds me that we are not given our loved ones, whether human, or another species, to keep; they are only lent to us.  And we do not know for how long they are lent.   It is some comfort that Willow did not have a long decline, but we all feel that 13 years “on loan” was not long enough.

Willow and Twister were cute puppies. Staff members Jess and Andrew drove them back from the USDA’s non-lethal predator control facility in Utah, going unexpectedly close to a tornado in the process. Staff member Caity Judd and interns Ashleigh Smith and Nick Irwin helped rear Willow and Twister that summer.

Raising coyote pups was different from raising wolves. We already knew that coyotes were not wolves. Willow and Twister gave us an advanced course in understanding this. They acquired coordination and climbing skills at a younger age than wolf pups. They caused us to extend the overhangs in their outdoor enclosure, and were more of a challenge to keep inside the nursery.  They were both adept at leaping and climbing. Seeing them rise on their hind legs and bound vertically was like watching little kangaroos.

Puppy parent, Caity Judd, recalls “Andrew brought them a dead rabbit. ‘They’re not old enough to eat full carcasses,’ he told me. ‘But it’ll be good for them to start playing with them.’  Willow settled beside me and, starting at the nose, ate the entire rabbit – bones and all.”  Ashleigh and Caity both like singing and selected songs for the pups.  Willow’s was ‘Willow Tit Willow’, from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, “The Mikado.” Caity and Ashleigh sang Willow the Muppet Show version of the song with their best Sam the Eagle impressions. As an adult, Willow still responded to that song.

Their first fall, both pups won over all the seminarians. Willow was much admired and cooed over. She was so dainty and pretty. Her nickname was Pretty Princess Willow, and there is a photo of her sleepily wearing a rhinestone tiara.  During his seminar, Dr. Ray Coppinger was charmed by the coyotes. Willow spooked from him at first, but he got some dog cookies and spent quite a while winning her over.

Ray Coppinger’s admiration for the coyotes resulted in them participating in a canine cognitive study in 2007. Dr. Clive Wynne and his (then) graduate students, Monique Udell and Nicole Dorey ran test on our wolves. At Ray’s suggestion, they also collected data on Willow and Twister.  Several years before a paper was published claiming that wolves were not as good as dogs at using humans’ social cues.  The authors thought this difference was because, for millennia, dogs have been under selection pressure to pay attention to human social cues, and that predisposition has become encoded in their DNA.  We disagreed with this conclusion, since our wolves were adept at picking up human social cues.  Our coyotes understood cues too. Willow and Twister racked up impressive scores. Willow found the test a little easier because she was less frightened by novel objects and procedures, but both yotes did extremely well – maybe a little better than the wolves.

After she matured Willow started stalking interns through the fence, a “game” that we tried to stop by having the interns work on training with her through the fence. It was partly successful, but Willow’s social circle remained restricted. She still maintained positive relationships with her puppy parents, even if they couldn’t meet her face to face. Caity continued to sing ‘Willow Tit Willow’ to her anytime Willow considered her a potential stalking target, and Willow would switch to greeting when she heard the song. In Willow’s old age she sometimes declined to get up in the morning for the interns during medical rounds. “She likes Gilbert and Sullivan,” Caity told them but the interns had to see (and hear) the evidence to believe this.

Willow taught us a lot. Coyotes are a challenge to train because they are very quick and very smart. Animal trainer, Ken McCort trained the coyotes whenever he came to visit. He said he had to be on his game every single minute. In search of accurate information on how to get humans to produce treats, Willow and Twister tested their understanding of Ken’s rules of engagement every time. In some respects, this was like bargaining or haggling. What was Ken willing to accept? In return, Ken found he had to be on time with his rewards and he had to be very clear on exactly what he was reinforcing. Both Ken and the coyotes typically finished the sessions feeling as if their brains had a parkour workout.  Willow and Twister were always ready for naps afterward – naps to help “knit up the raveled sleeve of care,” and to process what they had learned.

After Twister’s sudden passing last summer, Willow was subdued. She gradually improved as the months passed, but some of her zest remained missing.  She welcomed her puppy parents back into her friendship circle for visits, and Caity was able to resume working with her. She was good with staff members Kimber and Karen, meeting them in the corridors while on walks. She enjoyed exploring new enclosures, and had a ‘frienemy’ relationship with Timber, her frequent neighboring wolf.

Willow very affectionate in the days leading up to her death. She requested belly rubs from Caity for the first time since she was a pup. We were reminded of the affectionate-with-everyone pup she’d been long before.

She was found on April 1st unable to get up. On the ride to the vet, Willow had “clusters” of seizures. Even with medication, she continued to seize at the vet’s office. Given her age, temperament, and health, we made the decision to euthanize her. Caity held her and whispered her song to her one last time.

Though Willow was not always easy to work with she had a genuine sweet streak.  We are grateful to have had her, though only “on loan,” and remember her with love.

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