As a young pup, Twister and Willow were brought from a USDA facility near Logan UT, where they studied non-lethal methods of controlling coyotes’ population. They were raised as brother and sister, but each had a separate set of parents. We quickly found that coyote pups developed faster than wolf pups. At an age when wolf pups would be struggling to raise their heads to look over the nursery barrier, the coyotes had scrambled up on top of it and were poising themselves for an exploration adventure! They were very glad to be moved to an outdoor nursery enclosure that became their home as adults.
As the coyotes matured, we found that they closed their friendship circles to new humans. As with wolves, their hormonal profiles changed on an annual cycle with them becoming less mellow around mid – fall. During that time, we did more training through the fence and cut back on interacting with them inside the enclosures. This was so that they had less opportunity or temptation to practice aggressive behavior toward us. With the return of spring, the coyotes resumed being cuddly, and Twister particularly liked his “me time” with Monty, or Dana, or Pat while we did “ears and cuddles.” On those occasions we put fly repellent ointment on their ears and did some training with them both for fun and behavior management. Monty did most of the cuddling, but Pat also got some requests for tummy rubs and some affectionate licking.
In the past few years a lot of our interns have been particularly interested in creating varied enrichment for the wolves. One of the favorites was a variation on “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest”, from the title of a popular vegetarian cookbook. The interns not only made an edible forest of broccoli, they populated it with small figures of people, made out of peanut butter and flour, running away from the “giant” coyotes. At other times the interns hid things inside cardboard tubes for the coyotes, made them a hanging ball out of fire hose, and decorated trees with dead mice. They also liked preparing stuffed watermelons and pumpkins and piñatas for the coyotes for Fourth of July, Halloween, and the animals’ Birthday Party. Twister was particularly happy with the birthday piñatas. This year he managed to bag both of them!
On June 4, while making evening rounds, we found that Twister left us suddenly. His death was a complete surprise. He seemed fine that morning. When our vet examined the body, the findings were inconclusive, but the most likely causes of death were heart attack, stroke, or seizure.
It is some comfort to remember that Twister had just had a very enjoyable three-day weekend during Ken McCort’s seminar. Twister was always happy to see Ken, whom he had known since he was a pup. He really liked working with Ken, who challenged Twister engage his brain and think. They both usually finished a session with tired brains. Ken said for years that you have to be on top of your game as a trainer every second you are with coyotes – they are that smart and that fast. Ken also noticed a behavior in Twister that he had previously only seen in birds: blazing eyes. When Twister was stimulated by training, and getting close to a threshold where he was so excited he couldn’t think, his pupils expanded and contracted in rapid alternation. This is called “blazing.” It was a sign to Ken that he needed to give Twister something to solve right away. Tom O’Dowd, our video photographer, shot footage of the seminar, Twister’s last. Tom was also a coyote fan. He wrote this on hearing of Twister’s death:
“I can’t properly express my sorrow about having to suddenly say farewell to Twister. My first thoughts are of how many people his life changed, all of the Wolf Parkers from Andrew and Jessica, who brought Twister and Willow home, and all the others who learned from scratch how to raise coyote pups. We had lots of wolf pup time but except for Pat and Monty, nobody had raised coyote pups. We learned not to underestimate their physical or cognitive abilities.
Those two were spectacularly challenging to predict. They had a script that we couldn’t read. As they matured, we were gifted with a fresh cornucopia of behavior, so similar to wolves in some ways, but definitely a different species. They taught us so much and I am grateful and humbled by learning what I could.
I was always happy to join Willow and Twister in their enclosure as one of the few that they welcomed. I felt a strong connection when Twister came up to share a lick or get a scratch. He seemed to appeal to me for a momentary respite from the Willowesque drama. If I felt a brotherhood from our creatures, Twister is one who also wanted that close contact.
As soon as I heard, I reflected on Twister, Ken, and me having a visit yesterday. Twister responded so strongly to Ken. He would choose Ken to hang out with anytime. He was the ideal classroom exhibit when Ken worked with him. I’m glad I had many opportunities to be present while Ken and Twister negotiated with each other over the years.
I’m quite pleased that we got great video of this character over the weekend. His lessons will stay with us both for a very long time.”
Tom’s mention of “Willowesque drama” refers to Willow’s ability to control the beginning, end, and tone of her interactions with Twister. While she was not quite “She Who Must Be Obeyed” all the time, Willow was definitely “She Who Cannot Be Ignored!” The coyotes competed for human interaction and attention. This spring, Ken’s friend Chirag Patel did a seminar as well. He came up with protocol to minimize and, we hoped, eventually eliminate the squabbles Willow started when we did morning and evening rounds. We were already seeing his training plan bear fruit.
As our wolf population aged, some of our old choristers lost their voices, but the coyotes were more than willing to join in on Howl Nights and make the earth and sky resound with their yip howls. Twister is gone, but he will definitely never be forgotten!