Word comes that the legendary coyote, like so many other out-of-town predators, is being spotted more and more in the Washington metropolitan area -- a sort of canine Beltway bandit with attitude looking for opportunities in the East.
People are being advised to lock up their house pets at night and start hoping that yipping at the moon is coming from the neighborhood drunk.
There's a hint of killer-bee dread in these announcements of animal incursions from the great American elsewhere. We don't have mountain lions brunching on bikers and joggers yet, like they have in California and Colorado, but one is tempted to search for omens when a coyote shows up at the West Falls Church Metro station and begins stalking a Lhasa apso on a leash. What can this mean? Too much global warming? Too little homeland security? Escalation of Metro's fare hike debate?
Well, the first thing it tells us is that this is what comes when people stop wearing fur coats. Depress the pelt market and the next thing you know your puppy is lunch on a leash. Nature really is red in tooth and claw, and once alligators started snapping up poodles in the suburbs of Florida, it was only a matter of time before nature started fighting development in Falls Church, too.
How concerned should we be?
First, let's get a bit of perspective. Coyotes are supposed to be extremely smart, but it's a matter of record that one coyote, Wile E., has been chasing a single roadrunner for 55 years and hasn't caught him yet.
This doesn't mean coyotes' legendary intelligence has been oversold. It could be simple misfortune, existential destiny or just poor consumer information. Wile E., after all, buys most of his equipment from the Acme Co., which would appear to supply instructions with too few cautionary guidelines.
But there may indeed be clues to the coyote's eastern migration in Wile E.'s endless and tragic pursuit. Why, a thinking coyote might wonder, am I grubbing around in the desert after voles and roadrunners, when the living is easier in the East, particularly around Washington, where they have all those famous handouts?
The reason the coyote is here may be, like the war in Iraq, less important than what we do about it from now on. These are not your grandfather's coyotes. State wildlife biologists say those seen recently in the Washington area are nearly twice the size of their cousins in the Southwest and can run 35 miles an hour. That's faster than most Virginia highway traffic during rush hour. Could commuters be at risk? Wildlife biologists say people are rarely attacked by coyotes, but acknowledge that some fellow on a riding lawn mower was set upon by a 50-pound rabid coyote last year in New Kent County, east of Richmond. He was chased to his front porch, where he got his shotgun.
That doesn't sound exactly comforting.
More alarmingly, the coyote menace in the area is only one among many. In some communities Canada geese have stopped migrating and started lazing about year-round. People in Olney had 100 of them turned into dog and cat food the other day -- a move an anguished Maggie Brasted, a program officer of the Humane Society, described as "a death sentence for pooping on the walkways."
Everyone knows the Chesapeake Bay is under assault by the prolific and omnivorous mute swan, and need we mention the insurgent snakehead fish, now operating from a base in the Potomac River?
What we face here is a form of biological terrorism, and while that's cause for concern, it need not be cause for alarm. A problem, after all, is really an opportunity in disguise.
Just as we attempt to sow discord among terrorist groups and prevent their united action, we need to get the word to the coyotes about the gourmet riches awaiting them among the Canada geese, mute swan and snakehead fish populations. A fat goose is a lot slower than a roadrunner and is bound to taste better than a Lhasa apso. Surely some government contractor doing business with the Department of Homeland Security or the Pentagon can come up with a scheme for how this could be done.
Of course, we wouldn't be out of the woods even then. A goose-fed coyote is doubtless an even larger and scarier coyote, not to mention a coyote in heat. We would be creating more enemies in the process of doing away with them. But, hey, nobody said this would be easy.
Tom Ridge and Don Rumsfeld, could you get on this right away?