Archive for the ‘strange encounters’ category

Animals and the Rapture

May 20, 2011

So I was heading east last week from the Canal Street stop of the Number 1 train to Lupe’s East L.A. Kitchen

Destination Chili Verde and a Modelo Negro. (Lupe's is at Sixth Ave. & Watts: you know you want to try it.)

when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a bus proclaiming “Judgment Day: May 21 2011”.

Judgment Day warning rolls through SoHo and Tribeca

 Let’s take a closer look.

Oh, the Bible guarantees it. Well, that's different.

May 21st, 2011 is the most recently set date for the Rapture, when a relative handful of good Christians will be air-lifted up to Heaven while the rest of us stay below to suffer apocalyptic horrors that include floods (check), earthquakes (check), war (check), famine (sadly, always a going concern in this world) and many other disasters, man-made, natural and super-natural.

May 21, 2011.  Hey, wait a minute, that’s soon. Like, tomorrow.

Well, before you all go, I have a question: what about the animals?  I walk in the park every day, and can attest that the critters are blithely going about their animal business.

"Rapture? What Rapture?" Tufted titmouse in mid-April.

What’s in store for the animals after the Rapture?  Or can they come, too?

A Red-bellied woodpecker hunts for insects, not salvation.

An internet search reveals that many believers in an end date for the world have given real thought to the question of animals and the Rapture. Most of the concern is about pet animals, and the general consensus, often expressed with sadness, is that animals don’t have souls, or not the right kind of souls, and so will be left behind to suffer the Tribulations, as the dire post-Rapture period is called.

Soulless beast among blossoms.

The question of whether animals have souls is a vexed one in religions around the world and through the ages.  We won’t even talk about Descartes’ animal-machines here. As with most ideas, religious texts and tradition may be used to support any number of positions on the subject.  For many Christian American pet-lovers, the question seems to boil down to: Will I see my pet in heaven?  Sadly, for Rapture believers, the answer is no.

Concern over having to abandon beloved pets on Judgment Day has led to creative business opportunities for entrepreneurs.  After all, who’s going to feed Fido and Fluffy after you’re gone?  Well, you can pay ahead for Atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Bad Christians and other Left-Behinds to care in perpetuity (better get a clear definition of that term) for your animals. As the atheists of England’s Post-Rapture Pet Care say, “Just because we are atheists doesn’t mean we are not animal lovers.” Some of these offers are hoaxes, of course, but several seem, well, “legit” might be stretching it, but let’s just say, “serious.”  At least, they’re serious about taking the money – in advance, please, because your checkbook doesn’t work in heaven.

I’m guessing that if pets don’t make the Rapture cut, wildlife are way outside the salvation pale.

"Hey, what about me? Rapture me up, boys! Can't I come, too?"

I didn’t find much discussion of wildlife, other than as disaster statistics. As you can see on Rapture Watch‘s web page on wildlife deaths, animal deaths are used to bolster arguments that all signs point to the End.  No mention of big business, greed and lax government regulations, of oil spills, mass poisoning from pesticides and other toxic substances, habitat destruction, collisions with man-made structures or the myriad other human-caused wildlife hazards.  Animal deaths supplement the horrifying human suffering caused by earthquakes and war, and point the way to heaven.

If you’re leaving us tomorrow for the nature-free zone in the sky, be sure to bid farewell to geese and goslings

Cute don't buy no tickets on the Rapture train.

Say “Sayonara” to the night herons of Morningside Park

"Who wants to go to heaven if there aren't any fish?"

Wave good-bye to the sparrows of Saint John the Divine, where even nesting on saints can’t save ya.

Too cozy to leave, anyway.

And say “So long” to me.  I’m staying behind with the animals.

Staying put.

NOTE: Are you reading this article after May 21st?  Well, guess what? The end date is being recalculated, even as you read. Apparently, the math may have been off, but the end is still coming. And the animals still don’t care.

Seals and Silkies: Two Faces of Truth

May 19, 2011

Silkies: Faroe Island stamp

Some readers, I am learning, visit Out Walking the Dog for the bits of natural history behind my glimpses of wildlife in the city, while others prefer to focus on the sense of mystery and joy engendered by those glimpses. For me, it is all water from the same well; both the science and the poetry, far from being mutually exclusive, arise from wonder and feed each other.

In my last post, I talked about spottting seals on NYC and Long Island beaches and piers. I referenced experts, who emphasize giving seals plenty of distance and leaving them alone so as not to stress them.

There is another good reason not to become entangled with a stranded seal: it may be a silkie.

Gray Seal. Click the photo to visit the Irish Seal Sanctuary

Silkies, also called selkies, are seal-people, well-known in the mythology of northern Atlantic cultures including Ireland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands.  Silkies sometimes have love affairs with mortal men or women, and these are often tragic and always sorrowful, as Joan Baez sings in The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a haunting Scottish ballad.

In The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a silkie transforms into a man to become the lover of a mortal woman.  Later he disappears, and she bears a child.  One day, as she sings to her baby boy, the silkie reappears to tell her who he really is.

I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie on the sea
And when I’m far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry.

The silkie tells the girl that he will come again one day to fetch his little boy “and teach him how to swim the foam.”  He then confides a terrible vision of the future:

And ye shall marry a gunner good,
And a right fine gunner, I’m sure he’ll be
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.

In another silkie story, a fisherman watches a seal come ashore, take off its seal skin, and become  a beautiful young woman.  He hides the skin, without which she cannot transform back into a seal and must live as a woman. They marry, have children and live together for years. She gradually forgets her past life, although she is drawn to the sea by a powerful yearning.

Drawn to water. Photo by Melissa Cooper

One day, while her husband is out fishing, she comes across the skin in its hiding place and knows again the truth about who she is. Putting on the skin, she is a seal again and swims joyfully away into the waves.

photo by southgeist/

Still she misses her loved ones, and appears forever after in the waters close to shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband and children.

Photo by NatureFramingham; click photo to see more.

Silkie stories riff on the profound connection between humans and animals, on our yearning to know what animals know, see what they see and, finally, on the sadness of our separation from the natural world. Of course, we are animals and part of nature, but we’re often the last to remember.

The Secret of Roan Inish: see it.

John Sayles’s wonderful 1996 movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, is a magical retelling of a silkie story.

And Neil Jordan’s 2010 film, Ondine, tells the story of a contemporary Irish fisherman, played by Colin Farrell, and the mysterious (and rather bizarrely fashion-conscious) seal-woman he brings up in his net.

You never know about seals. You just never know. Their lives and identities remain mysterious.  So keep your eyes open for seals as you walk along the water’s edge or on the beach. But let them be. Yes, let them be.

Malevolent Mice

October 28, 2010

My recent brush with mouse death in Riverside Park has made me aware that New York City is home to some large, malevolently cheerful, truly terrifying mice. Behold the Mickey Mice, or perhaps I should say, Mickey Mouses of the Upper West Side.

Big Mickey is watching you

I’ve never been scared of mice, but after an encounter with this fifty cent ride-on Mickey, I’m rethinking my position:

Escape from Arkham Asylum

Just in case you think I’m being paranoid or over-sensitive, take a closer look at this chilling portrait of insanity:

Would you trust a small child to that face?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cluster Walk in Riverside Park

October 6, 2010


Walking in Riverside Park, Esau and I sometimes see things in clusters.

Here, for example, is a fungi cluster:

Shroom Cluster

And here is an acorn cluster:

Squirrel's stash, exposed

And look out, Houston, here is the Mother of all Burrs:

Freaking scary cluster burr

Animals too come in clusters.

Cluster o' cats

These cats belong to Riverside Park’s tiny feral cat population. According to volunteers who care for them, they have been spayed, neutered and vaccinated.

Bowl cluster with cluster o' cats

The cats come and go freely through the bars that protect them from human intruders.  They share their shelter with a homeless woman.  I wonder if they share their food and water with Riverside’s raccoons.  (Yeah, let’s hope those pretty kitties got their rabies shots.)

Other species also gather in clusters, including sparrows …

Sparrows beneath Riverside Park bird feeders


Members of large squirrel cluster

… and, up on Riverside Drive, humans.

A small cluster of street artists takes a break from their chalky labors.

Isaac Brune (above, in the red cap) and friends transformed a stretch of gray cobblestones into the Riverside Drive Sidewalk Gallery, where they displayed a cluster of chalk drawings:

Welcome by Isaac Brune

Chalk Faces

"Caution! might smell funny"

Caution: watch out for clusters.

Strange Magic: A Wall-walker, Canada Geese and a Water Rat

July 29, 2010

Sometimes strange magic exists alongside basic natural facts.

Yesterday, a spirit strolled the top of the Riverside Park retaining wall,while the desiccated corpse of a rat lay in the middle of the path below.

In Morningside Park, Canada geese, missing for weeks, have returned with a vengeance. A reader of this blog reported seeing four geese last Tuesday.  A day or two later, there were six.  Yesterday morning, I counted fourteen.

Most of the Morningside 14 hung out on the rim of the pond, like small-town teenagers, waiting for something to happen.  Others rested after grazing.

Fourteen geese is a lot of geese for a small area.

Watch your step

If a few more geese join the crowd, the area around the pond may lose its allure for walkers like me.

The goose family that nested on Morningside Pond’s little island does not appear to have returned.  While one Canada goose looks pretty much like any other, the Morningside family was easily recognized by the fact that two of its four juveniles had severe cases of “angel wing,” a wing deformity fairly common among park birds.  My best guess is that the little family simply made its way on foot to the inviting and much larger ponds and fields of Central Park, just a couple of blocks away.  (A supervisory biologist at USDA Wildlife Services has assured me that, despite the recent killing of hundreds of geese in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, no action has been taken, or is planned, for the geese of Central Park.)

If you ignore the mess they make, geese are lovely and amusing creatures.  The Morningside 14 engaged in intense preening, punctuated by bouts of goose yoga in which a leg or wing was held outstretched and motionless for minutes at a time.

First a leg.

Now leg and wing together.

Turtles of all sizes were out in force, as they have been all summer.

And a solitary rat nibbled grass near a solitary duck.

When we approached, the rat slipped silently into the water and vanished, reappearing, sleek and wet, a few feet down the shore.

Unlike the familiar skulking garbage-eaters of the streets, this rat seemed to be enjoying the bucolic life of a wild water-rat.

Ratty takes Mole for a picnic. From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; illustration by E.H. Shepard

It disappeared again into the water. This time, it didn’t reappear.

I searched among the lilies for a tiny skiff or a picnic basket, but found nothing.

Another time, perhaps.


Play Me, I’m Yours: Street Pianos in NYC

June 22, 2010

Esau at the piano

Yesterday morning, sixty pianos miraculously appeared on streets and plazas throughout NYC’s five boroughs.

I had just returned from a trip to Texas (about which more soon) to find that the summer solstice had arrived, bringing with it the launching of “Play Me, I’m Yours,” a brilliant street art initiative.  Esau and I strolled over to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in search of a street piano.

And there, tucked behind the scary sculpture,

in a lovely spot overlooking the gardens, was a brightly painted piano with the invitation (or is it an injunction?):

Play Me, I’m Yours.

And play people did, including Raphaela, pictured below, knocking out a rousing rendition of “Merrily We Roll Along.”

The little painted stool is tethered by a locked chain to the piano, which is, in turn, tethered to two heavy cinder blocks.

At the end of each day, the piano’s keyboard is locked by a “piano buddy,” who unlocks it each morning. Piano buddies are also responsible for protecting the piano from rain by unfurling the roll of plastic attached to the back.

In my neck of the woods, you can find pianos at 70th Street and the Hudson River, Lincoln Center, Dana Discovery Center at 110 Street in Central Park, Saint Nicholas Park, Riverbank State Park, Harlem Art Park and Saint John’s.

To find a piano near you, volunteer to be a “piano buddy,” or just find out more about the installation, visit Play Me, I’m Yours: NYC 2010.

The pianos are up for two weeks, so make music, New York!

Dirty Harry Dog Cleans Up NYC Streets

June 17, 2010

I’ll get to Dirty Harry, but my story starts with my recent trip to scenic Burlington, Vermont. I walked along the lake and rested in the beautifully designed swinging benches.

A duck waddled ashore to preen,

and blue mountains emerged as the clouds lifted from the far shore.

Lake Champlain with clearing sky

Back in Manhattan at evening, we tossed our bags inside the door, and headed back outside, strolling through lush, overgrown Riverside Park to the shores of the Hudson.

The Hudson River on a mid-June evening

In the late-lingering light of June, the banks of the river are quite as lovely as the shores of Lake Champlain, and despite the endless rush of the West Side Highway, the spot is peaceful and the heart expands.

After having lived far away from NYC for almost 20 years, I am still delighted, after every trip, to return home to Eden on the Hudson. Oh, I know Eden isn’t all roses (though roses are in bloom right now behind the benches in the Broadway islands). In fact, what captivates me is NYC’s juxtaposition of lives and cultures. Divergent desires and aspirations collide (who was that well-fed, wide-eyed, middle-aged Hasidic man in full regalia who said “hello” to me on a Soho Street, and, overjoyed by my polite response, proceeded to try to pick me up?).  Surprising alliances, and seemingly impossible existences, are everywhere, like the huge white egrets, as light and white as a blank sheet of paper, that perch in the delicate topmost tree branches in Morningside Park as fiercely intense basketball games rage in the concrete court below.

No, it’s not all roses. Just last week, I mourned the disappearance of a classically beautiful neon sign advertising a fortune-teller, who plied her trade from a second-floor apartment over an Irish bar.

No more fortune-teller: so, tell me, what's going to happen?

In warm weather, she set up at a small table in front of Sleepy’s mattress store. Where is the neighborhood seer now?

Victor, long-time owner of a rooftop pigeon coop, lives uptown now, though his pigeons live south of 110th Street.  In the 1960s, Victor’s family was the first Puerto Rican family to move into a largely Irish neighborhood.  Over the next decades, Amsterdam and Columbus in the 100s became almost entirely Hispanic with a thriving Dominican population.

109th Street Little League Baseball sign

Victor tells me many of the old-time pigeon fliers were junkies, passing idle drugged-out days watching their birds circle above the rooftops.  “Pigeon coops are only in poor neighborhoods,” Victor says, “Places where people don’t have much, and nobody cares what you do up on the roof.”

Victor's flock circles

All around, especially nearer to Broadway, the rising neighborhood group is the gentry, for whom economics – money, plain and simple – trumps racial, religious and ethnic signifiers. Gentrification is a mighty force. It moves masses of people in and out of an area, improves schools, fights halfway houses, pushes out homeless people, destroys bodegas, brings in fresh vegetables, and hoses down the sidewalks. But it can’t stop the kings of the night.

A king of NYC, probably by Banksy (click image for more info)

On garbage night, rats rule the side streets, well-fed kings of trash, their sway undiminished by the transformation of rent-controlled apartments into doorman-attended co-ops.  In fact, all that building, digging, repairing and renovating of buildings, sidewalks and streets just roils up the rats.  It disturbs their secret subterranean world. It stirs up their conclaves, breaks up their nests, and sends them scurrying up into our realm of light and fresh air.

Look! There goes one now, slipping ghost-like through a crack in the sidewalk.

Not everyone sees rats. But to walk the side streets at night with a dog like Esau is to apprentice yourself to a master hunter. My eye is trained by Esau. I know where the rats are, even when I can’t see them. There’s one, crouching in the darkness behind the front wheel of a parked car. There’s another, beneath that grate in the gutter.

And on garbage night, it’s party-hearty time for neighborhood rodents.  The rats squeeze unnoticed underneath the great curb-side mounds of trash bags, and, safely out of sight of pedestrians, tear open the black plastic, and feast. Esau, scruffy little 30-pound mutt, likes to catch them while they eat, when, as Hamlet says of Claudius, the rats are “full of bread,/With all [their] crimes broad blown”.

Three times, Esau has caught a street rat while out for a civilized, leashed walk, darting his nose under a trash bag and emerging with the creature – huge, writhing – held firmly in his jaws. The first time it happened, I shrieked and impulsively jerked hard on the leash, which jerked the poor dog’s head so that his mouth opened and the rat flew in an airborne trajectory, up, up, up across the sidewalk and down the stairs to land by the basement door of some unsuspecting super’s apartment.

Clint Eastwood's got nothing on Esau.

Esau’s performance thoroughly impressed a group of tough young men hanging out on a nearby stoop. They ruffled his ears and called him “Killer.” “What kind of dog is that?” they asked admiringly. “Where’d you get that killer dog?”

By the third time, Esau had learned to waste no time in dispatching his victim. As I turned my attention away to greet a neighbor, he swiftly grabbed a rat from under a trash bag and gave a quick, sharp shake of his head. Before I knew what was happening, he had deposited the lifeless, bloodless body on the sidewalk, and was looking proudly and serenely up at me as the neighbor, eyes round with panic and skin chalk-white, moved quickly away.

Portrait of a killer

Nowadays, on garbage nights, I keep the leash taut and my attention focused, as we pass the massive pyramids of garbage.  Esau’s days as a vigilante are over, and though his street cred is intact, he can only dream of somehow, someday, running free once again to fulfill his terrifying, Dirty Harry-like potential to purify the streets of New York.

Up on Victor’s Roof

June 9, 2010

I met Victor a few weeks ago at a community fair on Amsterdam Avenue. He was holding court at a folding table on the street,  a hand-raised baby bird named Sunday on his shoulder, and a cage full of handsome rooftop pigeons. I hung around, watching Victor handle the birds and peppering him with questions. I said I’d like to see the pigeon coop one of these days.

A few days later, as I was on my way to Morningside Park to check on the goslings, I ran into Victor, carrying a bag of birdseed.

But the dog

“Come on up,” he said.

“But the dog –” I said.

“Bring him up.”

So Esau and I followed Victor into a building and up the narrow stairs to the roof.

It’s hard to explain the magic of a NYC roof.  On the roof, you are in two worlds at once.  You’re in the city, and also, magically, outside it.

Victor no longer lives in the building where his pigeons live. He visits them every other day to give them fresh food and water, and to watch them fly. They live in a coop he fashioned out of an existing structure on the roof.

Victor's pigeons on top of their coop

The coop has a door and a window for the birds to fly in and out of.  Or just stand in.

Victor removed the screens that partially blocked off the door and window, called to the birds and scattered seed on the roof.

Victor feeds the birds.

We were joined by a young pigeon-loving neighbor and his mother.

Who's in there?

A few pigeons were reluctant to leave.

What's going on out there?

But most came out to eat, to hang out on the roof of the coop,

and to fly

Victor’s birds are called flights, and they fly together in great circles over the rooftop. Victor says they never land in the street, only on rooftops, preferably their own rooftop. He calls street birds “clinkers,” and tells me you can easily see the difference between a street bird and birds like his. Street birds have red eyes and black claws, while most of his birds have clear eyes and clear claws.

And, damn, if it isn’t true.

Look deeply into my eyes like glass.

While the birds circled above, Victor regaled me with facts about pigeons and stories of the glory days of pigeon-flying in Morningside Heights, when every rooftop had its coop. Each owner banded his birds with ankle rings in different colors, so everyone knew which birds belonged to which coop. Victor told me of losing birds to red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons and tough fellow pigeon fliers, who practiced “Catch and kill,” where they kill any stray bird that ends up in their flock.

“Why, Victor?” I asked. “Why would they do that?”

“Just to be mean,” he said. “And a lot of guys don’t want a bird that won’t come back to its own roof. If you told them you had one of their birds, they’d say, “Kill it.'”

After a while, Victor scattered more seed and called the birds in.

They ate and hung out.

Then Victor closed them back into their coop and swept up the leftover seed.

Time to descend the stairs and re-enter the world of the street. Which has its own magic.

Victor Casiano’s Rooftop Pigeons

May 20, 2010

Victor Casiano is the last survivor of a once-mighty tribe: the rooftop pigeon fliers of Morningside Heights. According to Victor, pigeon coops used to grace virtually every rooftop.

Now there’s only Victor and his beloved flock of flights and tumblers, magpies and fantails.

I met Victor last weekeend during Manhattan Valley Family Days, a community event that was part of the NYC Department of Transportation Weekend Walks Program.

He sat at a table with a cage full of birds, a small selection of his rooftop flock.

An effective ambassador to a passing world, Victor proudly showed off his birds, all the while chatting with friends and neighbors.

He explained the differences between his birds, easily flipping open wings to display the markings.

Gorgeous red and white markings

He taught children how to hold and release the birds

and placed a hand-raised baby pigeon on their shoulders

He patiently answered endless questions from this writer

and promised to take me up to his rooftop coop on Amsterdam Avenue.

For more on Victor and his birds, see “Up on Victor’s Roof,” and visit my monthly column in the Westside Independent to read about my first visit to Victor’s rooftop coop.

Oh, how I love New York.

Update: I just ran into Victor on the street and he told me Family Days is running for two Sundays. Come by Amsterdam Avenue between 106th and 110th on Sunday May 23rd from 11 AM until 5 PM. Victor and his birds will be doing demonstrations as will Hiraldo’s Karate School, El Taller Latino, Mugi Pottery, and many others. Victor will be set up between 108th and 109th.

Manhattan Mandalas: A NYC Walking Meditation

April 14, 2010

Walking in Riverside Park is a linear experience.

Upper Riverside Park Map

Like its lovely Harlem sister parks, Morningside, Saint Nicholas and Jackie Robinson, Riverside Park stretches north like a ribbon unfurled.

Bounded on the west by the Hudson River and on the east, at least in its northern reaches, by the high cliffs of Morningside and Harlem Heights, the park is just too narrow for the kind of meandering induced by the curving paths and deep woods of Central Park or Prospect Park.  I grew up wandering in Central Park, and I’m happy to say that I still regularly lose my way in the Ramble or the North Woods. Heading east, I’ll strike out on a new path only to realize,  fifteen minutes later, that I’ve somehow turned myself completely around. I’m headed straight back where I came from.

That doesn’t happen in Riverside. It’s pretty much flat-out impossible to lose your way in Riverside Park. It’s hard to even take a turn.

I’m not complaining. I love my park. But like the tug-propelled barges that work the river, you can go north or you can go south, and that’s the way it is.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes find myself obsessed with circles.

It starts innocently enough with a natural oval inside the park

but quickly progresses to circles, natural:

Who lives here?

and man-made:

Quick, somebody, wash out the mop.

Leaving the park, I have a revelation: the streets of Manhattan are paved with mandalas.

Some are large

and some are small

And when I raise my eyes from the street, what do I see?

Yes, you guessed right.


We cross Broadway with its mysterious, circular hieroglyphics

and head, at last,

to Mecca

where the apotheosis of the circle resides in ever-replenished, puffy splendor.

The consumption of a plump, fresh-from-the-oven edible circle successfully exorcises my obsession.

For the moment.

Oh, but look at that ceiling light.

May the circle be unbroken.

Central Park Coyote News: Trust me, he’s not who you think he is

March 20, 2010

Please visit the Unknown Urban Hipster for a surprising, illustrated interview with the Central Park coyote.  The wild dog turns out to be one cool cat, and older than he looks.

The Hipster also provides some terrific links, including to a short film about German artist Joseph Beuys and his 1974 NYC performance piece, I Like America and America Likes Me, that featured Beuys and a (supposedly) wild coyote together in an art gallery for eight hours a day over three days.

I have been trying to find out where the Beuys coyote came from and what happened to him or her after the performance, but have come up empty-handed. The Central Park coyote speaks briefly to the Unknown Hipster about the performance, and claims the Beuys coyote was “an asshole.”

Thank you, Unknown Hipster, for the illuminating interview.

Central Park Coyote Dream: worlds within worlds

March 12, 2010

Worlds within worlds

Some people dream of bicycles and when they wake, they dust off their bikes and ride to the river. There they discover they can no longer tell an egret from a plastic bag nor a hawk from a hand saw. Other people dream of petty grievances and wake with hurt feelings, nursing grudges against unknowing friends.

I dream of coyotes.

In my dream, the animals move east from their ancestral home range in the Great Plains into the Great Lakes and beyond. Some enter Ohio and Pennsylvania, while others cross north into Ontario before resuming their eastward journey. In Canada, they mix with remnants of a wolf population that roamed the east before being decimated by European settlers.

In my dream, it is the 1930s and coyotes are slipping south across the international border that no animal recognizes to enter New York state. Over the next three or four decades, they reach Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. By the 1990s, coyotes are thriving throughout Westchester and the Bronx, and in the last year of the last century, a young male crosses the waters that separate Manhattan Island from the mainland. Captured in Central Park, the coyote is banished to the Queens Zoo, where he still lives today.

Otis, the outrider, still lives in the Queens Zoo.

Otis, as he comes to be called, turns out to be a harbinger of a population on the move. In 2006, another young coyote turns up in Central Park, and within the first two months of 2010, coyotes are spotted in Chelsea, Central Park, Harlem, Morningside Heights and Highbridge Park. No one knows how many have come into Manhattan; it may be as many as four or five or, more likely, just one or two moving through city streets and parks. By early March, the animals seem to have melted into the city streets and left no trace behind.

Except for one. Sleeping by day in Hallett Nature Sanctuary at the southeast corner of Central Park, a solitary coyote emerges each night when the park grows quiet.

In my dream, I am staring into the dark forested slope of the Sanctuary, looking for movement. A slim, lithe, dog-like shadow slips across the little land bridge on the west side, bounds over the low fence that borders the walkway, and trots up the path. Repeatedly disturbed by oblivious walkers and once by Parks crew in golf carts with flashlights, the coyote swiftly leaps back, undetected, to the safety of the Sanctuary and disappears.

I wait in the gathering dark for a reappearance. Time passes. Raccoons haul their burly bodies out of hollow trees, groom themselves awake, then lumber to the ground and trundle off into the Sanctuary on mysterious rounds.

Central Park Raccoon, Bruce Yolton,

Cold now and tired from a week of early rising, I call it quits. I pass through Artists Gate and, still searching the park for movement, head west on 59th Street toward the subway.

And suddenly, the coyote is there, standing in a clearing next to a huge dark outcropping, directly across from Essex House. Its gaze is intelligent, alert and sharp, as if it’s trying to make an informed decision about which way to go.

I stop in my tracks. Behind me, carriage horses stand patiently with lowered heads, while their gossiping drivers wait for fares. Pedestrians hurry past. Inside the park wall, just a few yards away, the coyote occupies an untamed world that nests within the civilized world of the city like a Russian doll. My city holds so many worlds, perhaps an infinite number of worlds, worlds natural and unnatural, familiar and strange beyond imagining. In some few of these worlds, coyotes roam free.

Eyes meet across many borders, and hold.

Then the coyote turns and trots north out of sight.

I keep dreaming and do not wake up.

D. Bruce Yolton;

This post is part of the Carnival of Evolution #24, hosted by 360 Degree Skeptic. Visit the carnival and enjoy the rides.

I See the Central Park Coyote: Joy!

March 2, 2010

Yesterday I managed to get down just after sunset to the Pond at the southeastern end of Central Park to watch for the coyote. Photographer Bruce Yolton was already on the bridge with his big camera set up.  He said the coyote had been out on the ice about ten minutes before, but had left. We waited.

I walked a slow loop around the Hallett Nature Center and the pond, staring into the dusk, hoping to see the coyote on the other side. No luck. I rejoined Bruce on the bridge, and we waited some more in the gathering dark.

Two pitch-black shapes flew past us, low and swift. “Ducks,” Bruce said. They joined their tribe in the water under the bridge.

And then I caught a slim shape moving along the little spit of land that juts out onto the ice. The coyote!

Photo by D. Bruce Yolton/

It disappeared around the far side, so we moved around the path after it. We were able to watch it for quite a while. It came out onto the ice many times, trotting and occasionally breaking into a lope. Its trot is remarkably quick and its movements efficient. Once it made a grand, pouncing leap from the bank back to the ice.

Wary and shy, it slipped back into the sanctuary at the sound of loud voices. It seemed to be trying to find a quiet space through which it could move on out of its Hallett-Pond territory, but was constantly deterred by people walking their dogs, loud ice skating music on the nearby rink and other evening park activity.

How different it must be in the wee hours of the night, when the park is empty of humans and dogs, and the coyote has free run. I’d like to see that.

See more photos and a short video of last night’s coyote sighting at Urban Hawks.

NYC Snow Day Brings News of Central Park Raccoons and Coyotes

February 27, 2010

The Parks Department declares Saturday an official Snow Day, and is providing free sleds and hot cocoa at several parks, including Riverside at 103rd.

Snow Day!

Esay trees a squirrel

Esau and I went by to check it out.

We ran into Sunny and Sheriden, our Urban Park Ranger friends, who were supervising the happy sledders from the bottom of the hill.

As always, I was delighted to see them and, of course, pumped them for the latest on Central Park’s rabid raccoons and visiting coyotes.

Raccoon Update

In a little over a week, USDA biologists have already trapped, vaccinated, tagged and released around seventy raccoons in Central Park. Seventy!  Add in the sixty rabid raccoons collected since December 2009, and it’s pretty clear that the total Central Park raccoon population must be well into the hundreds. This extraordinary population density has undoubtedly contributed to the rapidity with which the disease has spread.

One raccoon, already tagged and vaccinated, found its way into a trap for a second time. Since it was injured (not related to the trapping, as far as I know), researchers euthanized it. Tests revealed that it was rabid. This doesn’t mean the inoculation failed, but rather that the raccoon had been infected prior to being vaccinated. Since rabies shows no symptoms until it reaches the brain (at which point the raccoon has only a few days to live), a number of infected but still apparently healthy animals are likely to be trapped, vaccinated and released. The disease will kill them, but meanwhile they may continue to infect healthy, as-yet-unvaccinated raccoons.

Still, I’m impressed with the city’s response and the cooperative effort of state and local agencies. I remain hopeful that the virus will be contained and our raccoon population, dramatically culled by disease, will again be healthy.

Sheriden also said that since the snowstorm, some of Central Park’s raccoons are finding their usual secretive pathways too deep in snow for comfort, and are taking to the main walkways of the park. She’s guessing they’ll be getting more calls than usual over the next couple of days as healthy raccoons that just don’t want to get their feet wet waddle down the same paths as rabies-conscious New Yorkers who are trying to steer clear of the wildlife.

Coyote Update

The Central Park coyote (or coyotes, since no one is quite sure how many there are) continues to run free. It is reported to be quite shy of people. Sunny saw it once down at the south end of the park, playing with the snow. She said no one is trying to catch it, at the moment; they’re concentrating on the raccoons. And both she and Sheriden seemed to be hoping that it might be allowed to stay. I have to assume, though, that officials are considering the unfortunate possibility that the coyote may contract rabies from the raccoons.

Whatever the eventual fate of 2010’s coyotes, evidence is mounting that coyotes are adapting to east coast city life. Ball’s in our court. We city dwellers had better start figuring out how we can adapt to them.

Keep checking back for the upcoming series on coyotes in the east.

Final Irresistible Snow Being

February 20, 2010

Seen on the street right in front of a west side building

Beautiful Being with Car Light Lips

For more snow beings, visit Snow Beings Appear in Riverside Park and More NYC Snow Beings Linger After Winter Storm.

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