Wild in the Streets:
Tracking the Wily Coyote
by Andrew Santella
GQ, July 2000
First thing in the morning, Rob Erickson gives his tools a good soak in coyote urine. Then he has his coffee.
Erickson is a trapper of coyotes, beavers and other fur-bearing animals, a practitioner of a trade that may be the oldest in North America. Instead of paddling and portaging as his fur-trapper forebears did, Erickson gets around in a battered Ford pickup, wheeling through lines of left-turning Lexuses on hundred-mile rides through suburban Chicago.
Right there in the midst of the traffic from the malls and the corporate parks, he’ll show you how to get the scent of bobcat glands into the breeze, a siren call for coyotes. He’ll explain how to get the shine off traps by boiling them with sumac berries. He’ll show you how to break a coyote’s neck with your bare hands.
Erickson calls his company On Target Animal Damage Control. Animal damage control means rounding up the varmints that collide with ever-sprawling, ever-suburbanizing America. Or, as he puts it, "My job is to resolve human-animal conflict."
What happens is, the police chief or village manager of a bedroom community hears from residents that a coyote is menacing the shih tzus, maybe even making off with a cat or two. Or the operator of a small airport will find himself with an occasional coyote running after a taxiing corporate jet like a farm dog after a truck. That’s when Erickson’s phone rings.
Erickson, a goateed 45-year-old in a hooded sweatshirt and New Balance basketball shoes, has as much coyote work as he can handle these days. The odometer on his truck is at 292,000 and climbing. "I can’t see the justification in buying a new truck," he says. "I just throw dead shit in it." His is one of about 300 wildlife-control services licensed in Illinois, but he claims it’s the only one in the Chicago area that specializes in coyotes. "It’s not hard to make over a hundred grand at this," he says. "And I haven’t advertised in years." On any given day, he might have about one hundred coyote traps set in Chicago’s suburbs.
They might be snare traps, loops of metal cable anchored in the ground and set at coyote head-level so an animal will walk unsuspectingly into a snare and find a noose tightened around its neck. Depending on the circumstances and the specs of the job, Erickson can set a snare so it will strangle an animal on the spot.
Or they might be foothold traps. To set one of these, Erickson places it in a half-inch-deep bed, calibrates it to spring at the step of a coyote and covers it with dirt, grass clippings and a small wire screen soaked in coyote urine. He pours the coyote urine from a Sunny Delight jug, which he fills from fifty-five-gallon drums at his home office. Near the trap, he digs a shallow hole and fills it with coyote glands, and he sets more lure high on bushes or fences to call coyotes to the vicinity. If Erickson does his job correctly, one will come to investigate, head right for the small hole filled with glands and, while rooting around, set off the foothold trap.
Erickson has been trapping since he was eight, when his father and grandfather began teaching him the craft on vacations in Wisconsin. He was so hooked that he gave up high school football because it conflicted with peak trapping season. "Do you know what a challenge it is to get an animal from somewhere in a five-mile radius to step on a spot this big?" he asks, making a loop the size of a half-dollar with his fingers.
He employs two full-time trappers and two office workers, and he gets occasional help from his father.
He also publishes a bimonthly magazine called Wildlife Control Technology, with articles like "Vent Covers Produce a Happy Customer and Increased Profits." He lets his employees take care of skunks and chimney-bound raccoons, although he sometimes jumps at the chance
to shoot skunks on golf courses from a moving cart. He likes handling the coyotes himself. He says he respects them, respects how adaptable they are. But he adds, "I’ve got no problem whacking them."
The whacking can happen in a number of ways. It may mean a gunshot to the head. Or Erickson may smack the captured animal on the snout with a plastic baseball bat, dazing it for a minute or so. That’s enough time from him to slip behind it, spread its forelegs and put a modified full-nelson on the coyote. Then he snaps its neck.
Erickson has learned to live with the reactions he gets when he
tells people what he does for a living. People don’t like to think about a guy breaking a coyote’s neck. But that’s why the airports, the forest-preserve districts and the village boards hire him.
"What I do is, I wind up sheltering people’s emotions," he says. "It’s like paying a vet $75 to be the bad guy because you don’t have the balls to do it yourself."
Coyote whacking does get a rise out of people, especially in the suburbs, where wildlife might otherwise mean the pet bunny frolicking in the backyard.
As far as Erickson can tell, there is no overabundance of knowledge of the hard realities of nature. "I’ve seen coyotes that have scratched their own eyes out from the mange. That’s crueler than me breaking a coyote’s neck," he says. "But people don’t know about that." When affluent Inverness, a Chicago suburb, proposed trapping coyotes on public land a few years ago, it produced an angry backlash from animal-rights and open-space advocates.
That’s another thing that separates Erickson from previous generations of trappers. The voyageurs had the luxury of believing that they were working a limitless continent. But our knack for turning every inch of open land into real estate has changed that.
It has brought us up close and personal with wildlife again. "People think what I do is crappy until a critter ends up in their backyard," Erickson says. "Then it’s a different story."