Coyote training: search and sniff

Midafternoon Thursday, I strolled into the Minnesota Lodge and saw a knot of volunteers clustering around zookeeper Adam. In rubber-gloved hands, he held a tray of snacks: frozen whole white mice (micicles, he called them) on a bed of raw meat chunks. When he explained that he was heading out to the Minnesota Trail to train the coyotes, four of us followed him. We were coatless in mid-50s temps, but we didn’t want to miss this.

Once Adam arrived, complete with volunteer entourage and a gathering crowd of guests, the four male coyotes seemed to know the drill. They fanned out across the exhibit as he entered. With his back to the viewing window, Adam pointed to each coyote in turn with a blue-gloved hand, established eye contact and tossed a mouse, which each coyote caught midair. He explained that this routine comes in handy when the coyotes need heartworm pills or other meds and the keeper wants to make sure that no single coyote is scarfing it all up. And mouse bones are a fine source of calcium for coyotes.

The meat chunks had a different purpose — enrichment, the mental stimulation created for zoo mammals who need something to hunt, or at least something to play with or think about. Adam went around the exhibit tucking pieces of meat into crevices and smearing bits of it on trees. Then he left the coyotes to find it all. They trotted about, lightfooted and curious, sniffing and probing and double-checking their home for the hidden treats.

One spectator, a little girl, expressed great concern about a large toad crouching at the exhibit’s edge, near the walkway. What if a coyote found it and ate it? Adam’s no-nonsense answer: “That’s nature in action!” (This made me remember the time my late, great golden retriever mouth-smuggled a toad into the house, leaving it battered but alive in the basement.) After Adam and most of the guests had left the scene, the coyotes continued to search and sniff as a couple of us lingered behind. One coyote’s probing muzzle came within two feet of the toad but either failed to detect it or just didn’t find it that interesting. His zookeeper session had left him sufficiently enriched for now, thank you very much.