In the winter and spring of 1994 I spent every spare moment following and photographing a group of coyotes who lived in the center of Yosemite Valley. Here’s the story behind this photograph of the coyote I called Ben.
It was snowing heavily when I picked my son Kevin up from preschool. Returning home I had to park the car at the top of the unplowed driveway or risk getting stuck. As we walked down the hill through the deepening snow I spotted fresh tracks: two coyotes had passed by. I knew they had to be members of a pack I had been following and photographing, as their territory included our house behind The Ansel Adams Gallery. I handed Kevin to his mom, grabbed my camera, 300 mm lens, and tripod, and set out to follow the trail.
The tracks wound through Yosemite Village and then out toward Cook’s Meadow. I knew the coyotes could appear at any moment, so I was ready, with the camera mounted on the tripod, covered in a plastic bag, and slung over my shoulder. The trail led me to Sentinel Bridge, and just beyond that I spotted a coyote curled up on top of a log. I recognized him: it was a male I called Ben.
I had already been photographing these coyotes for two months. Like many animals in Yosemite Valley they were used to people and mostly ignored me as I trailed them. It was challenging at first to tell them apart. Both sexes, I learned, sometimes lifted their hind legs when peeing, but males stretched the leg out and backward, females out and forward. It makes sense if you think about it. Also, a good look from behind revealed the male’s fuzzy testicles.
Later I noticed other distinguishing features. Ben, for example, had darker fur than the others. The alpha female, Faye, had a scar across her nose. Eventually I learned to identify them the way we humans identify each other: by their faces. I could recognize these coyotes as easily as old friends.
There were four members of the pack: two males and two females. The two males often hung out together, and it became clear that one was dominant. In my mind I started referring to them as the alpha male and beta male, but soon realized they needed better names. I kept thinking, “Beta male, beta, what would be a good name for him… Ben!” It seemed to fit. And if he was Ben, then his buddy had to be Jerry. Yes, like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Faye, the alpha female, got her name simply because it started with the same letter as “female.” I know, not very imaginative. The other female seemed to be barely tolerated by the rest of the group, so she didn’t really qualify as the beta female, just someone who hung around the periphery. I called her Polly for no reason—it just seemed to fit.
As their mating season approached in February I watched Jerry assert his dominance over Ben. Jerry would charge Ben and force him to show submission by lying on his back, exposing his vulnerable underbelly. Soon Faye came into estrus, and I actually witnessed Jerry and Faye mating. Coyotes, like other members of the dog family, remain locked “in tie” for fifteen to twenty minutes after mating—they’re physically unable to separate. I had to laugh as I watched Ben take advantage of the situation, approaching Faye and licking her face while Jerry was immobilized.
The next time I saw Jerry, about a week later, he had developed a limp. I worried about his survival, and wondered whether Ben would take advantage of the injury to assume the alpha position. But he didn’t—he still deferred to Jerry.
I wanted to photograph Jerry and Faye’s pups, due to be born in April. Eventually I discovered their den—in a culvert underneath Southside Drive! But the coyotes who were so tolerant of my presence at other times became extremely wary near their den. I glimpsed the pups once, but realized that further pursuit would disturb them and risk separating the pups from their parents.
A year later Ben, Jerry, Faye, and Polly’s territory shifted further down the valley toward El Capitan. A busy life took me in other directions, so I couldn’t spend every free moment searching for the group, but I saw them occasionally. Jerry still limped slightly, but was otherwise healthy, and maintained his alpha status. Eventually I lost track of these coyotes, but I’m sure their descendants still roam the Sierra.
When I found Ben on that snowy afternoon in February he looked at me, then curled up again in the snow. I slowly, casually moved closer, then waited, checking and re-checking my camera settings. After about fifteen minutes Ben looked around, stood up, shook off the snow, sat down again, and glanced at me for a second—click, click. Then he and Faye, who had been lying out of sight nearby, trotted off.