ALMAGUIN – It was a love that no one thought could happen and this Valentines Day the magic comes to television in Meet the Coywolf.
Meet the Coywolf, a one-hour nature documentary, airs Feb. 14 at 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things.
It is believed that this new species, a cross between a coyote and an eastern wolf, have existed for less than a century. They came into being at the south end of Algonquin Park as coyotes moved into a territory inhabited by a dwindling wolf population.
“The last vestige of eastern wolves was in Algonquin Park and eastern wolves are the only wolves that can mate with a western coyote to create this new hybrid that is actually fertile,” said documentary producer and director Susan Fleming. “This is a rare thing.”
As settlers and cities filled the lands wolves were displaced and pushed further and further north.
“Western coyotes recognized the void when wolves left the lands. They started to move up from the west in the U.S. and came all the way up,” she said. “Where wolves and coyotes met was the southern tip of Algonquin Park.”
The yip-howl sound of the eastern coyote, otherwise known as a coywolf can send shivers down your spine, a sound not wholly unfamiliar to people in the Almaguin region. It is haunting and it is that sound that Fleming finds so appealing.
She could hear the noise as she sat on her deck in Uxbridge.
“It was sort of a cross between a wolf howl and a baby crying,” she said.
The eastern coyote has the enlarged head and the jaw structure similar to a wolf but without the body mass of a wolf but are larger than the western coyote.
“They can’t produce that big deep sound of a wolf,” she said.
The sound often starts as a howl before transitioning into the yip yip sound of the coyote.
Night after night she searched for the source of the sound.
“I finally saw this animal at the top of the hill that was beautiful and impressive and it looked like it was looking right through me to my soul,” she said. “It was an eastern coyote.”
That spawned her investigation. She had to know what this animal was.
“That’s when I found out about this hybrid,” she said.
That was about two-and-a-half years ago. Trying to catch the illusive coywolf on film involved more than 200 all-nighters.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done because they are so smart and so illusive,” she said. “They are all around us. But have you ever seen one?”
Fleming says wolves have been disappearing for the past 100 years, a breed of animal almost hunted to extinction.
“This is the return of a new top predator. They are filling a niche in the ecosystem,” she said. “They are returning to lands once roamed by wolves.”
Coywolf migration as moved from Algonquin Park down through southern Ontario, Quebec, into the maritimes and down through the eastern seaboard of the United States including Boston, Maine and New York State.
“There was just a report about a month ago that at the tip of Illinois they’ve discovered the hybrid gene in the coyote population there,” said Fleming. “Shockingly it took western coyotes 300 years to get up to where Algonquin is and in the last 100 years coywolves have moved all this way, almost two-thirds of the way down in one-third of the amount of time.”
“These animals have moved and are mating with other coywolves or western coyotes as they move down,” she said.
Fleming says the number of coywolves is unknown and research into this breed is just beginning.
She says it is people like Ministry of Natural Resources biologist John Pisapio, Trent University geneticist Bradley White and scientist John Benson who are working to figure out what these animals are and what they are up to.
“What’s fascinating is as quickly as they are figuring things out things are changing because the eastern coyote are so adaptable,” she said. “They are so able to exploit the landscape that they shift their patterns to fit whatever the situation is.”
This adaptability has these animals thriving in even the most urban environments, including places like Toronto and New York, managing to stay under the radar.
“I think they are constantly changing. That is the difficulty for the scientists studying them,” said Fleming. “They are constantly shifting their ways.”
She says after filming them for two years she understands what renowned coyote expert Stan Gehrt calls their “phantomlike appearance on the landscape.”
Fleming says she saw the animals more in the city than she ever did living 20 years in the country.
“Partly because farmers shoot them, it’s always open season on coyotes so they learn to be really secretive, and partly that they blend in. It is just so easy to blend in with a field or pasture,” she said.
It is this illusiveness that makes it so difficult for scientists to study.
Fleming’s camera assistant spent at least five months camping and staying the park with Benson.
“Benson’s project has been ongoing for a couple of years,” she said, admiring the dedication to his research. “We spent a really long time up there. It is such a magical place in this world.”
Fleming has discovered through her work with the scientists that coywolves are all individuals with their own traits, often influenced by their life experiences.
“One of the scientists said to me that they seem to have natural paranoia of people,” she said.
Fleming takes her cue on this from renowned Gehrt.
“I’ve really seen that in my own experience. They really don’t want to go near you,” she said.
Feeding changes behaviour, says Fleming, whether intentional on the part of humans or not.
“These animals do look doglike and I think we have a natural compassion for dogs. We like dogs and we feel comfortable with dogs. But they are not. They are wild animals that need to be respected,” she said. “I think as long as we let them be they’ll go about their business and we can go about ours and we can all live happily but I think the thing that changes the dynamic is feeding and we have to be really careful.”
As a nature documentary filmmaker Fleming says this is the hardest film that she has ever made she feels lucky that she is able to witness nature first hand and speak with some of the best scientists in the world.
And after 200 nights in the bush she remains in awe of the coywolf.
“They are such impressive creatures because of their beauty. They are impressive creatures because of their intellect, how they manage to pick up and read all the signals of an environment and can move through it without being detected but still going about their business,” she said. “They really are incredible creatures.”