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
Right there in the midst of the traffic from the malls and the corporate
parks, hell show you how to get the scent of bobcat glands
into the breeze, a siren call for coyotes. Hell explain how
to get the shine off traps by boiling them with sumac berries. Hell
show you how to break a coyotes 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. Thats
when Ericksons 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
cant 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
its the only one in the Chicago area that specializes in coyotes.
"Its not hard to make over a hundred grand at this,"
he says. "And I havent advertised in years." On
any given day, he might have about one hundred coyote traps set
in Chicagos 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, "Ive 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. Thats
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 dont like to
think about a guy breaking a coyotes neck. But thats
why the airports, the forest-preserve districts and the village
boards hire him.
"What I do is, I wind up sheltering peoples emotions,"
he says. "Its like paying a vet $75 to be the bad guy
because you dont 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. "Ive seen coyotes that
have scratched their own eyes out from the mange. Thats crueler
than me breaking a coyotes neck," he says. "But
people dont 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
Thats 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 its a different story."