It’s Pronounced “Kai-oh-TAY”

Sketch by Jordan Wirfs-Brock

Wile E. Coyote (Famishius famishius) is a chronic failure. He’s the patron saint of lost causes and impossible aspirations. Journalists have used his frustrated attempts to catch the Road-Runner (Super sonicus tastius) to describe everything from the Boston Red Sox (pre-2004, of course) to efforts to mitigate climate change to our current relationship with the stock market. The Coyote’s character was originally called “Don Coyote,” after the title character from Cervantes’ Don Quixote; his windmill is the Road-Runner.

Most times, it is technology that foils the Coyote (Famishus vulgarus).

It can also be the actions of the Road-Runner (Birdibus zippibus).

Sometimes it is time and space itself.

In “Fastest with the Mostest” (1960), directed by Chuck Jones, the Coyote (carnivorous slobbius) successfully corners the Road-Runner (velocitus incalcublii) at the edge of a cliff. He pulls a napkin, knife, and fork out of…somewhere. The piece of rock on which the Coyote (Eatibus almost anythingus) stands breaks off and plummets, leaving the Road-Runner (Velocitus delectiblus) — now standing atop a dismembered piece of earth — to float and watch as the Coyote slams into the canyon bottom. The punishment continues as first the knife, then the fork, fall on the Coyote, slicing the fur off his back and pinning his tail to the ground.

Coyote, pummeled but not defeated, holds up a sign: “I wouldn’t mind — except that he defies the law of gravity.” Road-runner’s reply, also a sign: “Sure — but I never studied law.”

Sometimes it is nothing other than the fact that the Coyote’s identity is defined by failure. It is his destiny.

Coyotes, like humans, are omnivores and, like humans, will eat nearly anything. Their natural diet includes rodents, lizards, beans, flowers, snakes, cactus fruit, insects, berries and vegetables. But in urban areas, they have been known to eat trash and discarded human food. They prefer freshly killed meat, but will also scavenge for carrion.

When hunting small animals, like mice, coyotes will hunt alone. But they will not attempt to hunt large animals, like deer or elk, unless they are in packs. Coyotes are social and they are solitary; it depends entirely on the circumstances.

Why does Wile E. Coyote (Eternalii famishiis) want to catch the Road-Runner (Digoutius-unbelievablii)? The book Western Cookery informs the Coyote (and us) that, “Possibly the most delicious of all Western game birds is the road-runner.” How is the coyote still alive after crashing into solid rock so many times? Practice. What would happen if he ever actually caught the Road-runner? A good friend of mine reflected, “Sometimes a hero is only defined by his villain or vice versa, and without one the other loses meaning, or at least purpose.”

Some ranchers have began using a method of deterrence known as “taste aversion” to keep coyotes away from livestock. It is based on the principal that if an animal — say, a coyote — eats food — say, a sheep carcass — that makes him nauseous, he will avoid that particular type of food in the future. By planting sheep spiked with chemical poisons, ranchers can induce the effect of taste aversion in coyotes. It has been shown the one single negative experience, if the illness is traumatic enough, can produce a lifelong aversion. To achieve the maximum effect, the delay between when a coyote eats the food and when it gets sick should between 30 minutes and an hour.

Wile E. Coyote’s plans to catch the Road-Runner are elaborate, ambitious and highly technical. But above all they are clever. In the book Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Roadrunners (But Were Afraid to Ask), which he reads in “Freeze Frame” (1979), the Coyote finds out that roadrunners hate snow. So he does the only natural thing: He buys an ACME Little Giant Snow-Cloud Seeder.

Ian Frazier wrote a legal brief of the imagined court case, “Coyote v. Acme” in a 1990 issue of the New Yorker. In the United States District Court — Southwestern District, Tempe, Arizona — Wile E. Coyote (plaintiff) sued the Acme Products Corporation (defendant), incorporated in Delaware, in Case No. B19294. From the plaintiff’s attorney’s opening statements:

Mr. Coyote states that on eighty-five separate occasions he has purchased of the Acme Company (hereinafter, “Defendant”), through that company’s mail-order department, certain products which did cause him bodily injury due to defects in manufacture or improper cautionary labeling. Sales slips made out to Mr. Coyote as proof of purchase are at present in the possession of the Court, marked Exhibit A. Such injuries sustained by Mr. Coyote have temporarily restricted his ability to make a living in his profession of predator. Mr. Coyote is self-employed and thus not eligible for Workmen’s Compensation.

In Frazier’s piece, Wile E. Coyote sues for damages totaling $38,750,000[1].

While Frazier didn’t write a response from Acme in the magazine, a law student amended the legal brief by posting a rebuttal on the website The Acme attorney concluded his opening remarks, “The plaintiff in this case has brought his troubles upon himself by adopting his carnivorous lifestyle. As others have so adequately uttered: ‘Live by the Super Slick Jet Propulsion Automated Explosive Metal-Shearing Heat-Seeking Laser-Guided Razor-Edged Boomerang, die by the Super Slick, etc.’”

Coyotes are known for their promiscuity, which extends beyond their species. They have mated with domesticated dogs and wild wolves, producing offspring called coydogs, dogotes, coywolves, and wolfotes. These hybrids are regarded as more dangerous than coyotes. They are generally fertile, leading some biologists to question whether the coyote (Canis latrans) is actually a distinct species.

Wile E. Coyote has a doppleganger, Ralph Wolf. He is drawn from the same models and style sheets — except with a red nose — and has the same personality. Each morning, after Ralph Wolf and his friend Sam Sheepdog read the newspaper over coffee, they walk to work together. Once they’ve punched the clock, Ralph uses fireworks, armor, cannons and guillotines in his attempts to steal Sam’s sheep. Sam clobbers Ralph. Ralph falls off cliffs. At the end of the day, they punch out.

“Nice day, eh Sam?”

“Yup. Good to be alive, Ralph.” Sam puts his arm around Ralph’s shoulder and they walk together, into the sunset.

Marc Bekoff, a biologist at the University of Colorado who has studied coyotes for more than three decades, wrote in a recent article, “We’ve discovered that talking about ‘the’ coyote is misleading. The moment one begins making rampant generalizations they’re proven wrong.” Every attempt to describe coyote behavior is met with a counterexample. Bekoff wrote, “Coyotes are quintessential opportunists who defy profiling as individuals who predictably behave this way or that. And, this is one reason why they are so difficult to control.”

Coyotes have five digits on their front feet but only four on their hind feet.

In accordance with cartoon convention, Wile E. Coyote (Hardheadipus oedipus) has four fingers on his hands and three toes on his feet. There’s a scene in “Zoom and Bored” (1957), directed by Chuck Jones, where the Coyote (Famishus vulgaris) peers around a large cinderblock wall. His neck stretches far enough so that he can wrap all the way around the wall. He spots his own tail and throws a stick of dynamite at what he thinks is his pursuer, but ends up just blowing himself up.

My mom told me she saw, just last week, a deer stalking a coyote in the backyard. It was broad daylight, and the coyote was close enough to the house that she could see his battle scars. The deer followed with an aggressive, get-out-of-here look. As the coyote retreated, the deer followed at a distance. When the coyote disappeared into the woods, the deer went back to its herd.

I knew right away “Roadrunner A Go-Go” (1965), directed by Chuck Jones, was too familiar. I scrolled through my notes. There it was, three pages earlier from “To Beep or Not to Beep” (1963), the exact same scene: Coyote sets up rope loop as a trap, pulls too hard, falls backward off cliff. Mid-descent, loop catches on protruding rock. Coyote — dexterous even in free fall — knots rope around waist. Saved? Nope. Rope too long (of course). He splats, pulls now-attached rock down on top. Insult to injury.


Feeling cheated, I reached to pause the cartoon when the frame froze on its own. The scene panned out to a screen rigged up against a rocky wall, then a projector, then Mr. Coyote himself, standing in front of stacks of film and furiously scribbling notes. It is at this moment the coyote turns and does something remarkable: He speaks.

In a hazardous business such as mine, I have found it useful to keep a photographic record of my activities in order to isolate possible errors[2] such as the foregoing. This is accomplished by the ingenious use of motion picture cameras placed at strategic locations across[3] the desert. In this way I am able to record action at any angle: low angle shots[4], high angle shots[5], zooms[6], trucks[7], down shots[8], directional[9] shots, close-ups. In other words, complete coverage[10]. Needless to say, this is scientific work of the most exacting nature. But it does eliminate error[11]. Let us review that last unfortunate episode and see if we can discover where fault may have occurred. A ha! Oversight number one: pull on rope precipitated fall of rock. Oversight number two: use shorter rope in future. Ah, but now we perceive the crucial error[12]. A longer cliff surface was needed to give proper backing clearance. A little judicious carpentry rectifies that. Now, we are ready to try our little, heh heh, rope-trick again.

He delivers this monologue in an accent somewhere between Boston Brahmin and Julia Child. I felt a chill[13].

Running on packed dirt trails past or through rangeland at night, I can identify the howl of a coyote by the sole fact that it never sounds like I imagine a coyote should. I hear first the bark of a dog. Then it rises into a feline shriek. It breaks into the crow of a rooster. Finally, it erupts into the pained screams of a human child. I don’t know what to call the sound — yip, bark, howl, snarl, scream, whine, whimper, huff, croak — but in its staccato echo I hear tropical birds, chimpanzees and hippopotamuses. I hear the eerie vibrato of a Theremin, getting closer.

The Road-Runner isn’t the only animal the Coyote chases.

In his encounters with Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote speaks, unlike his generally mute Road-Runner adventures. Humming[14], he unfolds an elevator on top of Bugs Bunny’s burrow and carries him off, slung over his shoulder in a sack. Bugs Bunny uses a carrot to cut a hole in the sack, sticks his head out, and says, “Whatcha got in the bag, doc?”

Coyote replies, “Oh, I say, I’m terribly sorry. One mustn’t be rude, even to one’s breakfast.” He politely introduces himself with a stylishly simple business card:

COYOTE — Genius — Have brain. Will travel.

“My name is Coyote[15]. Wile E. Coyote[16]. Genius[17].”

“Have brain, eh? Hey that must be very handy at times.”

“Why, yes. It has its advantages. For[18] example: You asked me just now what I had in the bag, and I was supposed to say, ‘a rabbit,’ to which you would reply, ‘what are you going to do with him?’ Then I was supposed to say something stupid, which would enable you to get very clever and so on and so on and on[19]. When by this time, we both know very well there is nothing left in the bag.”

Needless to say, the Coyote (Overconfidentii vulgaris) does not have rabbit for breakfast.

My mom sent me a series of text messages recently:

The coyotes started howling…just stopped…and they made me think of you. (6:50 pm, Dec. 2, 2010)

The coyotes are howling yet again. (8:59 pm, Dec. 6, 2010)

Coyotes coyotes coyotes….again. how is it going? (6:28 pm, Dec. 7, 2010)

As a child, I often woke in the middle of the night to packs of screeching coyotes. I’d promise myself not to turn and look out the window. They sounded exactly like madness, like lost souls begging for mercy in hell.

Unlike most animals in North America, coyote habitat has expanded with human development in the past two centuries. “Like cockroaches and rats, coyotes like people,” wrote Paul Sullivan in a Globe and Mail article from 2000 about urban coyote attacks in Vancouver, Canada. “More precisely, they like people-food, their garbage, their cats (Snackus minor), and their dogs (Snackus major).” In recent years, attacks on people have been reported in Florida, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Texas, and just about every other part of the U.S. In 2008, a pair of coyotes followed a 15-year-old home from school just a few miles from the house where I grew up in Oregon. In 2009, a 19-year-old folk singer was hiking in a Canadian national park when she was attacked by coyotes and killed. Her mother asked that, if the coyotes were found, their lives be spared.

That same year, a string of coyote attacks in Greenwood Village, a Denver suburb, prompted authorities to hire a bounty hunter to patrol the area with a 22-caliber rifle. Some residents started carrying golf clubs for protection. Others, outraged, formed renegade bands to non-violently haze the coyotes. They yelled and threw rocks near (not at) the coyotes to scare them away from the barrel of the hunter’s gun.

Some items the Coyote (Hungrii flea-bagius) has purchased from the Acme supply company: bottle (a fifth, to be precise) of bumble bees, Ahab Harpoon Gun, speed skates, roller skis (no snow necessary), jet-powered skis, jet-powered pogo stick, jet-propelled unicycle, dog sled (and 12 sled dogs: “Enjoy coyotes for dinner!”), rocking horse, fighter plane, hot air balloon, do-it-yourself explosive camera kit (“Fool your friends — Be popular!”), Hi-Fi railroad crossing sounds on a 35mm record, a portable hole, invisible paint, dynamite.

In the 1980s, television networks in the U.S. and Canada deemed the Coyote and Road-Runner cartoons too violent and censored them. ABC, for example, kept scenes with weapons such as bombs and guns (ordered from the Acme War Surplus company), but cut scenes where are were detonated or shot. They kept scenes where the Coyote plummets from cliffs, but removed scenes where he actually hits the ground.

I found an essay I wrote as a sophomore in college on Don Quixote: “Don Quixote projects an outward insanity that is nonetheless based on internal logical consistencies. Don Quixote is acutely aware of the logical process through which he develops his idealistic delusions. How can someone be truly delusional if he is aware his delusions are fantasies?”

Wile E. Coyote (Nemesis ridiculii) is a chronic failure. This means he’s also a chronic try-er. He does, in fact, catch the Road-Runner (Ultra-sonicus ad infinitus), in the episode “Soup or Sonic” (1980). This clip is, by far, the most watched Coyote and Road-Runner cartoon on YouTube, with over 4.6 million views compared to the 20,000 or so most other clips have.

After running through a long, crescendo-ing pipe, the Coyote (Eatus birdius) emerges on the other side the size of a mouse (cartoon logic at its best). He throws his arms triumphantly around the Road-Runner’s (Delicius delicius) leg as if hugging the trunk of a redwood. Pulling a napkin, knife, and fork out of…somewhere…he prepares to dine. As he grasps the futility of the situation, he holds up a sign:

“Ok, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him.”

Then another: “Now what do I do?”

Note: I wrote this essay for a Creative Non-Fiction class at the University of Colorado in December 2010. Much thanks to my instructor, Noah Gordon. It took me nearly five years to get the guts to post online. Don’t be as silly as I was.

[2] Pronounced “err-roars” with a rolled “r”

[3] Pronounced with a rolled “r”

[4] With a camera strapped to the shell of a turtle

[5] Hanging from a vulture

[6] Spring-loaded in a cactus

[7] On the backs of two rattlesnakes

[8] Beneath a rocky overhang

[9] Pronounced with a rolled “r”

[10] Pronounced with a rolled “r”

[11] Pronounced “err-roar” with a rolled “r”

[12] See note 10

[13] Not because of the unexpectedness of the speech, but because his analysis echoed my own: Rope too long. “Use shorter rope in future.”

[14] “La ta ti, la ta da ti…”

[15] Pronounced “Kai-oh-tay

[16] See note 13.

[17] Pronounced “geeeen-yus.”

[18] Pronounced with a rolled “r”

[19] During the Coyote’s speech, Bugs Bunny is climbing out of the sack.