Wild In The Streets: Tracking Philly’s Coyote Connection

The city went a little coyote crazy last week. On Monday, a coyote was spotted on the 4200 block of Greeby Street in Mayfair. Using police squad cars to herd the wild animal, officers captured it with a catch pole and then rushed it to Pennypack Park where rodents, woodchucks, and other small creatures to prey on would enable the coyote to survive. Then, on Thursday, another coyote was found wandering near the intersection of Bridge and Tacony Streets in Bridesburg. The animal was not caught, but was apparently the same coyote that reappeared the next day in the heart of South Philadelphia at 16th and Montrose Streets. One or both of these animals may have come from the coyote pack that makes its home near Northeast Airport.

A photo of the first coyote sited this past week in the city. | Image: Philadelphia Police Department

Philadelphia’s history with coyotes goes back a long way. While coyotes have likely roamed this region since before the days of William Penn, it was Philly’s own Thomas Say who was first to name and describe the canis latrans (coyote) back in 1819 or so. Although Say was self-taught, as was common in his day, he was a professional scientist and is regarded as one of the great naturalists of early America. He devoted his life to establishing natural science in the United States as an institution deserving of international respect.

Say is regarded as the father of American entomology and the father of American conchology, since he founded both sciences in the United States. One of his two lasting achievements was American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America 1824-1828), the first study of insects published in America. The three-volume set, written between 1824 and 1828, includes 54 colored illustrations by several American artists. Say’s other major work was his pioneering American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America. Hundreds of species of insects and mollusks were first described by Say, so that their taxa bear his name. Two species of fish are also named in his honor.

Born into a respectable Philadelphia Quaker family, Say was the great-grandson of John Bartram, and the great-nephew of William Bartram. The Say family house at Gray’s Ferry adjoined the Bartram homestead along the Schuylkill River and Say would often visit the Bartram family garden (now Bartram’s Garden), where he frequently took butterfly and beetle specimens to his great-uncle William.

Say helped found the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1812, becoming a charter member at age 25. Elected the conservator of the Academy, he lived in one of the Academy’s early buildings, long before the society moved to a new building at the corner of Race and 19th Streets, taking care of the museum. Notoriously frugal, he survived on bread and milk, spending only six cents on food every day. Apparently Say would rather study the wings of a mosquito than waste time with fancy dining. He is also rumored to have slept under the skeleton of a horse.

Portrait of Thomas Say, in the uniform of the first Long Expedition, by Charles Willson Peale. In the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences

Portrait of Thomas Say, in the uniform of the first Long Expedition, by Charles Willson Peale. | Image: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Say took on the publication of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Science, the first peer-reviewed publication in the United States devoted to natural science. Among scientific societies in America, the Academy began publishing more than a decade earlier than any other. Say also befriended the Academy’s president, William Maclure.

In 1817, Say accompanied Maclure and other members of the Academy on an expedition to Spanish-controlled Florida and the sea islands off the coast of Georgia. A year later he was appointed chief zoologist of Major Stephen Long’s expedition to the tributaries of the Missouri River and was thus the first trained scientist to accompany a government-sponsored western exploration. The three-year expedition was conceived mainly as a means of consolidating American power and influence in the American West and opposing the continuing efforts of Great Britain to undermine the American fur trade. Like Lewis and Clark’s expedition, it was represented publicly as a scientific undertaking namely, to study and collect the area’s flora and fauna and included a team of naturalists and two artists among a party of 19 men. Titian Ramsay Peale, a son of famed Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, served as an illustrator and assistant naturalist.

Before their departure on the journey, Charles Willson Peale painted portraits of Long and Say. The artist commented that “if they did honour to themselves in that hazardly expedition that they might have the honour of being placed in the museum and if they lost their skalps, their friends would be glad to have their portraits.” Fortunately, the explorers returned unscathed.

It was during the expedition that Say definitively named and described the coyote. He did the same for the timber wolf, the swift fox, the mule deer, and many amphibians and passerine birds, including the western kingbird, the band-tailed pigeon, Say’s phoebe, the rock wren, the lesser goldfinch, the lark sparrow, the lazuli bunting, and the orange-crowned warbler. Most of these birds had been unknown to science at the time.

"Prairie wolf in distress," showing an ensnared coyote howling at the sky, by Titian Ramsay Peale (1819). In the collection of the American Philosophical Society

“Prairie Wolf In Distress,” showing an ensnared coyote howling at the sky, by Titian Ramsay Peale. | Image: American Philosophical Society

A few years later, Say served as chief zoologist on Stephen Long’s exploration of the headwaters of the Mississippi River. In 1825, Say set sail with William Maclure and other scientists and educators from Philadelphia aboard the keelboat Philanthropist (also known as the “Boatload of Knowledge”) to the New Harmony Settlement in Indiana. New Harmony was a utopian/socialist society founded by Scottish social reformer Robert Owen. Say was put in charge of the operation and named captain of the ship. One of the passengers on the Philanthropist was artist Lucy Way Sistare, who secretly married Say on January 4, 1827.

Say finished writing and publishing the works noted above in New Harmony and resided there until his death in 1834. He represented and epitomized the far-flung ties between the experimental quixotic town and Philadelphia, which itself was once an experimental quixotic town.

Back in present times, the coyote in South Philadelphia was captured last week after it became trapped under a large metal trash bin. Its friendliness and docility worried authorities, who feared that the wild animal’s tame behavior could make it dangerous. Instead of trapping the coyote and releasing it elsewhere, the gentle creature was cruelly euthanized. The great local naturalist Thomas Say would surely have had something to say about that.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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  1. Really liked the article. You only mention Lucy in passing, but she has a really cool history too, and was very important to the Academy also. Maybe you could do an article on her too…

    • Patricia Tyson Stroud

      So glad that Thomas Say has today received the press he richly deserves. He was a fascinating character who has not, I believe, had sufficient attention in the history of Philadelphia, nor in the annals of natural science, except by scientists in his two fields. My biography of Say, published by the Penn Press, came out in 1992.

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