Photographer Pamela Underhill Karaz lives in Trenton Falls, New York, in a rural area. Her own property is 48 acres of forest and field, which means she gets to see her fair share of wildlife right in her own backyard. "We've had coyotes living around us for years. We hear them mostly during the summer evenings," she told MNN. But something much more than simply hearing a few coyote howls happened two years ago.

coyote

She tells us, "Our driveway is a quarter-mile long and lined with 45-year-old balsam trees. Being a photographer, I'm always on the lookout for wildlife activity. I spotted the coyote while having our morning coffee. He was one-third of the way down our driveway. He went to the middle, looked across then decided to come back up a bit. He left his scent on a downed branch (that's how I know it was a male), then went into the trees and popped out up at the edge of our yard. Looked around, checked out and sniffed some tracks in our yard and when he was further along he noticed the toy. He made his way over to it, sniffed around it where our dog had rolled, sniffed the toy, picked it up, dropped it, sniffed it again."

coyote with toy

Then that's when the magic happened. "[He] picked it up then proceeded to toss it up in the air and play with it, just like a dog would toss a toy around. It lasted perhaps five to 10 minutes, from picking up the toy, tossing it in the air, picking it up again and almost bucking around with it ... then he just casually trotted off with it."

Underhill Karaz notes that her dogs often leave their stuffed toys out in the yard and more than one has disappeared before. She guesses that this is perhaps not the first time the coyote had played (and run off with) her dogs' toys.

Many animal species exhibit play, and yet we humans can't help but look on in awe when we recognize it in species beyond the domestic dogs and cats we keep as companions. We get so used to thinking of wildlife as efficient and purposeful, wasting no energy. For the young of many species, play is indeed an essential part of growing up. Through play, juveniles learn everything they'll need for adulthood from how to hunt to how to fight to how to navigate the social structure of their community. So we look on with joy but without much surprise when fox pups romp with each other and bear cubs tumble around together. But when the play carries on into adulthood, that's when we stare with amazement, remembering we aren't the only animals who like to inject a little joy into our day with silliness.

"This was such a wonderful reminder that all animals, the wild and the not so wild (our pets) are really not so different," Underhill Karaz says. "They have personalities, they have feelings, and they do their best to survive in what is sometimes a very unfriendly world. They are not so very different than us."

coyote with toy

coyote with toy

coyote with toy

coyote with toy

coyote with toy

coyote with toy

Check out more of Pamela Underhill Karaz's photography on her Facebook page.

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.