Fresh Fellow Travelers
By Dan Flores
Basic Books, 2016
My first and most astonishing encounter with a coyote happened several years ago, in Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. Beginning one evening around dusk, a friend and I had been soft-stepping along the institution’s 281 acres of winding paths with our necks craned, looking for owls in the canopy. As night fell, we saw dozens of bats in flickering flight above us, and heard a Lollapalooza of frog calls from three tiny ponds. No owls, though.
Once febrile super-darkness descended, and our chances for a quality glimpse of anything vanished, we headed for the Arborway exit. We approached the pathway to the street adjacent to a lengthy iron gate, which loomed in silhouette thanks to the orange wash of the streetlights. Then, perhaps thirty feet ahead of us, a mammalian wisp scurried, with head and tail low, before the stretch of gate. My friend and I stood in awe at both the brevity and majesty of the sighting, which seemed like the night’s own quick finger-work.
I’ve seen coyotes twice since, each time just as briefly: in the Breakheart Reservation of Saugus, Massachusetts during full daylight, and once more in the Arboretum at night. In both instances the small canids appeared as fleet-footed slips, like nature’s stagehands accidentally glimpsed. Only my first encounter felt truly iconic.
And yet, to hear author Dan Flores describe modern meetings between humans and urban coyotes, I’m surprised to have never seen one on my front porch. A professor of Western History at the University of Montana, Flores traces the natural and supernatural history of the country’s most cunning and versatile predator—that walks on four legs—in Coyote America. He shows that coyotes bedding down in Los Angeles, New York, and dozens of other cities isn’t new, and that their resilience mirrors our own. They’ve survived the epic Pleistocene Extinctions of 10,000 years ago, and our own relentlessly misguided campaign to eradicate them from the 20th century. In clear, loping prose, Flores says,
The news media have given us a false impression that coyotes have no business in places like Los Angeles or Chicago or Manhattan, that for reasons related to either the inviolable nature of modern cities or the coyote’s suspect character, coyotes in cities make up a bizarre and inexplicable invasion. Yet the archeological and historical evidence is undeniable: for the 15,000 years since we humans have been in North America, coyotes have always been capable of living among us. Something about our lifestyle has always drawn coyotes to human camps, villages, and cities. That something is ecology at its simplest, even if it makes us squirm a bit. A coyote’s primary prey happens to be our close fellow travelers, the mice and rats that flourish around and among us in profusion. As for fearing us too much to tolerate our presence, coyotes have taken our measure far too perceptively for that.
Flores stares long and deeply into the coyote’s eyes, returning to us with cultural treasures both sparkling and lyrical. For example, the Aztec word for a wolflike creature, “coytl,” provides the origin point for the animal’s name. In commenting on Coyote the spiritual essence, he says, “As North America’s oldest surviving deity, Coyote bequeaths to us down the timeline a continental world of imagination, creation, and artistry but also of self-absorption, hubris, and big trouble.” Native peoples have told such a wide range of stories about Coyote as a lovable trickster/rogue that you might mistake their creation for Tom Sawyer. Ironically, it was Mark Twain’s unflattering depiction of the coyote in Roughing It, calling the species “sick and sorry-looking” as well as a “living, breathing allegory of Want,” that helped tilt public sentiment against the canids. The memoir’s 1872 release coincided with the post-Civil War renewal of Manifest Destiny, and it makes sense that while marginalizing (and failing that, eradicating) Native Americans, the U.S. also went to war against the animal with a human-like capacity to thrive in adverse conditions.
Though Coyote the god is fascinating, Flores shows that coyote the socially flexible omnivore deserves our highest respect. Even more than those of gray wolves, the genetic endowments of coyotes lend them stunning versatility in most ecosystems (they’ve migrated to every continental state in the Union). Many of the species’ greatest traits developed in coevolution alongside wolves, which need packs to survive and are carnivorous. Coyotes, in contrast, live by a principle of fission/fusion, allowing packs to form under ideal conditions without excluding the possibility of a loner or single pair thriving in hostile territory (like a forest full of wolves, or a suburb).
Coyotes are also capable of an autogenic response to their local environment, which means their litters may contain between 2 and 19 pups, depending on food supplies and predation by wolves or humans. Such an astonishing fact is central to why Coyote America is both an uplifting and horrifying read. The worse the species is hounded, the quicker replacement pups populate a given region.
Initially, wolves stood tallest in the nightmares of ranchers and homesteaders who settled the west. Sheep and other livestock needed protecting, and so until around the 1880s, wolves were the clearest targets for securing civilization’s ever-expanding borders. Yet with wolf numbers drastically reduced—by the Bureau of Biological Survey—two major things happened: first, humans and the bovines they’d dragooned into frontier life were suddenly everywhere. In areas where food scarcity had been the norm for thousands of years, a flock of sheep seemed like a food court to already resident coyotes. Second, in areas where coyotes didn’t already exist, they followed the species leaving a trail of trash and rodents. A lack of wolves suppressing coyote populations made packs—and when situations permitted, individuals—bolder toward humans, who were more devious than their traditional sparring partners by a wide stretch.
But despite the efforts of a nation well-versed in monetizing a species to death (our other victims included bison, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and elk), coyotes refused to vanish, even when their skins became usable in place of a dollar. About the second half of the 19th century and its victims, Flores says,
Hundreds of thousands is an abstract figure, too big and vague to linger in the mind. But maybe this will. While we’ll never get closer to a true figure of all the coyotes killed in those decades of their first encounters with Americans, we can speculate with some certainty that every one of those coyotes wanted to live rather than be shot down, struggle in bewildered fear in a steel trap, or suffer a wretched death from poison.
The author declares that individual animals have a right to exist without the kind of knee-jerk political correctness that might lose him an argument in the gutters of an internet message board. He speaks as a man who shot a coyote when he was seventeen, then came to recognize their beauty while abiding with them as an adult. Such temperance is crucial to winning longterm ethical battles, like the one in which the scientific community found itself by the 1930s. At this point in the war on coyotes, it became noticeable that the employment of awful poisons like strychnine wasn’t actually lowering populations. The Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 allowed Congress to appropriate $1 million a year for ten years in the hope of permanently eradicating coyotes. But back in 1916, a naturalist named Joseph Grinnell advanced the idea of the environmental niche, by which every creature plays a vital role in nature. Completely remove one animal, and everything that it eats (and that used to eat it) faces a population imbalance that cascades to other species.
This idea, coupled with the decision of naturalists to study complex animal life unmolested in National Parks like Yellowstone (founded in 1872) and Glacier (1910), led to a coalition of those who realized the cruel insanity of exterminating coyotes. Chief among them was Aldo Leopold, who said that, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
A first wave of eco-warriors wore down the walls of received wisdom, which stated that predators are inherently disposable to a utopian ecosystem. The next few transformative decades saw people outraged not just about Women’s Liberation and Vietnam, but about the use of poisons like DDT. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring revealed how the chemical killed not only insects, but worked its way up through the food chain into apex predators like California condors. Walt Disney even produced a series of nature films starring coyotes, portraying them sympathetically, as if they had souls and possessed a fundamental right to exist.
It testifies to the potency of Flores’s writing that as he describes the vile treatment of coyotes in the past, when the world seemed more raw and murder more a daily presence, the details still shock. And yet no matter how much scientific evidence accrues for peaceful coexistence, there will always be people who simply enjoy killing. Coyote hunters still conduct “roundups” that involve cash prizes, contributing to the 500,000 coyotes killed annually for the sake of farming and ranching. That’s nearly one death a minute, of an animal that looks quite like the one who licks your face in the morning.
Good news lives in the cities. In places like Chicago and Tucson, people are acknowledging that coyotes belong. They are graceful, sing mournfully at night, and invest landscapes with the spiritual. For these reasons, there’s an urban willingness to accept animals scorned by the countryside. Here in Boston, I’ve got to envy Flores his opening anecdote, about meeting a furry thief trotting down the driveway with half a six-pack in his jaws. The encounter reads as casual, neighborly. In the dark, without eye contact, I feel like I’ve only witnessed Coyote, the essence. I’d love for one of them to pause, stare, and sniff. I’d nod and say, “Welcome.”
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.