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By (June 1, 2010) One Comment

Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia

By Stephen DeStefano
Harvard University Press, 2010

The animal at the heart of Stephen DeStefano’s unevenly emotional new book Coyote at the Kitchen Door is that omnipresent American forager, Canis latrans, the ordinary everyday coyote. The dichotomy DeStefano’s book both extols and laments, the apparent conflict between the planned gridwork of suburbia and the effusive chaos of the wild, couldn’t be better symbolized than in these creatures. They aren’t apex predators like the bald eagle or the grizzly bear or even their cousins the timber wolf (although in certain regions and under cushy conditions some male coyotes readily approach the size of an average wolf, if not the muscular heft), nor are they picturesquely endangered, like the North Atlantic right whale or the black-footed ferret. Far from it: they’re everywhere – DeStefano is far from the first writer to point out that if you live in any kind of suburb, you’ve almost certainly seen a coyote loping along your subdivision at twilight and assumed it was a dog.

Coyotes aren’t overly picky about their livelihoods; they eat virtually anything, live virtually anywhere, and adapt to virtually anything. Like almost all canines, they prefer having a large home territory in which to roam, but they’re pragmatic about recognizing restrictions to such ranges. And they’re prolific, with females producing litters even in lean times (by contrast, many apex predators won’t reproduce in a year when food is scarce). So coyotes are ideally suited to suburban life – leafy, lazily-streeted neighborhoods with lots of wooded backlots, plenty of parks, and abundant prey-wildlife such as birds, squirrels, rabbits, and Pomeranians … and the whole world of it largely silent and inanimate after ten at night! A very paradise to an animal like Canis latrans, who’s happily content to look out only for the basics of survival.

Two adult coyotes acting in unison could easily take down (and consume, of course) a full-grown human, but the thought never seems to cross their mind, and it occurs only obliquely to DeStefano, who often seems more interested in the coyote as metaphor rather than megafauna:

The coyote represents a return to nature, though not one of our choosing – we are way too caught up in a world of our own creation to make the transition back to nature ourselves. The coyote represents nature returning to us, uninvited and unexpected. We live in our comfortable suburban homes, connected to one another through cables and satellites. The wooded hills and watercourses are fragmented into housing developments and shopping centers. The world is dominated by humans and very different from the way it was two hundred short years ago. But the coyote is here, waiting outside the kitchen door. It is not howling to its domestic dog cousins – it is calling to us. We may not like the sound, or everything the coyote represents, but it is back in all its toothy, furry glory. Sure, its presence in the driveway may make us nervous, we have have no idea what the coyote is up to, and we may wonder just how worried we should be. The question is, what do we do about it?

DeStefano’s obvious answer is to write a book about it – not only about that juxtaposition of something as wild as a coyote in someplace as tame as a home driveway, but about the juxtaposition between ‘home’ and ‘safety.’ One of the most engaging aspects of Coyote at the Kitchen Door is the author’s arresting but unobtrusive use of statistics to underscore his points, and here, as elsewhere, his numbers are almost unbelievable:

The riskiest thing I do in life now is probably work on the house. Actually, driving is worse, but climbing a ladder or messing around up on the roof are activities that probably threaten my life more than anything other than driving. Working with power tools also poses some risk, but more of grievous injury than actual death. Some four hundred thousand Americans were injured by power tools and workshop equipment in 2000. Falls, including those from ladders and scaffolding, killed almost twenty thousand people in the United States in 2004. Add to those dangers burns, tripping and slipping, hitting electric wires with aluminum ladders, getting foreign objects in your eyes in the midst of performing any number of tasks (and not wearing goggles), croaking with a snow shovel in your hands, getting bitten by the dog or cat, stepping on rusty nails, and on and on, and home begins to look like a pretty hazardous place. Plenty of things around the house can hurt you. It’s a jungle out there – in the yard, up on the roof, down in the basement, or out in the garage.

Even a cursory consideration of twenty-thousand people taking fatal plunges off ladders in one year can fill a reader with two awestruck realizations: how ready and willing (if not able) so many Americans are to climb ladders while drunk, and how ultimately unlikely it seems that a species capable of such stupidity could pose a threat to anything, much less something as durable as an entire biosphere. And yet, as DeStefano’s book stresses time and again, that threat is very real. The size of the average American home has more than doubled in the last 50 years, from 938 square feet in 1950 to 2,350 square feet in 2002. Such an increase of course means more energy consumption, more waste production, more habitat destruction, more depletion of the natural world. Americans consume 357 million gallons of gas every single day, and that fuel makes the very existence of outlying semi-rural suburbs possible.

The crucial, central point here is that wildlife pays the price for such expansion, and DeStefano is an honest enough writer to admit this. But he has his own allegiances, as he’s also quick to admit:

… it would be hypocritical of me to talk of suburbia only as an evil place, growing like a cancer and sucking the life from the planet. Suburbia gave me a wonderful childhood with every opportunity. The work of my father – the suburban home builder; the attention of my mother – the suburban homemaker; and the company of my brothers and sisters and friends – most of whom are now raising families of their own in the suburbs -made it a safe and fun place to live.

There’s a ‘but’ hovering around such passages – it’s inevitable. Yes, suburbs provided our author with a friendly, comfortable upbringing just outside of Boston, but also yes, that upbringing was bought at the cost of yet another ‘development’ with paved subdivisions called things like “Rock Glen” and “Hyacinth Grove” in almost taunting commemoration of natural features that were dynamited into oblivion to make those subdivisions. DeStefano can’t help being just a bit defensive about parts of this conflict, as his qualifications about a specifically New England blight hint

The figures on the vast expanse of U.S. land not under development lead some people to challenge the idea that sprawl is bad, or that it is even happening. They ask, If only 2 percent of the nations entire land base is developed, where is the problem? In a sense they are right. Even in a state like Massachusetts, 80 percent or so of the landscape is still devoted to farms, small communities, low-density residential development, state forests, wildlife management areas, and other undeveloped or relatively undeveloped uses. And Massachusetts is small: at only 8,100 square miles, it is the fifth-smallest state, behind Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey. If we combined all six New England states, we would have one landmass the size of a respectable Western state, like Washington or North Dakota, say.

There’s a ‘but’ here too, and it’s this: but the sprawl is spreading, not shrinking. Ever-increasing human population density is spreading humans gradually but unstoppably into every corner of the world’s real estate. The oddly vacillating emotional tone of DeStefano’s book is never more obvious than on this key division. On the one hand, he takes comfort in keeping up with the Jones:

Neighbors can at times be annoying, but the close proximity of others, in their nice homes with their messy garages and well-managed yards, makes us feel connected and safe. Most people don’t see a need for twenty acres of woods with moose and turkeys in the backyard and wouldn’t quite know what to do with them if they had them.

And on the other hand, he sometimes exults in proclaiming his Inner Mowat, albeit in less convincing terms:

I don’t mind the company of bats. I really like it, in fact. They are welcome to the crevices and cracks in my house. They are quiet and respectful tenants, and they pay for their keep by eating pounds of insects and entertaining us with their aerobatic exploits on clear summer evenings. Can anyone say that is not way better than anything on television? I guess I may even prefer them to human neighbors.

I’ll bet he doesn’t really, but I’m equally sure the poetic sentiment isn’t pure bull-hooey. Back and forth across this divide swerves Coyote at the Kitchen Door, and not only does the reader have a hard time knowing ultimately where to place his sympathies, you get the distinct impression that’s just what DeStefano wants. The book’s most arresting passages have strong elements of prosperous middle class self-loathing; there are paeans of praise to the skunk waddling down the access road or the bat doing entertaining aerobics, but they’re offered, as it were, from inside the big parlor window. If DeStefano has ever been on a ten-day hack in the Pacific Northwest, he does a fine job hiding even the hint of it. The main requirement he seems to have of the wildlife he praises is that it keep regular office hours.

coyotes in Littleton, CO (Associated Press)
Still, there is that persistent mood – it crops up too irregularly not to be genuine. There’s definitely a part of DeStefano that yearns to cast off conventionalities and embrace the surrounding wild a little more intimately than would be readily accepted by the other residents of Mimosa Terrace:

Noise is a personal issue. All sound is relative. What is a comfort to me is likely to be an annoyance to others, and certainly the opposite is true. That night train whistled can be pleasant if it comes from a distance and conjures up childhood memories, but it’s a nightmare if the tracks run too close to your house. The call of an owl sets my heart at ease, whereas it sets another person’s nerves on edge. If that owl happens to pounce on a rabbit in the early evening hours, the screams of the victim will freak out most people. To me cries like that are a reassuring sound – nature is still at work in the neighborhood.

These are my favorite parts of this conflicted, heartfelt book – these, and the serialized narration DeStefano gives us of an imagined pair of suburban coyotes living so close to our trash cans and satellite dishes that we could clearly hear them howl at the night sky, if they were foolish enough to do such a thing. The author’s blend of analysis and naturalist insight is at its best in these passages:

In a grassy field in Massachusetts, in the shadows formed by the late afternoon sun and a small grove of trees, a coyote lies with her head up. The light, mixing with the colors of her coat as she straddles the shadow line, blends her into the landscape and gives her the privacy she is looking for in a world busy with people. She is relaxed but ever watchful, and she takes in her surroundings with every breath.

My advice? Stuff a backpack, buy some good shoes, say good-bye to the subdivision, go camping in the badlands of Montana for eight months, and get to know some coyotes. As you point out, they came to you in your world – isn’t it only fair you go to them in theirs?

Tucker “Tuc” MacFarland is a lifelong dog-owner and retired tour boat captain in the Florida Keys. He currently lives north of Seattle and writes regularly on animals and natural history for Open Letters.