Doug Hawes-Davis frames his latest documentary film, Killing Coyote, with the Calcutta, a coyote-killing contest held in Rawlins, Wyo. The film ranges through the blandly demonic endeavors of the federal Wildlife Services agency (formerly Animal Damage Control), the problems with dryland livestock production, and into Hawes-Davis' most powerful subject - the slowly evolving relationship of humanity to the rest of Creation.
As in his 1998 feature film, Varmints, Hawes-Davis has found a wonderful cast of human characters - biologists, hunters, ranchers, animal-rights activists and exterminators. Unlike Varmints, in which the prairie dog shooters were unredeemable and repulsive, Killing Coyote brings to light the complicated nature of hunting itself.
"It's so neat, just to be that close to him," says one young man after a successful day, "you almost don't want to kill him."
The hunters' wind-burned, beer-drinking vitality contrasts so sharply with the practiced, institutionalized smoothness of the animal-rights advocates that it is hard to decide whom to root for.
Less difficult is determining whom to root against. Hawes-Davis and his crew are the first journalists to film the research facilities of Wildlife Services and interview the veterinarians and exterminators who devote their lives to destroying coyotes. There is no finer example of what writer Hannah Arendt has called "the banality of evil" than these films of tightly bound coyotes being injected with the latest experimental birth control potions, or being dragged from their holding pens by people who look just like you and me.
"We fail a lot," says one Wildlife Services staffer, "but that doesn't mean we're going to stop."
Everyone interviewed agrees that there has been no reduction in coyote numbers despite over a century of taxpayer-funded persecution. One biologist, explaining why these efforts have failed, tells a story that rivals any Native American trickster legend. Perhaps this excellent documentary is merely another chapter in that legend, one that will be told to our children in some distant and unimaginable future, while coyotes yip and howl in the darkness, just beyond the circle of whatever we are using for light.
Killing Coyote is available on VHS video for $35 from High Plains Films, P.O. Box 8796, Missoula, MT 59807, 406/543-6726. Call for a screening in your area.