Why are coyotes so polarizing?

A new book seeks to make sense of the hated canid’s history.

 

First things first: Coyote. When you read the word, how many syllables do you hear? Your answer, according to Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, may be “immediately diagnostic of a whole range of belief systems and values.” The ki-YOH-tee versus ki-yote divide is one of the best indicators of a person’s coyote politics, a nearly hard-and-fast way that we subconsciously identify ourselves: as defenders of the species, in the case of the former, or as a manager, shooter and/or trapper, in the latter.

A coyote in Joshua Tree National Park, California.
NPS/Michael Vamstad

In Coyote America, Flores occasionally assumes the mantle of coyote’s head of public relations, demonstrating how the species, once “dead last in public appeal — behind rattlesnakes, skunks, vultures, rats, and cockroaches,” overcame its stigma as “varmint” to become a darling among the very people who most infrequently encounter it — modern-day urbanites. More often, though, Flores is content to serve as a guide to the species, relaying the coyote’s complicated natural, cultural, political and mythological histories. It is why Flores describes his book as, “in most respects, a coyote biography.”

Tales about Old Man Coyote have proliferated in Native America, most likely since the days of the ancestral Clovis people, ensuring the canid’s status as perhaps the continent’s most charismatic species. Flores examines the animist religions of “Coyotism” that arose during the Neolithic Revolution, a time marked by the domestication of plants and animals, including the coyote. Ultimately, however, the coyote’s revered status among humans is probably due to one very unique ecological coincidence: We are the only two mammalian species to have distributed ourselves so completely across the North American continent, making us “Darwinian mirrors” of each other. And because coyotes are truly “American originals” — they evolved not in the Old World, but here on this continent — they also remind us, as Flores says, “that we are new and barely real here.”

This fact hasn’t stopped humans from attempting to eradicate coyotes. In the chapters “A War on Wild Things” and “The Archpredator of Our Time,” Flores delves into how coyotes came to be first regarded as a “parasite on civilization.” It was rare for Western settlers to agree wholeheartedly on anything, and yet they soon arrived at a common consensus — that coyote and wolves were a scourge that endangered range life. This resulted in the establishment of bounties (at the time, a generous $1 per scalp) across most plains and desert states. It didn’t take long for Congress to adopt an even more radical eradication program in 1931 that targeted both predators along with “other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.”

Flores calls this “species cleansing,” a term he deliberately links to fascist rhetoric and episodes of genocide. And yet the campaign to clobber the coyote faced significant opposition. Flores suggests that the discourse between federal policymakers and scientists began to resemble a “predator-prey dialectic” itself, a parallel to what was happening between hunters and coyotes. This is around the time the famed environmentalist Aldo Leopold “had come to realize that a predator-free ‘paradise’ contained a fatal non sequitur.”

National parks and “scientist saviors” fought to preserve the species. But that’s not the whole story. Ultimately, coyotes took matters into their own paws. As it turns out, Canis latrans is nearly indestructible. With the help of computer simulations, biologists discovered a rare adaptive breeding mechanism that helps ensure the species’ survival, despite the odds: In the wake of population control measures, female coyotes tend to birth even larger litters with more surviving pups.

Flores’ overview of environmental legal protection is more than a timeline; it’s a drama of its own, full of political villainy along with the occasional victory lap. Flores is eager to recognize the coyote’s cultural champions, from Walt Disney to Edward Abbey, whose tone in his writing about the coyote sometimes verges on the gloating, a trademark “thumb in the eye of Western ranching.”

Still, though, with 500,000 coyotes killed every year — about one per minute — the “varmint” stigma clearly persists. A photograph on page 185 taken by Kevin Bixby depicts at least 15 coyote corpses in the New Mexican desert following a coyote-hunting contest. It’s no wonder coyotes have taken to our cities. From New York City to Denver to Los Angeles — and nearly every other major metropolis in the United States — the spike in urban coyote populations indicates yet another phase of the canid’s unique adaptability.

Of course, seeing a coyote in the city also presents humans with an opportunity to adapt. “To confront a predator,” Flores writes, “is to stand before the dual-faced god from our deep past,” to be reminded of “bright teeth.” Americans who want to be “re-wilded” and re-connected to nature (a distinct craving posited by evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff) now need look no further than the packs that are forming — and even thriving — in our own city centers.

Coyote America
Dan Flores
271 pages,hardcover: $27.50.
Basic Books, 2016.

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