Dog­town Coy­ote Amer­ica by Dan Flores and Wolf Em­pire by Scott Ian Barry

The war on preda­tors

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

The sud­den sight­ing of a coy­ote, ei­ther at a road­side or nearer to our back­yards, is a fa­mil­iar ex­pe­ri­ence in New Mex­ico. You don’t have to sleep in a ru­ral area to hear the haunt­ing re­frain of a pack of coy­otes; in the past few decades, the coy­ote has fa­mously mi­grated to cities such as Los An­ge­les, Chicago, and even Man­hat­tan. We en­counter this canid not only in its natural en­vi­ron­ment, but also as a wise crea­ture in mythol­ogy, as a trick­ster or as the cre­ator’s helper. Never mind that Mark Twain un­fairly ma­ligned the coy­ote in his 1872 comic best­seller Roughing It, or that the U.S. gov­ern­ment has waged a long and ex­pen­sive war against the an­i­mal and has even tried to ex­ter­mi­nate it — the coy­ote’s pub­lic im­age may yet take a turn for the bet­ter. In 1992, Brother Coy­ote ap­peared as comic re­lief in Ru­dolfo Anaya’s novel Al­bur­querque .In 1994, Santa Fe’s Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Com­mit­tee is­sued a pam­phlet ti­tled “Coy­ote Tales: How Coy­ote Brought Us Wa­ter.” To­day, this an­i­mal has a pal­pa­ble pres­ence in Amer­ica, but its true na­ture re­mains a mys­tery. We know no more of it than a flash of eyes, a wolf-like body, a tail slink­ing away, or its sig­na­ture howl.

In Coy­ote Amer­ica: A Natural and Su­per­nat­u­ral His­tory (Ba­sic Books), Dan Flores un­packs the coy­ote for us and dis­tills some truths about the crea­ture. Even though, as Flores writes, in 1651, “Span­ish au­thor Fran­cisco Her­nan­dez, in a book chap­ter ti­tled ‘Con­cern­ing the Coy­otl, or In­dian Fox,’ was ac­tu­ally the first West­ern au­thor to in­tro­duce the North Amer­i­can coy­ote to a read­ing au­di­ence,” the an­i­mal was com­monly called a prairie wolf un­til the mid1800s. Ex­plor­ers Lewis and Clark use this term in their pub­lished notes, and a stun­ning 1843 paint­ing by John James Audubon in which two coy­otes, one stand­ing and the other crouch­ing, make eye con­tact, is ti­tled Prairie Wolves. Once the early con­fu­sion about the coy­ote’s name set­tled — it’s de­rived from an Aztec lan­guage, specif­i­cally from the Nahu­atl word

coy­otl — a new con­fu­sion arose about how preda­tory this crea­ture re­ally is.

The most com­pelling part of Flores’ story — and what makes Coy­ote Amer­ica an im­por­tant book — is what it says about the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s mis­guided and con­tin­u­ing bat­tle against the coy­ote. The hu­man war against preda­tors had be­gun as early as the 1630s in New Eng­land, but in the late 1800s, bounty hunt­ing of wolves, bears, and bob­cats took off, as ranch­ers deemed that th­ese preda­tors had no right­ful place in the world. Since that time, coy­otes have been on the list of preda­tors that have been fenced out, poi­soned in mul­ti­ple ways, trapped, and gunned down. Af­ter decades of mass slaugh­ter, wolves have all but per­ished, but coy­otes have sur­vived and even thrived. Why is that? Flores ex­plains the bi­o­log­i­cal rea­sons why coy­otes have sur­vived all ef­forts to erad­i­cate them.

In the early 1900s, the agency that spear­headed the ill-con­ceived no­tion of preda­tor ex­ter­mi­na­tion was called the Bi­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey. In 1914, Congress


A Louisiana anti-coy­ote pro­gram re­sulted in scenes like this in the 1970s; top, a young coy­ote howl­ing “North Amer­ica’s orig­i­nal na­tional anthem”; images cour­tesy Dan Flores/Ba­sic Books

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