Dogtown Coyote America by Dan Flores and Wolf Empire by Scott Ian Barry
The war on predators
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
AFTER DECADES OF MASS SLAUGHTER, WOLVES HAVE ALL BUT PERISHED, BUT COYOTES HAVE SURVIVED AND EVEN THRIVED. WHY IS THAT?
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