Forget those pampered pooches at the local kennel club, the coyote is the great American dog.
Environmental historian Dan Flores tracks the pedigree, chronicles the plight, and sings the praises of Canis latrans in his new book, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Although his academic research is wide-ranging and his presentation nuanced, there’s no doubt Flores’ heart is on the side of the animal.
It wasn’t the call of the wild that sparked a young Flores’s coyote consciousness. It was the wonderful world of Walt Disney.
As a boy growing up in rural Louisiana, Flores was drawn to the outdoors and surrounded by family hound dogs, but it was Disney’s immensely popular weekly television show that in 1961 gave him a primer on a subject that has held his fascination in the ensuing decades with an episode titled, “The Coyote’s Lament.”
The film offered, as Disney himself said, “the coyote’s side of the story,” which is an amazing and true tale of resilience and surprising prosperity in the face of more than a century of attempts at extermination.
And why not?
Indefatigable and adaptable, the coyote not only has survived all attempts to eliminate it from the landscape, but it has actually managed to greatly expand its range: From the deserts of the West to the streets of New York. These days it is as at home in Chicago as the Cubs and, Flores writes, is believed to be colonizing the suburbs. There’s also evidence coyotes have hybridized with wolves and dogs in the South and Northeast.
Why haven’t more people rooted for its survival?
That, Flores said in a recent interview, may be as much a matter of politics and marketing as environmental awareness. It was long ago bullied into the shadows by its big brother, the gray wolf, and forced to adapt. That skill came in handy once wolf-wary European settlers began their migration to the West in the 1800s. While wolves were no match for guns and traps and were brought to the brink of extinction, little brother proved harder to kill.
Had settlers paid more attention, Flores argues, they would have saved themselves and the coyotes a lot of trouble. Costly attempts by the federal government (many millions of taxpayer dollars spent by the Division of Wildlife Services in large part as a gift to the sheep industry) have produced prodigious slaughter, but the coyote has managed to win the war by moving and, when necessary, breeding prolifically.
Efforts to poison them have for decades littered the landscape with toxic carcasses. The use of deadly Compound 1080, Flores writes, “produced a classic poison overreach, almost wiping the giant California condors off the planet.”
Coyotes were long ago classified as “varmints” in many states, meaning they were pests that could be killed at any time for any reason. With wolves essentially out of the picture by the 1920s, ranchers began blaming it for stock losses and the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 put the coyote in the crosshairs. It was labeled “the arch-predator of our time.”
In Native American culture, Coyote is a deity for all time. Stories and songs featuring it in many roles are featured throughout native religion and lore. “Fascinating to me, unlike a perfect deity -- such as Carl Jung’s ‘savior’ figure or a Jesus who teaches a codified morality and sets himself up as a role model to humans striving for godlike perfection -- Coyote personifies the whole suite of human traits,” Flores writes. “He is a god who is not merely good, but also, transparently, very, very bad.”
Flores relates hilarious and even racy Native American coyote stories to illustrate the animal’s indelible and essential place in Indian lore. One part jester, one part trickster, the coyote’s role as a kind of liaison between the natural and so-called civilized world. Through Coyote, native culture related the lessons of human nature to generations who didn’t need an advanced degree to obtain a lick of good sense.
“As the stories seem to ask, how can one not see the Coyote impulse writ large in humanity?” Flores asks. “Indeed, given what we now know about ourselves, when we look back at a Coyote canon that’s thousands of years old, what does it say about how well Coyote -- that is to say, people -- grasped human nature long before modern science emerged to help us figure ourselves out?”
Even the trickster’s greatest pranks and deceptions didn’t rate an attempt at genocide. Gassed and garroted, shot and trapped, if it were merely an enemy combatant in a declared war, the coyote would have been protected by the Geneva Conventions.
And still it survives.
“In its own clueless way,” Flores writes, “Wildlife Services begs the question of how North America ever functioned without us. Its irony as a taxpayer program is that its relentless, lethal harassment of coyotes in the rural West is a principal reason why there are coyotes running through the streets of New York City today.”
With the rise of environmental consciousness and the repopulation of the wolf, the coyote at last is receiving a modicum of deserved respect. While it’s still trapped and slaughtered in cruel numbers, it has found its way in the world. Unless you’re a sheepherder, or a Congressman from mutton country, you’ll likely find yourself rooting for the coyote’s survival against withering odds and some downright sinister attempts to kill it.
And if by chance you hear its distant song at sunset, know it is having the last laugh.
John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas-based journalist and the author of a dozen books.