Dan Flores is an environmental and western historian who is also a fantastic writer. Most of his books have been about life and history on the southwestern Plains, especially west Texas, where he grew up. This area influences his latest and perhaps his very best book, Coyote America. This is a wonderful history of the coyote in this nation and its interactions with people. Brilliantly written, entertaining, and both shocking and outrageous at times, this book deserves a large audience.
Flores naturally starts by detailing the coyote’s heavy influence on Native storytelling. Originally a species that largely lived in the dry country of the American West, he focuses on the stories told by the tribes of that area. Always a trickster, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous, sometimes greedy, sometimes horny, the coyote represented the complex emotional responses of humans themselves to life. Flores weaves the chapter together by explaining coyote’s interactions with Native peoples and repeating coyote stories from various traditions. For nearly all the tribes who had contact with them, coyote was a central figure in mythology and something very spiritual and almost humans. This is opposed to, say, bears, who were often bad guys in these mythical worlds.
Whites had no such feelings about coyote. The first white Americans to interact with them, including on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, didn’t quite know what to make of the animal. The name “coyote” comes from the Nahuatl word “coyotl,” demonstrating that the animal was well-known to the Aztecs and thus the Spanish. Originally called a “prairie wolf” by Lewis and Clark, white Americans wondered if it was a wolf, a jackal, a fox, or what. I enjoyed reading about the scientific debates around this that illuminates the growing biological sciences of the early 19th century, which eventually led to the coyote name replacing that of the prairie wolf starting in the 1840s. But whatever it was, they weren’t impressed. The howling spooked them and the predator behavior cut against the capitalist exploitation of their habitat, although Flores doesn’t really frame this in terms of an indictment of capitalism per se. Whites conducted a holy war against coyotes from the nineteenth century. Strychnine was the poison of choice and any coyote unlucky enough to get into the range of a gun was of course a target. Placed as second only to wolves in hated animals on the Plains, anything that might eat cattle or sheep was a “parasite on civilization,” to quote one rancher. Killing coyotes was a moral mission placing Christianity and civilization versus waste and depravity.
The government created an entire agency dedicated to dealing with coyotes and other predators: the Fish and Wildlife Service. Created out of the U.S. Biological Survey, it justified its existence through its aggressive predator hunting that ensured it would receive congressional funding and local support. But while alpha predators like wolves are pretty easy to eliminate, secondary predators such as coyotes, who evolved with fear in their hearts, proved really hard to eliminate. No matter how many coyotes were killed and how many new poisons or other methods were developed, they just wouldn’t go away. This drove ranchers and wildlife officials up the wall. They just couldn’t understand how this was possible. Flores, who is interested in evolutionary approaches to history to study both humans and other animals, notes that coyotes evolved to time their litter size depending on population conditions. If there are lots of coyotes around, they only have a couple of pups. But when there is a vacuum to fill, they can have a couple dozen pups per litter! The more coyotes that are massacred, the more coyotes will reproduce to replenish the population. This amazing evolutionary strategy means that killing them all is not an effective strategy. But that has not stopped ranchers and FWS from trying. Even today, they engage in killings. The amount of money spent on stupid airplane shooting raids in the late 20th century on coyotes is unbelievable, just as one example. But ranchers hate these animals so much that if any are killed, it builds support for the relevant state and federal agencies. Flores spares the reader little, showing images from coyote hunting competitions that still happen today in some western states. Flores closes a chapter with a powerful evocation of the time he, as a young Texan boy, shot a coyote himself for no reason other than it was there. Coming out of nowhere, it is a powerful read by an outstanding wordsmith.
Moreover, not only have coyotes proven impossible to eliminate, but they have slowly spread across the North American continent, filling the evolutionary niche wolves used to fill. Some of these coyotes have not only wandered into New York City and other eastern cities but have actually adapted effectively to live near humans. Looks like we are stuck with them. And that’s pretty cool, or at least I think so. Culturally, that’s become more acceptable, at least to people not on the ranches. Native peoples still tell coyote tales, hippies such as Flores embraced the wild in part based on their infatuation with Native cultures, and of course there’s Wile E. Coyote. The famed cartoon, Flores argues, is an extension of the Native stories, presenting coyotes in their complexity.
I’ve seen plenty of coyotes in my life, although not enough, as they are always a treat to watch. But I had never seen one east of the Mississippi until June. I was doing what I do in my free time, i.e., graving. I was in a big cemetery in Philadelphia, finding material to entertain you people with tales of the past. I was looking for someone or another and I saw something run past me. It was a damn coyote. In the middle of the day. And the sheer wildness that comes off that animal is striking. This is where Flores’ emphasis on evolutionary history really hits home. There’s something in that interaction that is primeval. That wildness is slightly threatening and even frightening. The coyote just loped on by to do whatever it is it was doing. But for me, even having seen plenty of them before, in that moment, it was very affecting. And let’s face it, the East could use more wildness.
Coyote America is very good book. It’s sold well and perhaps some of you have read it. But you all should if you care at all about this nation’s history and the beasts within it, including yourself.