Friday, September 30, 2016

Coyote America by Dan Flores

Dan Flores has done something fascinating in this book, rehabilitating the image of a persecuted carnivore lowest on our opinion roster of animals, including cockroaches and rats. He makes the case that coyotes should be America’s national avatar, displacing the bison or buffalo. Extremely clever, adaptable, and pioneering, the coyote was designated a principal deity by American Indians--North America’s oldest deity, responsible for creating all of North America.

Flores tells us that coyotes live within a couple miles of us at all times now…even those of us in major metropolitan areas. Coyotes are cosmopolitan, and have been living in urban areas since the time of Columbus at least. They are perceptive, wily fellow-travelers with us.
”Suffice it to say here that as we humans head off into an uncertain and probably dangerous future of our own making, it might be wise to keep an eye on [coyotes]. I, for one, am going to be very interested in how coyotes cope with the twenty-first century and what insights we might draw about our own circumstances from a coyote history that so often seems to mirror ours.”
Coyotes are predators, feeding mainly on small mammals, birds, or fruits. They are sociable, hunting in packs. Contrary to the notion that coyotes were responsible for cattle kills, they were nearly always scavengers of large animals as befit their position in the ranking of predators in the larger ecosystem. Very nearly killed off as pests since the end of the nineteenth century, they have none-the-less persevered.

Flores suggests we look to the Indian coyote stories, of which there is a rich seam, to understand human nature: “who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?”As we began to understand our own animal natures, the study of other social animals leaves “little doubt that…canines also understand equality and inequity…and experience both a rudimentary form of empathy and some basic theory of mind…an essential sense of what in human terms we would call 'right and wrong.'”

Employees of the Wildlife Services’ Predator Research Center, whose greatest advocate is the American sheep industry, is responsible for killing by aerial shooting roughly 35,000 coyotes from the air annually. Even they readily admit that coyotes have personality: “They’re individuals. Like people, some get into trouble.” Sheep farmers claim to lose some percentage of lambs to coyote packs every year. The federal government spends an equal amount of money (the cost of the lambs) to kill or sterilize coyote. Hmmm...a good use of federal tax dollars?

This book is a wildlife biologist’s dream. Readable, eloquent, well-argued, it looks at coyote history from many angles and leads even those of us with reason to dislike the disruptive canines to a grudging admiration and wonder. Of course, sport hunters probably don’t read peer-reviewed ecological articles, but Flores points out that ecosystems tend to develop some balances in response to threats and flourishing in their environment. Trying to kill coyotes takes natural balances out of the equation.

Flores ends with examples of coyote in art, and reminds us again how the animal is portrayed as a caricature of human nature, for example Wile E’s comic overconfidence (remind you of anyone?), unswerving obsession with a goal, and unfailing faith in technology. (Even that swath of red-gold hair has something of the coyote about it.) But I don’t want to carry the metaphor too far. After all, coyote in modern day parlance means a person who sneaks illegal aliens into the U.S. from Mexico.

NPR's David Greene interviewed Dan Flores about this book on coyotes.

Dan Flores is a historian, A.B. Hammond Professor Emeritus at University of Montana-Missoula, who has written several books about the American West and the animals who reside there. This year he also published a book called American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, perhaps in conjunction with the movement by Sean Gerrity, president of American Prairie Reserve, committed to wildlife conservation and hoping to create the largest wildlife complex ever assembled in the continental United States. "When complete, the reserve will comprise some 3.5 million contiguous acres (more than 5,000 square miles) of native grassland in northeastern Montana, with a goal of restoring the wildlife abundance the landscape once contained." [National Geographic bio].

Here is Dan Flores addressing the 32nd National Cowboy Poetry gathering about the history of America's Serengeti, and here is Sean Gerrity at an Aspen Institute gathering to elicit donations for his project.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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