Book Review: COYOTE AMERICA by Dan Flores

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores is excellent reading, especially for those of us who’ve shared our landscapes with these magnificent creatures. Flores’s knowledge of the science and history of the coyote is vast, compiled in a highly accessible narrative that combines research, experience, and interviews to create an inspiring portrait of American coyotes.

In this comprehensive and engrossing book, Flores writes of the coyotes who lived among the Aztecs and those living in cities like Los Angeles and New York today. We meet coyotes in religious and cultural stories as well as in science and natural history. We see coyotes in Native American culture, through the eyes of nineteenth-century American and European explorers, and from creatives ranging from Mark Twain to Walt Disney. Coyotes have been among us for thousands of years, and will remain: “The truth is that coyotes have never been solely wilderness creatures … for the 15,000 years since we humans have been in North America, coyotes have always been capable of living among us.”

And this is the most fascinating aspect of the book — how coyotes have learned to live in myriad environments, despite humans’ efforts to shut them out. Coyotes in North America have evolved to be both solitary and social; they act as pack animals when they need to take down a large predator or to defend themselves — yet they act as individuals to go after small prey. They are also part vegetarian: “While they have the teeth and jaws of a predator, coyotes also possess molars that enable them to grind and chew vegetables.” 

Yet coyotes die at a rate “unmatched by any other large animal” in America; an estimated half-million coyotes are killed by humans each year. “Other than a federal poison ban riddled with loopholes and a handful of state restrictions against leghold traps and coyote-hunting contests, coyotes enjoy no governmental protection against being killed.” 

From the mid to late 1800s, coyotes were killed for their pelts, dying horrific deaths by strychnine, steel traps, and gunshots. “While we’ll never get … a true figure of all the coyotes killed in those decades of their first encounters with Americans, we can speculate that every one of those coyotes wanted to live.”

And then, states and territories began paying bounties on coyotes, in addition to wolves, to appease ranchers, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of coyotes a year. Such numbers are hard to take, as Flores reveals how smart and social coyotes are through animal behavior studies showing that coyotes follow “proper coyote behavior,” have emotional lives, and demonstrate theory of mind. 

Sadly, “America’s war on wild things” not only continued but got worse and continues to this day. In the 1960s “federal poisoners, bounty hunters, and state trappers were killing between 250,000 and 300,000 coyotes a year in the United States.”

The federal agency Wildlife Services —“a harmless-sounding label apparently designed to fool the public” — is tasked with “mass-killing coyotes for the ag community.” In 2013, Wildlife Services killed more than 4 million animals; today, the half-million coyotes being killed every year means that a coyote dies nearly every minute. 

And still the killing continues: Flores interviews a Wildlife Services employee who, when asked about nonlethal predator control, tells him, “We’ve still got M-44s and of course leg-hold traps. And aerial gunning.” Tens of thousands of coyotes a year are killed by federal employees shooting them from planes and helicopters. 

Few taxpayers realize that they are funding this mass slaughter, and fortunately many organizations — among them, Project Coyote, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and Predator Defense — are working to educate the public and to protect coyotes and other predators.

Yet despite the grim and gruesome ways in which humans have tried to exterminate coyotes, these extraordinary creatures prevail. Coyotes exist in major cities — from Chicago to Denver — surviving on mice, rats, urban fowl, and — very occasionally — domestic animal companions. (Despite their reputation for feasting on dogs and cats, pets comprise only 1 to 2 percent of the average coyote’s diet.) Due to their resilience and adaptability, coyotes do surprisingly well in urban environments. “In rural Illinois, where residents shot, trap, and harass coyotes, only 13 percent of coyote pups survive to maturity. In the Chicago metropolitan area, a whopping 61 percent of coyote pups survive to adulthood.”

Despite the nearly constant horrors inflicted on them since Europeans arrived in North America, coyotes have survived through “intelligence and the sharing of learned behavior” as well as their evolutionary flexibility, which makes them “able to survive in wholly new circumstances.” Flores explains that, like human animals, “coyote young have lengthy childhoods during which they learn from their parents cultural skills and critical information about the world.” 

Flores notes that “national parks and scientist saviors alone do not explain the coyote’s persistence.” The fuller truth, Flores writes, is that “all along, coyotes have been saving themselves.”

A coyote in north San Diego County, photographed by John Yunker

And Flores’s call to action is to allow coyotes to continue to live among us in peace. “Coexistence with coyotes is an essential lesson, something we need to make second nature as quickly as we can. Coyotes have been in North America far longer than we, they are not going anywhere, and history demonstrates all too graphically that eradicating them is an impossibility.”

Coyote America is not only a fascinating read for anyone interested in coyotes in the U.S. but an important book all who care about our remaining wild animals. 

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