“When the time comes you can’t hear the song of the coyote, the West is going to seem a mighty dull place.” — Walt Disney (pg. 152)
Coyotes across history have been worshipped and treated as gods, but they’ve also been mistreated by being poisoned, shot, and slaughtered. Yet with all of the destruction, coyotes have thrived. They’ve survived the cruelty of human ignorance.
Coyotes come from the Canidae family, which appeared about 5 to 6 million years ago in North America and began spreading around soon after. About 3.2 million years ago, coyotes and wolves evolved from their common ancestor, and are thus only 4% genetically different. (Coyotes and jackals are also only 4% apart genetically.) 10,000 years ago in North America, large grazers were disappearing, so coyotes had to become smaller, hunt smaller game, and become scavengers, while wolves remained large.
At one time, coyotes were worshipped by the Aztecs and the Navajo Native Americans. Coyotes are comparable to the Norse God Loki and the Greek Titan Prometheus, as they were all sly, sleek tricksters. The god “Old Man Coyote” is one of the oldest gods ever worshipped.
Long ago, Americans chose a part-human, part-coyote avatar to learn more about themselves, as they believed that coyote and human histories were very similar. Flores says “The coyote is a kind of special Darwinian mirror, reflecting back insights about ourselves as fellow mammals.” (pg. 14) We both have problem-solving intelligence and the fission-fusion adaption, letting us both be successful in a world that is always changing. But, in coyote myths — a reflection in that Darwinian mirror — the coyotes’ commonest flaw is narcissism. They are said to be “vain, deceitful, and ridiculously self-serving,” and are “never to be quite satisfied with the way things are.” (pg. 38) These flaws are seen in human traits, not necessarily coyote traits, as humans are known to be egotistic and have the flaw of hubris.
However, coyotes were not treated well by early European-Americans. When Europeans started colonizing America, they were confused about coyotes. Since the Europeans had never encountered coyotes before, and didn’t have myths in their culture about them like they had with wolves, they didn’t know if coyotes were foxes, wolves, or even jackals. Coyotes were called prairie wolves for a while until Josiah Gregg and Albert Pike taught Americans the old Aztec name for the prairie wolf: “coyote.”
Americans weren’t sure whether or not the coyote had a use in the world, or, like the wolf, was “a menace, a threat to civilization, and vermin to be eradicated.” (pg. 74) Some “scientists” claimed, without evidence, they ate sheep and deer and some claimed they only ate smaller animals like hare, reptiles, and insects, and the remains of larger animals. In the book “Roughing It,” Mark Twain described them as cowardly, ugly creatures and said, “The meanest creatures despised them and even the fleas would desert them for velocipedes.” Because of this fallacy, people started to consider coyotes cowardly, sick, miserable, and despairing creatures, not even “worth the price of ammunition to shoot.” (pg. 79)
The negativity towards predators escalated in the early 1800s as farmers began to be hostile towards predators for allegedly killing their livestock. In 1834, the poison strychnine was invented, so Americans didn’t have to shoot the coyotes, but could simply place the poison in dead carcasses that coyotes would eat. They could then collect the dead bodies and sell the fur for money. However, this poison also killed bugs and other animals that would eat the poison, which was not taken into account when it was placed, showing that people were not considering the consequences of their actions and weren’t thinking clearly or properly when trying to eradicate predators. Farmers wanted predator control, so territorial and state bounties started targeting first wolves, then coyotes. This began a “war on predators” and the government’s involvement in it. The Forest Service became the first government agency to kill predators for ranchers.
Americans had been successful in the wide-spread eradication of wolves. Consequently, coyotes moved to fill the biological niche wolves had once taken up. Since wolves were nearly gone, humans became the only threat to coyotes. Millions of poison stations yielded about 35,000 dead coyotes a year in the 1920s, but even so, coyote numbers were not diminishing, as wolf numbers had.
Coyotes survived so much better than wolves for multiple reasons. Like humans, they had an amazing adaptation called “fission-fusion,” noticed first by Thomas Say in the 1820s. Fission-fusion is the ability to hunt, forage, or sleep in a pack (fusion), or in small groups or alone (fission), whichever is needed. Other animals like bats and chimpanzees also have fission-fusion. Coyotes also can “assess” the ecological possibilities around them and thus vary their litter size, birthing anywhere from 2 to 19 pups. As they have more predators than the bold wolf, coyotes are very wary, so they learn very quickly from experience. Lastly, like us, young coyotes also have a long childhood, in which they learn a lot of skills and information about the world from their parents. This gives them a better awareness of the world and how to live in it.
Farming was not the only motive for exterminating coyotes. In the early 1900s, predators were killed so there would be more game. Any method was acceptable: firearms, dogs, traps, poison. People believed that predators were entirely disposable, and the Bureau of Biological Survey’s policies claimed that if “all predators were removed from America, there would be a civilized paradise for deer, elk, ranchers, and sheep-men.” (pg. 118) They didn’t stop to wonder why deer had survived fine for so many years without human interference, and they were not taking into account the fact that coyotes weren’t eating game. Adolph Murie did a study and discovered that what coyotes ate were smaller animals like mice and gophers, carrion of dead mammals, some insects like grasshoppers and crickets, and even miscellaneous substances like rope. Coyotes were a “minor factor in the status of elk.” Despite all this research done, it was completely ignored. In fact, ironically, coyotes were forced to expand their diet, and began eating sheep, because they were being killed for “eating sheep.”
When coyotes were removed from farms, the population of vermin they were previously eating escalated, because there weren’t any coyotes to control them. This is another example of humans ignoring the big picture and believing they can alter nature with no consequence.
Because slaughter and strychnine were not killing off coyotes fast enough, new poisons were developed. Thallium Sulfate killed the coyotes slowly. Compound 1080 gave them grotesque convulsions. Brass .38-caliber casings inserted into the ground and capped by a scented cloth exploded sodium cyanide into coyotes’ mouths. “No American animal had ever been the target of such viciousness.” (pg. 147) Still, coyote populations were not dying off, partly due to the protection of predators inside national parks, like Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and others, but mainly due to fission-fusion adaptation, larger litters, and decreased infant mortality. Coyotes were dodging everything humans were throwing at them.
By the mid-1900s, because of urban spread, coyotes were forced to expand across the United States and into cities. There were thousands of coyotes in cities all over America. They were attracted to the large number of rodents and the delicious trash to eat. When Americans figured out there were “vicious predators” in their midst, they were not happy. They worried about getting bit, even though dog bites occur way more often than coyote bites. They worried their pets were going to be eaten, although pets are more in danger from running into traffic. And Americans naively thought that civilization was supposed to be a place away from nature, when in reality, humans, dogs, birds, are all part of nature that Americans have no issue with. All it takes to coexist with coyotes is to pay attention and be wary of them. All these points show that Americans don’t bother to think to look at facts before being irrationally fearful. Since they were hell-bent on getting rid of coyotes, they weren’t thinking about why and if it was a good idea.
Now coyotes occupy almost every city in the United States. They began with places in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, where major cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Denver had been founded atop existing coyote habitats, then continued to spread to nearly every city in Northern America. As Flores says, “Coyotes’ colonization of our cities, from small burgs to the biggest, loudest, most frenetic of our metropolises, has become the wildlife story of our time.” (pg. 8)
People began sympathizing with coyotes after several Disney movies began pleading their case, and when Aldo Leopold’s book, “A Sand County Almanac,” introduced “biocentrism,” a term that claimed all species deserved the right to exist. Taking political advantage of this sympathy, President Nixon banned the use of certain poisons on coyotes, and President Carter banned killing of coyote pups. Although both laws were overturned by Ronald Reagan, coyotes were beginning to earn the nation’s respect.
This book showed the effect of being ecologically and biologically ignorant. Almost everyone involved in the war on predators weren’t considering facts or consciously aware of the big picture; instead, they acted on conventional wisdom (which is very STUPID), and feelings. This book shows the effects of doing so: millions of dollars, hours, human effort, and coyotes’ lives wasted on something irrational and meaningless, when it all could have been used to make the world a better place.
From being worshipped, to being looked at with confusion, to being hated and slaughtered, and ultimately to being tolerated, coyotes have ridden on the rollercoaster that is human emotion and opinion. However, unlike many other poor, extinct species that also had to ride the rollercoaster, coyotes have not only survived, but thrived.
(c) Kira Hoffman