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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dan Flores and Coyotes in America: Half a Million Years of Survival

I was writing this morning about a day several years ago when I watched a massive bull elk with his harem in the Bighorn Mountains near Wyoming's Cloud Peak Wilderness area.  Deeply immersed in describing the bull's tawny coat and dark, ragged mane, I took a break to go outside and stretch when this handsome fellow appeared in our backyard, as if the writing itself had manifested him in the tall grass.  I love it when that happens.  

Animal encounters happen to my friend, historian Dan Flores, too.  His new book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, opens with a story about the time he was visiting his parents in Louisiana and a coyote passed by mere feet away, shooting him a sideways glance with its "hot yellow eyes."  This photo was taken by Dan when a coyote appeared in the early morning light outside his back door.

Coyote encounters are now happening everywhere - thousands of them. In our cities, our countrysides, our suburbs, even our coffee shops. My poem "Reclamation" was written a few years ago and featured a coyote that sought shelter in a Chicago Starbucks, the closest thing to a den he could find.

In Coyote America, Dan poses this question: Why, when wolves nearly died out from human predation, have coyotes flourished despite even more intense efforts to wipe them out? This question drives Dan deeply into the history of North America's indigenous coyote. Once confused with Old World jackals of Africa and Asia, coyotes were called prairie wolves by relative newcomers to this continent as recently as the early 20th century. This English painting depicts a wolf defending its kill from a coyote. Side by side, the differences between wolf and coyote seem obvious. Not so much from a distance.

Native Americans had no such confusion, however. "Stories about Coyote or sometimes Old Man Coyote ... are the oldest preserved human stories from North America," writes Flores (p24). Coyote America includes a few of these stories and, like most trickster stories, they can be ribald, full of lust. In one such tale, Coyote tempts the daughter of a chief, wanting to trade a glass bead choker for a kiss, an iron kettle for the chance to fondle her breasts. And so the bartering continues and the stakes are raised.

A few years ago, I joined a Coyote Watch Citizens Science Program team. Members attended training sessions on coyote behavior and reported any coyote encounter or observations. Here's how one of my reports read:

First encounter, coyote immediately moved away from horseback rider in pasture at a trot, over the hill and out of site toward den. Second encounter, 20 minutes later, 30 lb. domestic dog spied coyote and began to pursue. Coyote ran uphill 100 yards. Domestic dog called back. Coyote pursued dog downhill, toward rider, back arched in defensive threat position. Dog returned to horse and was leashed. Coyote continued to advance. Human advanced toward coyote, hazing with arm gestures and loud voice. Coyote immediately turned, ran back uphill, stayed on ridge, then disappeared. Did not reappear.  

The coyote responded positively to hazing, exhibiting no signs of extreme habituation. Yet urban coyotes are becoming so acclimated that the majority in Los Angeles have learned to navigate busy highways. At a recent book signing at Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore (with his beautiful wife Sara Dant beside him), Dan told the audience, "Coyotes emulate what we do - evolutionary adaptations that make them, and us, successful. These animals have agency. They are masters of their domain."

Dan also talked about an interesting zoological term: fission/fusion. Coyotes can be solitary (fission, splitting off), or gregarious (fusion, merging). This enables them to be remarkably adaptable, as are human beings. Yet for thousands of years, mankind has attempted to "master" his domain - and it isn't working. Perhaps it isn't mastery for which we should be striving - but symbiosis. At some point, we must be willing to learn from the creatures who have been living on this earth for more than half a million years, whether we write about them in our books, or cross paths with them in the early morning light outside our back door.

P.S:  Ask your local bookstore if they carry Coyote America (resist the temptation to feed the mega-bookstore predator one more meal). And look for Sara Dant's new book, Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West.

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