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The coyote is us


Misunderstood and ruthlessly hunted, the wily coyote has nonetheless thrived in tandem with mankind

He crosses the green with the confidence of a scratch golfer, but he’s not there to putt. With a foursome of duffers oblivious to the drama taking place an 8-iron away, the coyote veers across the seventh hole and into the rough, slices through the tall grass and emerges seconds later with a cottontail rabbit before slipping into a nearby arroyo.

The manmade oasis draws nature into the edge of the city and generates an endless bunny buffet for coyotes. Listen closely to their delighted howls at sunset, and you can imagine them thanking us for making life a little easier for a change.

For many Las Vegans, the occasional golf course sighting may be the only time they glimpse a coyote. But the remarkable and misunderstood canis latrans has danced on the edge of humankind for thousands of years. Celebrated in Native American culture, they were scorned in ours. Coyotes survived more than a century of concerted extermination efforts, and somehow managed to increase their range, from the isolation of Death Valley to the bustle of New York City.

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Their amazing journey across time and terrain is captured in Dan Flores’ Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History (Basic Books, $27.50) If ever a beleaguered creature needed an informed advocate in its corner, it’s the coyote. It has found a kindred spirit in Flores, an environmental historian and author who this year also published American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains (Universtiy of Kansas, $24.95). He captures not only the coyote’s biology and biography, but its place in our own tale, as well.

“The modern coyote story has not just been about coyotes in states where no one would have imagined them a century ago,” Flores writes. “As we all realize now, coyotes were coming to live with us. ... Their colonization of our cities, from small burgs like my hometown in Louisiana to the biggest, loudest, most frenetic of our metropolises, has become the wildlife story of our time. It deserves some explanation.”

Coyotes were celebrated in ancient Mexico City and gained religious and folk-hero status in Native American culture. But when Europeans began moving west, their wild dog reference was based on experiences with the wolf — and they weren’t interested in nuances.

Called the “archpredator of our time” and “the Original Bolsheviks” (by Scientific American in 1920) and subjected to decades of attempts to kill them with guns, traps and poisons, coyotes could have used good defamation lawyer. Even the beloved Mark Twain, in Roughing It, couldn’t find a place in his heart for the “cayotes” he saw from the stagecoach he took to the Nevada Territory. He called them “spiritless and cowardly ... so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.”

In the ensuing years, American ranchers, in partnership with local and federal governments, promoted extermination over understanding and killed endless thousands of them. With the wolf driven to the edge of extinction, the coyote started being blamed for slaughtering livestock. Although it was capable of taking down a sheep, Flores notes, there aren’t many candid cattle ranchers who can say they’ve watched a coyote kill a full-grown cow.

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Coyotes are still classified as vermin to be shot on sight, and group hunts go on in Nevada and elsewhere. But they have also managed to increase their breeding behavior, produce hybrids when necessary, and have migrated east, colonizing the nation and outrunning their critics.

In Native American culture, of course, Coyote has always had a grand old time. “When one reads American Coyote stories,” Flores writes, “it does not take much time or analytic effort to conclude who Coyote really is, and it is that realization that makes him so intriguing as a god. Coyote is us in avatar form, or perhaps something more like The God Within.”

With the rise of environmental science, the coyote’s role in nature has been better understood. And its press has improved, thanks in part to the embrace of Walt Disney in a series of early 1960s features that told “the coyote’s side of the story.”

As Flores sees it, appreciating the coyote means setting aside some of the fears and prejudices Europeans carried in their journey west. “The coyote is an American original whose evolutionary history has taken place on this continent, not in the Old World,” he writes. “We see it not from the traditional vantage but from a sideways one, and from that perspective everything looks different.”

But only if you’re willing to look. These days, you needn’t look much farther than your own backyard.