Coyote America, by Dan Flores — Two Reviews


David Roberts calls his review of the book, “The Original Bolshevik”:
“Camping out in the canyons of the Southwest, I hold my breath whenever I hear, in the distance, the familiar sound of overlapping howls and yips. I strain to catch every nuance, wishing that the antiphonal chorus would go on forever. I’ll wake my companions, if I have any, with a whispered nudge: “Listen. Coyotes.”

Such reverence was not the typical reaction of early travelers along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails. More often they heard coyotes’ howls as “blood-curdling.” In his classic 1844 narrative, “Commerce of the Prairies,” Josiah Gregg described the sound with his characteristic precision: “Like ventriloquists, a pair of these [coyotes] will represent a dozen distinct voices in such succession—will bark, chatter, yelp, whine, and howl in such variety of note, that one would fancy a score of them at hand.” Gregg complained that the noise “sometimes makes a night upon the Prairies perfectly hideous.”

In “Coyote America,” a masterly synthesis of scientific research and personal observation, Dan Flores tries to plumb the causes of what he calls “the Hundred Years War on Coyotes in the American West,” as he recounts the fate of “the most persecuted large mammal in American history.” The outcry of ranchers against the ruthless ravager of their sheep and cattle does not alone explain the longstanding revulsion against the coyote in this country. Mr. Flores traces the oddly anthropomorphic antagonism to a tour de force of comedic rant in Mark Twain ’s “Roughing It.” Twain portrayed the coyote as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, . . . a living, breathing allegory of Want.” The beast was also “spiritless and cowardly,” Twain wrote. “The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede.” Horace Greeley chimed in, declaring the coyote “a sneaking, cowardly little wretch.” Subsequent pundits concluded, similarly, that coyotes lacked “higher morals.” A nadir of this opprobrium came in a 1920 article in Scientific American, whose author deemed the coyote the ‘Original Bolshevik’.”

Whereas Native Americans celebrated the animal’s keen intelligence and revered it as a semi-diety, the consummate Trickster, a kind of ironic foil to humans at our most fallible, Americans have long sought to eliminate Canis latrans (“the barking dog”), beginning with bounties placed by state and local governments on coyotes (as well as on wolves, bears and mountain lions) in the 1870s, followed by increasingly sophisticated campaigns of extermination waged by government agencies (which persist to this day, under the aegis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). In the 1940s, the government used torturously cruel sodium fluoroacetate as poison bait which caused grotesque convulsions and agonizing vocalizations before the animal died.

To read more of this review, you’ll need to read the Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2016 Issue.

Goodreads, which sells the book, posted this review about Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History:
“With its uncanny night howls, unrivaled ingenuity, and amazing resilience, the coyote is the stuff of legends. In Indian folktales it often appears as a deceptive trickster or a sly genius. But legends don’t come close to capturing the incredible survival story of the coyote. As soon as Americans—especially white Americans—began ranching and herding in the West, they began working to destroy the coyote. Despite campaigns of annihilation employing poisons, gases, helicopters, and engineered epidemics, coyotes didn’t just survive, they thrived, expanding across the continent from Anchorage, Alaska, to New York’s Central Park. In the war between humans and coyotes, coyotes have won hands-down.
Coyote America is both an environmental and a deep natural history of the coyote. It traces both the five-million-year-long biological story of an animal that has become the “wolf” in our backyards, as well as its cultural evolution from a preeminent spot in Native American religions to the hapless foil of the Road Runner. A deeply American tale, the story of the coyote in the American West and beyond is a sort of Manifest Destiny in reverse, with a pioneering hero whose career holds up an uncanny mirror to the successes and failures of American expansionism.An illuminating biography of this extraordinary animal, Coyote America isn’t just the story of an animal’s survival—it is one of the great epics of our time.”

And, postscript, one more review I’d like to add because three are a charm, this one by Justin Hickey:, in OpenLettersMonthly of July 1.

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