In late 2014, California became the first state to ban the most controversial form of rural entertainment since cockfighting: coyote-killing contests, wherein hunters won prizes or gambling pots based on the number of the wild predators they killed in a weekend. Some no doubt saw the move as coddling predators, but in fact it was just the most recent example of how California has been in the vanguard of attitudes — usually enlightened ones — about living with coyotes in our midst.
Unlike cities in the East that have acquired their coyote populations in the last 35 years, most California cities had coyotes from their founding. In the towns of the Central Coast as early as 1835, naturalist Thomas Nuttall listened while coyotes "tame as dogs yelled every night through the villages." The city of Los Angeles offered its first bounty on coyotes in 1938, in short order paying up on 650. Despite that effort, by the 1960s an estimated 500 coyotes were residing in L.A., attracting enough amazed attention to get radio time for a 45 rpm record, "When Coyotes Howl in Hollywood You Hear a Mournful Tune."
Unlikely as it might seem, such California pop culture helped till the soil for big changes in our national attitudes about coyotes.
Since the 19th century, the coyote — like the wolf — had been primarily seen as a menace to farmers and ranchers raising livestock on the Plains and farther west. Coyotes were further denigrated in the popular imagination as homely, cowardly and deceitful creatures. In his 1872 best-seller, "Roughing It," Mark Twain dedicated a whole chapter to the horrible coyote, calling the animal such a despicable character that "even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede." An article in Scientific American in 1920 added the ultimate insult for the age — and a patriotic reason for shooting one on sight — insisting the coyote was "the Original Bolshevik." By the 1940s, hunters employed by the federal government labeled coyotes a public enemy on a par with Nazi Germany and Hirohito's Japan.
Coyotes had few friends in 1931 when Congress appropriated $10 million to wipe out this new "archpredator of our time." Using a raft of new deadly chemicals from World War II, federal agents poisoned 6.5 million coyotes in the decade after 1947.
But in 1949, a new coyote appeared in the public consciousness: Wile E. Coyote of Warner Bros.' cartoons. In dozens of theatrical shorts, and later in Saturday morning cartoons, Wile E. taught a generation of kids all manner of things about obsession, humiliation and the hazards of being gullible consumers of corporate whiz-bang technology. For more than three decades, Wile E. served as a sort of ambassador for his species; Americans absorbed the sense we had a Super Genius coyote as a friend.
In the 1960s, Walt Disney Studios invented the nature documentary. Starting in 1962 with "The Coyote's Lament," which told the coyote's side in the war against them, the Disney studio made six films about coyotes that helped change the attitudes of many Americans. In that decade, as well, Bay Area writers such as Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and Peter Coyote introduced Old Man Coyote to readers. This literary take on the ancient deity of native peoples made him almost a countercultural mascot.
By 1972, there'd been seismic shifts in thinking brought on by popular culture and the burgeoning Age of Ecology. That year, President Nixon, a Californian, finally issued an executive order banning coyote poisoning on public lands or by federal agents. Coyotes were by no means out of the crosshairs entirely, as Wildlife Services agents simply shifted to aerial hunting. (The agency still "retires" 80,000 coyotes a year on behalf of the sheep industry.) But the Endangered Species Act, signed by Nixon the next year, meant that coyotes could never again be marked for extermination in the U.S.
Coyotes, however, were also an issue in urban centers like Los Angeles. Newcomers to California couldn't believe there were actual wild predators trotting through local cemeteries, loping across the runways of LAX, and most disconcertingly, hunting along suburban streets. Some new Angelenos thought they were cute feral dogs and fed coyotes with disastrous consequences: habituation and increased boldness. As much as 25% of the diet of some 1980s L.A. coyote packs was human food; it took decades to get that figure under 6%. Between 1960 and 2006, coyotes bit nearly 70 people in Los Angeles — half of all coyote bites in North America in those decades.
As a result, coyotes became symbols of '80s "urban disorder," an unease that became panic in August 1981, when a coyote attack killed a 3-year-old child in Glendale. After wildlife officials trapped 53 coyotes within a square mile around the home, the locals began talking about "teeming coyote ghettos" and "coyote gang bangers." Trapping and relocating coyotes did little good, however; new ones just moved in.
Today it's Chicago and New York City — coyotes' newest frontier — where residents are experiencing the shock of encountering wild canid predators on their streets. As one stunned Manhattanite put it, it's "the end of civilization." But these cities can adapt quickly if they just pay attention to the lessons that were learned over decades out West.
Los Angeles, with its now-estimated 5,000 urban coyotes, has switched from trying to move coyotes out of the city to advising city-dwellers on how to coexist with them — including scaring them off, installing outdoor lights, eliminating food sources, and keeping pets on leashes. Frankly, these are steps we have no choice but to take; the coyotes are not going away. They have been living among humans for 15,000 years. They are very good at it, and in places like Los Angeles they are getting smarter with every generation about surviving freeways and human weirdness.
The next task for the Golden State, our national mentor in human/coyote coexistence, is to learn to become nonchalant about coyotes' presence in our midst, maybe even enjoy it. As native animals of the continent long before us, the coyotes, for their part, seem to have no difficulties with this arrangement at all.
Dan Flores is the author of the new book "Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History."
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