'Coyote America' Honors An Animal Making North America Home For Centuries
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Our next guest believes America's true symbolic animal is not the bald eagle. It isn't even the buffalo. It's the coyote. Dan Flores is a historian of the American West. And he's written a book that can only be described as a coyote biography. The animal's been living near humans in North America for centuries. The name coyote itself goes back to the Aztecs. Now, culturally, the coyote has been a subject for Mark Twain, Walt Disney, even Saturday morning cartoons.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOONEY TUNES")
PAUL JULIAN: (As Road Runner) Beep beep.
GREENE: (Laughter) Politically, though, the coyote's been a hot button. There were campaigns to kill the coyote with guns, traps, poison for much of the 20th century and more recently, environmental movements to protect it. Today, one thing we can say about the coyote is - it's pretty visible, even on the East Coast. For freaked out city-dwellers, Dan Flores has some advice.
DAN FLORES: You have to get over the thought, to start with, that this is the end of civilization - that there is a coyote trotting down the street or maybe sitting in the seat across from you on the commuter train.
GREENE: Oh, yeah, just riding to work with you - yeah, that commuter train thing actually did happen. Now in his book "Coyote America," Flores explores the qualities that have allowed coyotes to survive, even thrive, in a changing landscape.
FLORES: Increasingly, they're becoming animals of the inner city. And they've developed - I mean, they're so intelligent - remarkably intelligent, I would say - and so easily adaptable and cosmopolitan in how they can live that they've figured out how to live, I mean, right in the midst of the loudest urban metroplexes in North America.
GREENE: You told this really unbelievably sort of charming tale of a coyote your friend encountered just a couple years ago. And it kind of speaks to the personality of the coyote. Can you remind me about that?
FLORES: Yes. This is a Navajo friend of mine. His story was, I think, one, as you said, that kind of captures the charm of the animal because he was given the task by the local Navajo chapter of taking out a coyote that they thought was a problem animal - that was chasing pets.
And he went out in his pickup with his rifle in the gun rack and one morning, sort of rounded a corner on a dirt road. And here is this coyote standing right in the middle of the road. So he's reaching for his rifle. And the coyote looks at him through the windshield of the truck and yawns at him. And at that point -
GREENE: (Laughter) I don't care about your gun. I'm not - whatever, dude.
FLORES: Indeed. He's able to recognize that there's not really a threat from this guy.
GREENE: That's amazing. I mean, the yawn - who knows if it was accidental or the coyote was sort of sending a message. But, I mean, they have the teeth and the jaws of a predator. As we know, they can eat dogs, cats. They've attacked pets. They live among us. I mean, should we be worried?
FLORES: Well, coyotes are basically small wolves. But like wolves, in fact, they don't really have humans as a template in their prey list. So you can get in trouble with coyotes, to be sure. If you habituate them and let them around you too closely - if you feed them, which is a disaster.
GREENE: Hmm. OK, good advice.
FLORES: One shouldn't - yes, one should never do anything like that. But there are only two records in American history of humans actually being killed by coyotes.
GREENE: Well, then why were they so hated and so hunted by people throughout the 20th century?
FLORES: Well, that's an interesting question. I think it had to do, for one thing, with no one bothering to conduct any science on the role that coyotes play in the natural world until really the 1930s. And the campaign to exterminate them - it really sort of began in the 19th century as part of the international fur trade when coyotes were being trapped in the West for the value of their pelts.
And then I think the livestock industry began to consider coyotes as sort of a junior wolf and therefore - besmirched with the reputation that wolves had as predators of livestock. I mean, as late as the 1970s, coyotes were actually ranked, in terms of American attitudes towards animals, at the very bottom of the list. That included things like cockroaches and rats.
GREENE: They were below cockroaches and rats? - like less popular than -
FLORES: They were below - yes.
GREENE: That's amazing.
FLORES: And it's really sort of the resurrection of wolves. When wolves become environmental media stars in the late 1970s and 1980s - that the reputation of coyotes begins to change. But there were a lot of factors that were playing a role. I mean, pop culture was one of them. Walt Disney changes attitudes about coyotes by producing six pro-coyote films in the 1960s.
GREENE: Very sympathetic - making them seem like - I mean, they're very relatable characters who are being, you know, under real threat.
FLORES: That's exactly right. I mean, and I was part of the generation that basically had my nature aesthetic shaped by sitting in front of the television and watching what amounted to the first nature documentaries that Walt Disney did. And of course, there was Wile E. Coyote, too, who managed to provide an appealing character for the public.
GREENE: You live in New Mexico outside Santa Fe, where I gather it's pretty common for you both to see and I guess, even more frequently, hear coyotes.
FLORES: Indeed so.
GREENE: What do they - I mean, I don't want to make you sort of make animal sounds or something. But, I mean, can you remind us what they sort of sound like?
FLORES: They have a sort of yodeling howl.
FLORES: I mean, it sounds - everyone is familiar with a wolf howl, obviously. And a coyote howl is similar to that. But it's higher pitched. And it often concludes in sort of a series of barks or yaps.
GREENE: Feel free to do it if you want to. I don't want to hold you back.
FLORES: Well, it's kind of a howl, as I said. It's kind of a woooo. But then they end with wer wer wer wer with a bunch of yaps and yodels at the end. People refer to it as - it's manic. It's idiotic. It's like they're losing their minds. It's like they're ventriloquists.
You can hear one of them. And he sounds or she sounds like they're 15 in a particular spot.
FLORES: So - and as I say in the book, I mean, my take on the coyote howl is that this is the original national anthem of North America.
FLORES: These animals have been howling this tribute to their love for being alive and being in America for more than a million years. And so I think we need to sort of pay homage to the fact that we've got an original national anthem. And it's provided by coyotes.
GREENE: Historian Dan Flores is author of the new book "Coyote America." Thanks so much.
FLORES: Thank you very much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.