Spanish Fork, Utah’s glass and steel reflected the red morning
light, sparkling like scattered rubies. On the other side of the
aircraft, under the rising sun, stretched a stark, dark contrast of
wilderness terrain. The pilot navigated over the narrow edge: the
interface of wilderness and humanity.
The slopes, rocky and rugged, stood too tall and steep to be
colonized by people, but the asphalt and concrete constructions
of humanity to the west were equally challenging to invasion by
wild animals. The view from the helicopter created the illusion that
the boundary of wilderness was as razor sharp and distinct as the
heights of the Wasatch.
If one looked closer, however, intrusions became evident; the
edge dulled and blurred. On a ridgeline, ski tracks ran down the
face. Figure eights wove in and out of an avalanche chute. The interlopers
had managed to dance down the virgin snowfield without
being swallowed by it.
Where humans broke trails in, animals loped their way out.
Coyotes enjoyed an advantage from the intrusion, as snowmobiles
created firm paths through the depths of Utah’s “greatest snow on
earth.” Paw prints on packed powder led to town, where dispersing
canids could find a snack of domestic house cat. Cougars followed
deer that were drawn to the rosebuds of lush suburbs. When the
bears awoke, they would find their way to apple trees on the edge of
town. The human-wildland interface below me wasn’t a razor-edge
solid border but a porous ecotone.
Our machine flew over moose—one, two, three. A mother
with her calf—four, five. Number six, reduced to a mat of hair and
jumble of bones, the hide chewed, processed, and defecated in adjacent
scats. This was the reason for our flight: reports of wolves
just outside of the suburban sprawl. We found a carcass, tracks, and
evidence, but no proof strong enough to identify true wolf from
feral dog or hybrid.
The southwest corner of wolf-range in Wyoming was barely
one hundred miles away, only a morning’s walk for a wolf. We did
not yet know if it was a jaunt or sortie, or if wolves had actually
reestablished themselves and bred in Utah, but the line between
humans and predators was blurring. It was long past time to ask the
question: Could or would we learn to live with mammalian predators
as close neighbors? Between past and future were a myriad of
Beginning in the 1600s, European settlers came to the New
World, bringing their God-given mandate to tame the wilderness.
In addition, they carried within them generations of myth, fear,
and violent reaction to predators such as the wolf. By the turn of
the twentieth century, agricultural heavy-handedness had imposed
nearly two hundred years of ecological emptiness, and expanses
of the American West had become devoid of top predators. We
had forgotten in a very deep way what it meant to have among us
animals that made their livings eating other sentient things. By the
1950s, largely through actions of federal trappers, we had killed off
nearly every wolf and grizzly bear in the contiguous United States
and had similarly decimated black bear, cougar, and even coyote
populations in some places.1
Soon after the time of the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, the
pendulum of public opinion swung back, carrying with it a crying
Indian, the Endangered Species Act, and Earth Day. In barely a
generation, many North Americans had developed a sense of environmentalism
and a depth of ecology that lacked such a concept as
“varmints” (except perhaps humans). They wanted coyotes, bears,
cougars, and wolves to exist. Even more, they wanted people to
stop killing them.
I was studying wildlife biology as the field grew rapidly and
diversified. The discipline had been utilitarian, hook-and-bullet, strictly about game management, but all of a sudden it was adding
elements of pure and deep ecology. As a graduate student in the
1990s, I captured, radio-collared, and followed coyotes because I
believed that studying predators would lead us on the path toward
coexistence. An MS, a PhD, and dozens of students and studies
later, I am still sorting out the paradox of desperately wanting to
conserve and increase populations of the animals that we spent so
much time and energy exterminating.
In North America, we think differently about predators than
we used to, especially on the burgeoning, suburbanizing coasts. It
puts us humans on a collision course with remaining and rebounding
populations of wolves, bears, cougars, and coyotes. The rapid
sprawl of civilization forces the issue: Is there anywhere else for
predators to go if they can’t live on humanity’s doorstep? Are there
options that would allow us to have carnivores in our kingdom
while we protect our livestock, property, and people? Finally, who
is going to jump in the fray between people and predators and end
“My God, they’re beautiful,” Lynne Gilbert-Norton gasped, seeing
a coyote for the first time.
The coyote was a few yards away, on the other side of a fence,
standing broadside to us. Its black-furred back faded to tan, then
brushed into the red that lined the outer edges of its pointed ears,
which flittered up like furry pyramids focusing sound. The yellow
fires of its eyes did not look away from Lynne in deference, but
peered back, insubordinately, into hers. Black lines, like Cleopatra’s
eyeliner, ran from their corners. Superfluously painted and defiant,
the coyote’s eyes had the duality of menace and allure.
Lynne, of the University of Exeter, had been sent to study something
uniquely American. She acknowledged that coyotes weren’t
animals normally studied by her colleagues and professors. “I’m a
psychologist, a Brit,” she said. “I read, but still don’t feel like I know
much about coyotes.”
“Hardly anyone sees a coyote close up like this,” I said. “Even
Americans.” I prodded, “So you’re lucky. The question is, What
are you going to do with them?”
The issue, of course, was much more complicated than my innocent
inquiry suggested. I was asking Lynne to find out how to
live with animals that have no qualms about eating our livestock,
our property, even us. How do we outsmart them on their own
playing field? I knew it was going to take more than one or two
biologists or a few grandfathers of conservation biology to find the
answers. It would also require an army of young diverse minds,
everyone from foreigners to farm boys.
More than a hundred coyotes responded to my question. Waves
of rapid ululations and high-pitched barks and yips filled the air.
Lynne froze, uncertain. It sounded like the home team had scored
in a nearby football stadium.
Above us stood nature’s castellation, the raw edges of the Bear
River Range. The United States had towering castles and cathedrals
as did England, but ours were geological. Everywhere the
new world collided with the ancient. The road leading to our location
weaved between fields, one flooded with water and whitefaced
ibis, others yielding young stalks of corn. An inconspicuous
blue and white sign marked state property, “Utah State University
Millville Wildlife Research Center,” alongside a humble plaque
reading, “United States Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services,
Predator Research Facility,” indicating the collaborative federal
pens and buildings sharing the land.
The Predator Research Facility was crammed between rugged
desert and high country mountaintops, between the fantasy of apple
pie America and the reality of the abattoirs of the nearby town
of Hyrum, Utah. It was wedged between university professors’
tentative search for truth and Utah’s religious roots in dominating
nature and demanding that the desert bloom. For Lynne and her
fellow students, it was also the base camp for a journey. She had no
idea of the significance of the research that she’d signed up for, or
how a simple little predator would change her life.
Charismatic song dogs to some, vile varmints to others, the coyote
is our most widespread North American meat eater. Typically
considered the second-class cousin to the wolf, coyotes were confined
to the American southwest at the time of European arrival. As hedgerows, irrigation, crops, and humans displaced the larger and
less compromising wolf, coyotes filled the void. Seizing the opportunity,
they became a continental predator, and are currently found
from Central America to Alaska.2 Today, coyotes are seen, or their
effects felt, by citizens of every state except Hawaii. Drawn by both
cat food and cats as food, they are literally at our kitchen doors.3
Varying in form and habit across their range, coyotes as a species
seem infinitely adaptable, at home in cities, towns, tall mountains,
and open deserts. They tend to be smaller in the southern
part of their range, weighing perhaps twenty pounds as adults,
and larger in the north, nearing forty pounds. The animal known
as the eastern coyote is the giant of the species, sometimes weighing
more than fifty pounds, rivaling the size of a well-fed German
In Native American traditions dating back to the Aztecs, the
coyote has been assigned a variety of personalities and responsibilities.
From a creator of the earth, to mischief maker, to utter fool,
he is the Native American Robin Goodfellow, and his spirit and
symbolism are equally protean. Even within the pantheon of the
Aztecs, the coyote had many faces. Tezcatlipoca would transform
himself into a coyote and trot ahead to warn travelers of robbers or
other dangers in front of them. In contrast, Huehuecoyotl, the Old
Coyote, was a nefarious mischief-maker.5
Farther to the north, Native American tribes had similar impressions
of the coyote: godlike in cunning, but with a humanlike
sense of morality. The demigod of coyote was said to be responsible
for the presence of fish in the Klamath River and for giving the
bison, with a kick of dust, its poor eyesight. The coyote brought
fire to the people as the Native American Prometheus, but he was
also their Azrael, bringing death. When the just and worthy died,
their souls went to a good place, but the wicked were reborn into
The legends, much like the animal, changed with the arrival
of newcomers. The Spanish adopted the Aztec word, coyotl, which
morphed over time, the final “l” becoming an “e.” Subtle changes
of meaning crept in. In Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Kino and Juana’s only
son is named Coyotito, little coyote, and in the Spanish of the time
the term referred to the last child produced by a family, magnifying the tragedy of his demise.7 The coyote of today’s Mexican vernacular
is a shady character who smuggles people across the desert. The
coyote operates in both shadow and light: it is never entirely clear
whether he is beneficent or malevolent.
The folklore accurately assesses the scrappy, multifaceted essence
of the biological coyote as well. Coyotes sometimes live in
packs and drag down large prey, but other times they subsist solitarily
on field mice. The coyote is a character; even to the shortsleeved,
white button-down-shirted statisticians of the National
Agricultural Statistics Service. Yearly reports estimate that coyotes
are responsible for 60.5 percent of all sheep losses to predation,
representing an estimated $18.3 million in total losses.8 Stemming
from a long and antagonistic history, the tongue-in-cheek advertisement
“Eat lamb—20,000 coyotes can’t be wrong,” continues to
grace the bumpers of many pickup trucks in the American West.
The object of many a coyote’s appetitive affections is the domestic
sheep, a dumbed down version of the mouflon, which resembles
the bighorn of North America. Our sheep originated in
Mesopotamia 11,000 years ago, near the confluence of the Tigris
and Euphrates.9 By 1000 AD, Spain was a major player in sheep
production. It was only natural for the beasts, which even sailed
with Columbus, to expand across the American West. Predatory
defenses are largely nonexistent in the domestic sheep. They are
awkward and slow, like wooly dinner with hooves. As biologists often
put it, “Sheep are born. Then they spend the rest of their lives
looking for a place to die.”
Domestic sheep, especially lambs, are not much of a challenge
for a coyote, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the closely
related golden jackal, which would have eaten the domestic sheep’s
ancestors on the Arabian Peninsula. The ongoing battle between
humans and predators started even before our religious divisions
did. Over the ages, fear and loathing of all predators has become as
natural to us as growing food has.
Ironically, the urban population centers of the coasts have tended
to be blissfully unaware of the deep-seated resentment and conflict
on the rural prairies. Until recently, only livestock producers felt the majority of the economic and emotional impact of the pesky
predator. Although coyotes may now have a certain symbolism and
mysticism for newcomers to the West, management in rural areas
has been a long, intensive, and passionate tradition, inherited
through generations, like a hundred-years’ war.
And a war it has been. As sheep production in the United
States was peaking in the 1940s, demobilization caused a surplus of
military-trained pilots with the skill, fortitude, and willingness to
fly at low levels. It is expected that the technological advances of
war would be incorporated into other elements of life. Armed with
shotguns and hanging out the back of a Piper Cub, hunters could
experience the thrill of the chase while minimizing the danger of
low-level flying. At least no one was shooting back.
Aerial hunting, as it is called, remains a zealously embraced tool
of Wildlife Services, the branch of the United States Department
of Agriculture that has stepped up to control our interstate predators.
Critics often refer to it as “aerial gunning,” because raining
bullets from the sky onto coyotes caught in the middle of a vast
snowfield doesn’t sound like hunting. Body counts can be phenomenal;
from 2001 to 2007, a total of 252,713 animals were taken
from the air. Of those, coyotes accounted for a majority, 210,306.10
The agency’s summary from 2008 reported that 50,846 animals
were lethally removed from sixteen states using fixed wing aircraft
(30,537 animals) and helicopters (20,309). Coyotes were the most
numerous of the species taken, with a death toll of 36,454, but the
total included wolves (444), red fox (140), feral hogs (13,620), and
The technology gives the impression of ease, but even so there
is an art to the method, which relies on more than eagle-eyed pilots
and steady gunners. Crews wait for snow. Coyotes contrast
with the white landscape, which makes them possible to spot from
long distances. They can’t escape the evidence of their tracks. Once
they have been spotted, air strikes commence. Today, coyotes are
hunted from the air in twenty-eight states using seventy-four aircraft.
Because chases occur at very low altitudes and at near-stall
speeds, the practice is dangerous for humans. Thirty-six accidents,
causing ten fatalities, occurred between 1979 and 2007.12
The use of aerial hunting grew after President Nixon, possibly the most environmental of all US presidents, banned the use
of toxicants on public ranges in 1972.13 Before Nixon, wide-scale
use of baits and carcasses laced with Compound 1080 or strychnine
made it possible to kill far more coyotes (as well as any other
scavenging species) across large swaths of landscape. During the
1950s, although coyotes were ranging east and north, the animals
were extirpated from the Edwards Plateau of Texas, and the use of
widely distributed indiscriminate poisons made it possible to keep
them out. When the ban was instituted, Animal Damage Control
(as Wildlife Services was known then) state directors panicked, but
in short order they found other technologies, such as airplanes, that
kept the body counts high.
As in all wars, new technologies enable killing with increased efficiency
and brutality, so it was natural that our zest for conquering
each other would spill over to affect other species. It wasn’t anything
new in North American attitude or thought. Wolves had long
been targeted for extermination—and results achieved—in the old
country. Even with the limited tools of earlier times, humans had
eliminated wolves from Scotland by 1684, Ireland by 1770, Denmark
by 1772, and Bavaria, Poland, and France by 1847, 1900, and
After the Civil War, the US government had new tools of destruction
and newfound strength in its federal bureaucracy. Great
federal juggernauts often have humble beginnings, and our current
system of predator control was not created in a day.15 In 1886, the
USDA created the Branch of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy
when scientists concluded something more than scarecrows
was needed to reduce bird damage. In a foreshadowing of
the technique of reinvention that the agency would use to grow—
or survive—the name was changed four years later to the Division
of Ornithology and Mammalogy. This became the Division
of Biological Survey in 1896, then the Bureau of Biological Survey
in 1905. Its mission crept accordingly, with rodent control added
to the list of responsibilities in 1913. With a humble budget of
$125,000 in 1915, predator control began. This agency of singular
purpose, but fickleness of name, became the Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control (PARC) in 1924. Long before current
euphemisms were created, the Eradication Methods Laboratory
was established in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1920. However,
the year that heralds the transition from mission creep to federal
takeover of state management of predators was 1931, with passage
of the Animal Damage Control Act.
Could the act’s framers have known how the federal stake in
predator management would grow? Typically, in accordance with
the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution, powers not dictated
to the federal government are reserved by individual states. Thus,
most wildlife such as deer, elk, rabbits, beavers, and all manner of
furbearers and other species are managed exclusively by each state,
while interstate and international peregrinations of birds came under
federal control through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, justified
under the Constitution’s commerce clause. Likewise with the
Endangered Species Act. The oldest, richest, and most powerful
of federal agencies intruding into states’ sovereignty over wildlife,
however, remains the one created in 1931 solely to kill animals. It
is now known as Wildlife Services.
Name changes, bureaucratic jockeying, and growth continued
through the years, but as a spiritus mundi of environmental concern
developed, so did controversy over systematic, governmentsponsored
destruction of wildlife. A panel formed in 1963 examined
rodent and predator control activities. Its findings make up
the Leopold Report, coauthored by A. Starker Leopold, son of the
famous father of wildlife management, Aldo Leopold.16 The panel
strongly criticized the predator control activities of what had come
to be known as the Section of Predator and Rodent Control. The
agency ducked, dodged, and renamed itself Wildlife Services (for
the first time) but pursued little fundamental change in its activities.
The next notable investigation into the agency culminated in the
Cain Report in 1972.17 It made a number of recommendations, including
this: “All existing toxic chemicals should be removed from
registration and use for Federal operational predator control,” and
this: “Federal and state legislation should make the shooting from
aircraft of wildlife, including predators and game animals, illegal
except under exceptional circumstances.” In response, the agency
changed its name again, in 1974 acquiring the black-hat appellation representing all that is evil to modern day predator advocates:
Animal Damage Control, or ADC.
Everyone agreed that it was not a good fit. The agency that
was sworn to kill predators was housed within the Fish and Wildlife
Service, which administered the oppositely envisioned Endangered
Species Act. Irreconcilable differences were acknowledged,
and by 1985 ADC was transferred back to the US Department of
Agriculture under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
(APHIS), an agency better known for veterinarians who inspect the
meat supply, and for officials who enforce the Animal Welfare Act.
The retransformation was complete in 1997, when the agency once
again became Wildlife Services—drawing cynical criticism that it
was simply trying to shrug off the bad press of previous decades by
changing its letterhead instead of its activities.
Predator management in the United States primarily means flying
helicopters, setting cyanide ejectors, hiding traps, and using ambush
and sniper tactics to slay animals. Indeed, the longest war carried
out by the US government, beginning with a federal appropriation
in 1914, is our war with our mammalian predators. The death toll
is tremendous: 84,584 wolves, coyotes, bears, and lions were terminated
by the Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, in 2011
alone.18 At 365, wolf deaths amounted to exactly one wolf a day for
the year. Including raccoons, ungulates, birds, and all other species,
a total of 3,779,024 animals were killed in 2011, according to
the agency’s tabulation.19 That was a slow year; 4,997,172 animals
were killed in 2008, and 4,120,295 in 2009.20 With such numbing
casualty figures, modern predator management looks like a war not
only with predators, but one with nature itself.
The list of species and species assemblages killed (intentionally
or not) by agents is several pages long and includes many innocents
and questionable species, such as the American avocet, whitewinged
dove, eastern bluebird, rustic bunting, northern cardinal,
harlequin duck, Say’s phoebe, desert cottontail rabbit, gopher
snake, tundra swan, and downy woodpecker. It is 326 entries long
In a war, there will be collateral damage.
Coyotes, for their part, are just doing what is natural for them.
They seek places to make a living and raise their young. They always
have more pups than will survive so that when there is a death,
and a slot opens, there will be another animal there to fill it. If there
is enough food and space, their numbers swell exponentially. With
an average of six pups per breeding pair each year, coyotes have
prodigious reproductive potential. Two have six. Two years later,
each female could produce six more. Six, times six, times six. Modeling
the potential growth of a coyote population is awe-inspiring.
The first population models calculated in the 1970s by USDA
biologist Guy Connolly, and since rerun and revised with equivalent
results, show the species’ Lazarus-like ability to rebound from
massive killings. Connolly’s calculations indicate that more than 70
percent of coyotes have to be removed from an area every year for
several years to bring about population reduction.21
Like rats, cheat-grass, kudzu, raccoons, white-tailed deer, ragweed,
and Russian thistle, coyotes generate a yearly overabundance
of replacements. This list of the earth’s expanding species, the reproductive
overachievers, is collectively assigned the appellation
“weed species” by keen observers such as David Quammen.22 The
species are called weeds, of course, because they pop up like dandelion
heads in what we want to be a maintenance-free Garden of
Eden. Where are humans in the list? Our long lives and reproductive
ability is astounding. From 1990 to 2000, the United States
population grew by 32.7 million, a whopping 13.2 percent in ten
years.23 We are not that different from coyotes.
The term “weed,” or its animal equivalent “varmint,” begs the
questions: Is nature supposed to be an even lawn without competition
and variation? Are humans different than other animals
and rightfully set apart from nature? Who should be expected to
altruistically forgo reproduction, limit their range and not alter the
environment to suit themselves and their progeny? Is one worse
than the other—a pregnant woman painting a nursery or a coyote
digging a den?
How different people approach or answer those questions tells
a lot about how widely fundamental human values can differ. Some people would be offended that the questions are even posed. Others
are smugly confident in their own reply. Some are entrenched
on one side or the other, but many struggle on the uncertain noman’s-
Ghostly mist hung over the lowest flats of Utah’s Cache Valley.
It condensed on long-dormant stalks of flowers that had become
dried packets of hopeful seeds. A white van with government license
plates emerged and passed through the gates of the Predator
Research Facility. The van swung left, parking in front of the terracotta
and gray cinder block office building.
Driven by the dean of Utah State University’s College of Natural
Resources, the van was filled with congressional staff from
Washington, DC. The dean had the notion that if the aides saw
the potential and need for such a facility, Senator Hatch would
too, and federal funds would result. The staffers pressed their faces
against the van’s glass like schoolchildren, expectant breath steaming
the windows as they studied the moonlike landscape, the air
colder than ice, the snow as dry as dust. The low sun, straining to
rise over the Bear River Range, drew long, contrasting shadows on
what moments before was only white on white. The air was so clear
that it hurt to look into the distance, and the sky above the mist
was infinity blue. Wearing suits and ties or black business slacks or
skirts, staffers piled out of the side door, pushing and bumping off
each other. Their breath steamed in the cold air, but no one spoke.
They formed a line, fidgeting with phones in their pockets but
leaving them hidden. They focused instead on the white-capped
mountains that hovered above the fog.
Dean Fee Busby slammed the van door and a wail emanated
from the mist to the east. At the sound, the great power-brokers
stopped in place, mouths open, eyes darting. The senator’s staff,
frozen like statues, had to be thawed, prodded, and herded into the
building so the tour could begin.
The Predator Research Facility was the brainchild of Dr. Fred
Knowlton, known to many biologists from the 1970s to the ’90s
as “Mr. Coyote.” Fred received his PhD in 1964, and in 1972 was
assigned to what was then the Denver Wildlife Research Center’s collaborative field station at Utah State University. In 1973 he
spied one hundred acres of land, only five miles from the university,
where he could construct observation buildings, kennels, and labs.
There was little money to build, but Fred was exceedingly frugal
and clever as a coyote in bringing his dream to life. He was able
to build an impressive facility with very little money. The downside
of this approach: he built a large facility using very little money. He
had applied the labor of biologists using miles of surplus scrap rods
to create eight-foot ersatz fence posts. Stenciled lettering on tractors
and the presence of a Korean War–vintage road grader indicated
the equipment had previous lives as property of Hill Air Force
Base. Nothing was thrown away. What was considered a “mound
of junk” by research biologists and students was a “resource pile”
to Fred. An even modest injection of funds could greatly improve
After introductions and an overview of the facility, Senator
Hatch’s staff piled back into the van, where the station leader
kneeled backward in the front passenger seat and pointed out features
of the facility, as if he were giving a tour of homes of the rich
and famous. All eyes were glued to the windows, no texts were read
“There is nothing like it anywhere,” the station leader spouted
enthusiastically. “What we have here is a full staff—the best staff
that has ever been assembled in the history of the planet—all dedicated
to learning about predators. We have students that come here
from all over the world. We are developing methods that will help
resolve conflicts between humans and predators. We are trying to
help people, but if we do it right, we will help coyotes too. And not
only coyotes . . . wolves, bears, cougars . . . all predators.”
“Will coyotes—I mean, if you don’t do anything—go extinct?”
a staffer asked innocently. The others shuffled in their seats. Some
nodded, some cocked their heads inquisitively.
“No,” he chuckled. “In fact, coyotes are probably one of the
most successful carnivores out there. They live everywhere from
South America up through Alaska. They’ll be here long after humans
probably.” He turned to the driver, the dean, and whispered
and pointed directions. They drove through a trench; snow was
plowed a few feet high on either side of the sandy road.
Another staffer stated more confidently, “I read that most of the
problem is because we are moving into their homes.”
“Hmmmm.” He considered the point carefully. “In part, maybe.
But we are also inviting them into ours. This valley would be
a dry-grass desert if it weren’t for people.” There were trees everywhere.
In summer, Cache Valley is a lush Eden of orchards and
farm fields. “We irrigate, plant crops and trees that provide cover
and food for deer and rodents and rabbits. That attracts coyotes.
What we do makes life better for us, but it also ends up making life
better for coyotes. That’s why they are turning up in cities, Central
Park. We aren’t just invading nature, these guys are bringing nature
to us. Our job is to figure out what to do about it.”
Indeed, the significance of human action on the landscape is
much greater than just the point-source plopping down of a house.
Humans create a plethora of food, cover, and habitat. It is difficult
to think of the American West in a nascent, pristine state, without
the human touch. We divert streams and rivers to lower the peaks
of spring floods and to dribble water through the droughts of fall.
Our garbage, bird feeders, and pet food bowls sustain the lowest
rungs on the food ladder. What one species does on the landscape
can alter the entire composition of the plant and animal communities
there: after we build the prey base, the predators come.
Bears sleep under decks in the Lake Tahoe area and coyotes stroll
across parks in urban Chicago. Cougars follow deer that invaded to
browse on rose hips and wolves lope through calving pastures.
The packed van weaved through curves, passing near pens.
Some coyotes, fluffy and comfortable in the cold, rested calmly on
their shade shelters. They curled up on the meter-high tables with
their tails brushed over their snouts. A few raised one eyelid and
then went back to sleep. Others were already wide awake, running
the length of the fence silently, not barking as a dog would, despite
their Latin name, Canis latrans, meaning “barking dog.” A few
stalked the vehicle intently, as if they were following blind bison
across the valley. Some pranced at the edge of the fence and raised
their snouts and sniffed at the air. Still others backed away to the
point in their pen most distant from the access road and huddled,
concealed in a long shadow, eyeing the visitors diffidently.
The van swept along a two-mile loop as the station leader pointed to a broken bit of fence here, or noted the dream of a new
and better captive-animal habitat there, until they arrived again at
the main office parking lot. Staffers poured out and followed the
station leader into the shop section of the lab building.
Displayed prominently on the back wall were dozens of medieval-
looking capture devices, beefy metal springs and unfathomable
mechanisms with ruthless jaws. Everyone winced, imagining
the horrors of the hardware as if they had stepped into Torquemada’s
“You get the point,” the station leader said as he stopped in
front of the wall. “This is the state of the art of wildlife management
right now. Centuries-old technology.”
He pulled a coyote trap off of the wall. “Here.”
He nonchalantly cocked the mechanism and placed it on the
bench before them. “This is just the beginning,” he said calmly,
then pressed the round pan down with his hand. The jaws slammed
shut on his fingers. Those in the front row jumped. One person
squeaked like a mouse and nearly dropped her clipboard.
The guide continued calmly: “What I mean is, compare this
type of trap with older kinds.” He held up the cold metal; it was
firmly clamped around his fingers. “There are padded jaws here,”
he said, pointing with his free hand, drawing his finger across the
edge of the jaws. “Coil springs, an offset—a gap—in the jaws, so
there is actually pressure, but room for my fingers or an animal’s
toes.” He lowered the trap to the floor and used the balls of his feet
to press two levers and release the tension on the springs. “Short
chain with a shock-absorber, a swivel here. Trust me, I wouldn’t put
my hand in some of those bad boys.” He nodded toward the wall,
where six-inch-wide toothed jaws and monstrous springs dangled
menacingly on the pegboard. “We can do better with the technology
They continued their inspection, stopping at a poster with three
sections of text accompanied by pictures on glossy four-by-five foot
paper. The title read “Alternative Methods and Non-Lethal Techniques
for Managing Predation.” Faces of wolves and bears appeared
between the blocks of text. Photos showed what looked like
red flags from the lot of a car dealership strung in front of a fence
line, presumably to frighten wolves away from cows.
“Look.” He palmed the front of the poster, lowering his voice.
A few in the front row studied his fingers for evidence of trap damage,
but saw none. “Every convenience store has motion sensors
and automatically opening doors. There are security cameras and
laser scanners and data systems. We aren’t talking rocket science
here. We just want to advance the science past the fallback position
of metal springs and gunpowder.”
“Time,” the dean said, looking up from the itinerary. “Thank
you for showing us around this amazing place.” There was applause,
handshaking, and an expressed wish among the hosts that
the visit would result in increased funding for the university and
The visitors left the building and dispersed around the lot.
Cameras came out, staffers dashed in every direction. They took
photos of the coyote statue at the gate, the mountains in the distance,
and the station leader standing in the deep, soft snow, fluffy
and pure. “Thanks for making the trip,” he said. On cue, nearly one
hundred coyotes raised their voices in wild harmony, sending the
staffers off with the song of the West ringing in their ears.
Lynne Gilbert-Norton knew little of American politics, senators,
and funding, and had a short time to learn. She certainly hadn’t
paid attention to the tours and other such goings-on at the Predator
Research Facility. Dutifully, she focused on the questions at
hand. First, she had to survive in a foreign culture. The locals spoke
a sort of English, but that was where the similarity stopped.
“What I’d give for just the bog-standard Tetley, the little round
ones,” she pined, unprepared for American ignorance about tea.
“And microwaves to boil water in? Ludicrous. One needs a proper
kettle to make tea.”
These were minor annoyances. She knew the focus needed to
be on organizing the few months she would have to complete the
required amount of research for her MS from the University of
Exeter. Great minds had been studying coyotes for years, but so
many questions remained: How do you know when a coyote will
act on hunger or curiosity, or retreat in fear? How could that fear
be harnessed to keep coyotes from attacking sheep? How was a young psychologist, who had never seen a coyote before, supposed
to figure it out?
Delays were frustrating. New pens were being constructed, and
there was an ever-present need to assist the animal-care staff. The
station buzzed with activity and interpersonal strife. The staff demanded
her help in caring for the animals and cleaning and raking.
An overwhelming number of duties and ideas pulled at her. Lynne’s
advisors in England had cast her across the Atlantic and left it up
to her. A month into her placement, she had nothing to show but
a vague plan of action. The PhD station leader rapidly fired questions
and suggestions, but Lynne didn’t know which ones to catch,
ride, or duck from.
Somewhere in the middle of the coyote pen before her, between
a few clumps of high grass, were buckets that needed removing.
Graduate students were at the bottom of the staff food chain, so it
was pointless to make an argument about being sent on the errand.
She also didn’t want to get on the bad side of the facility manager,
a woman who had a reputation for terrorizing newcomers.
Lynne felt particularly in the gunsights, probably because she was a
Lynne worried that she had a hell of a lot to accomplish, as she
kicked away the stones on the threshold. Having no choice, she
unchained the pen’s gate and twisted up on the rod that anchored it
into the concrete slab at the base. She swung the door wide.
Sighing, Lynne rested her arm on a crossbar and looked into
the two-and-a-half acre, wedge-shaped pen before her. Supposedly
there were two coyotes somewhere in the tall grass. She paused,
turned, and huffed before stepping back out of the pen to get a pin
stick, an implement a little over a yard long fashioned from onequarter-
inch reinforcement bar. It had a curled handle on one end
and a Y-shaped split at the other. The forked end was wrapped with
multiple layers of electrical tape as padding. Lynne had watched
staff corner coyotes before, then use the aptly named device to
press the animal to the ground by its neck. Once the coyote was
pinned, the brave technician would ease his hand behind its head
and grip fast, pulling the skin so tightly away from its snout that the
animal was forced to smile. Having heard war stories of handling
gone awry—the bites on the nose, the scars on arms—Lynne had sworn off any such risky activity, but she figured the pin stick was
bad mojo to a coyote and a useful symbol of authority in a pen.
They were predators, but she was human—the boss. They had to
Two coyotes materialized about one hundred yards from her.
Having found a vantage point, they stood and stared, showing a
keen interest in the invader’s activities.
Her back to the exit, Lynne walked into the pen, cutting the
corner and angling toward the west side of the enclosure. Swinging
the pin stick next to her, she decidedly put one foot in front of the
She strolled down the fence line and considered the contrast
between this place and Devon, England. Here there was dry air
and deep blue sky, and mountains rose before and behind her. The
other students said that they felt like expatriates in Utah, too.
The government, they told her, was dominated and run unabashedly
by members of the Mormon faith known chiefly for its members’
aversion to alcohol and coffee. People were all so different.
She tapped the link of the fence with the end of the pin stick and
stared at the ground as she walked.
The pen was a little more than 160 yards long and 125 yards
across at the wide end. Its narrow apex terminated under an observation
building, a brown half-octagon on stilts with windows that
protruded, like the bridge of a fishing trawler. She recalled her first,
swooning view of coyotes from the building. She hadn’t been able
to stop smiling, dizzy from the structure’s sway in the gentle wind.
The pair of coyotes had beaten a wide, flat swath into the vegetation
at the base of the fence, and she followed the trail. She was
one-third of the way into the pen when the coyotes, without taking
their eyes from her, loped toward the curve of the far end of the
enclosure. They positioned themselves between her and the gate.
Lynne continued walking, staring at her feet and musing. She balanced
the pin stick on her shoulder, letting it bounce as her legs
swung along the path. Covered in a mix of fallow alfalfa, grasses,
and weeds, the Utah landscape was raw, feral.
The female coyote sniffed and pawed at the gate while the male
hesitated diffidently behind his mate. Trotting toward the pen’s
edge, the female coyote stopped short of Lynne’s footprints, as if the animal had hit the end of an invisible tether. The coyote
swung her nose around; her body and tail followed it. She sniffed
the ground, pawed at it, then squatted and urinated on a footprint.
Lynne, in the distance, eyes fixed on the ground in front of
her, continued walking toward the middle of the pen. The coyotes
trotted along the trail behind her, closing the distance. The male
weaved along the path behind his advancing mate as if he were
knitting a noose.
There was a growling, then—
Lynne heard two puffs, like breaths that escape when a person is
punched in the stomach. She looked up, again present in time and
place. Turning toward the sound, she saw the female coyote, only
a few feet away, its head down, legs cocked as if ready to pounce.
People and predators don’t live in simplified landscapes, even
though human-impacted lands can appear pedestrian to the inured
human eye. Our manicured sprawl is not so simple. It is actually a
megalopolis of micro-habitats that create homes for rabbits, rats,
mice, gophers, squirrels, and deer—thus spreading a tablecloth
upon which mammalian predators can dine. Our ordinances and
our affluence, combined with a longing for the greenness of idealized
nature, create lushness between buildings. At a minimum,
the greenways serve as sidewalks for coyotes, but they also provide
them a peaceful, permanent home. Coyotes sleep undetected under
shrubs in parks and backyards and know that city pickup trucks
ambling by do not have varmint rifles at the ready, slung along rear
Eric Gese, a researcher working for Wildlife Services, recounts
observations of coyotes in Chicago: “We knew they were there because
we had radio collars on them. It was incredible. All the people
going by that had no idea.”24 The clever coyotes hid in plain sight,
invisible to the thousands of people around them. “They’d wait until
it was safe to cross the road. After the cars went by, they dashed
across.” (Another incarnation of the coyote: they’re also ninjas.)
Given time and numbers, however, coyotes and their activities
will not remain invisible. Researchers found that coyotes in Claremont, California, relied heavily on human pets as a food source in
the winter and spring. Malibu’s glitter may as well be the Serengeti
for house cats, as their remains were found in 13.6 percent of coyote
scats there.25 One particularly clever pack of coyotes used a feral
cat colony in Southern California first as a food source and then,
after they had killed most of the cats, learned to satisfy themselves
with cat food placed out for the felids by resident cat lovers. It may
be a stretch to suggest, yet it is important not to underestimate
the intelligence of carnivores: they may have reasoned that keeping
one or two cats alive kept the food coming, like having a predictable
egg a day instead of one final feast on the hen.
When coyotes and people occupy the same suburban corridors,
an amplification of interaction is expected. Complaints of coyote
attacks and predation on pets in suburban California reported to
the US Department of Agriculture had increased from 17 to 281
incidents from 1991 to 2003. Over time, this works out to about a
30 percent increase per year, an exponential trajectory that dwarfs
the stock market’s best. The Vancouver Ministry of Environment,
Lands, and Parks documented a 315 percent increase in coyote
complaints during a ten year span ending in 1995. In Texas, reports
of coyote attacks on pets rose more than four-fold for the decade
ending in 2003.26
Given time, some coyotes will observe, learn and test the primates
around them, especially young humans with the size, but not
the speed, of a lamb. Between 1978 and 2003, there were eightynine
coyote attacks on people in California. In seventy-seven of
those reports, coyotes stalked children, chased individuals, or aggressively
threatened adults. In about half of the reports, serious
or fatal injury was thought likely if the child had not been rescued.
Documented attacks occur not only within the historic range of
the coyote in the southwest United States: a promising nineteenyear-
old Canadian folk singer was killed by coyotes as she hiked on
a popular Nova Scotia trail in late 2009.27
Up to this point, Lynne had very much enjoyed the predators she
was studying. Now, however, two of her subjects were considering
The pen’s exit was well over one hundred yards away. Blocking
the path was a crouched and growling female coyote. Between the
female and the gate was an enthusiastic male, dancing about like a
drunken reveler waiting for the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night.
Lynne felt queasiness in her stomach and dryness in her mouth as
she summoned the gumption to bark at them. She raised the pin
stick and pointed it at the closest coyote, trying to appear intimidating:
“Get away. Get away!”
The female coyote held her ground and stared at the pin stick,
unimpressed. The male’s excitement increased. He swooped behind
the female, trying to position Lynne between himself and his
mate. “I said go!” Lynne yelled. The coyotes dodged and darted,
increasingly animated, as her voice quavered.
Lynne raised the stick again, still trying to be menacing, and
the female darted toward it, biting and tearing at its padding. The
more Lynne shouted, the quicker the animals paced and sniffed the
air. Were they scoffing at the smell of fear? Lynne positioned her
back against the fence. They couldn’t get behind her, but she had
to keep the stick up and pointed at the female, who continued to
dart and bite at its edges. Lynne kept her eyes on the coyotes, afraid
to look down. This slowed her progress over the uneven ground as
she began to inch back toward the gate.
Lynne moved. The coyotes repositioned. The dance continued
until she reached the exit. Extending the thin iron of the pin stick
with her right hand, she felt for the latch with her left, slid the clasp
up. Cracking the gate, she stepped out of the pen and closed the
door, sliding the pin stick out at the last second. Fastening a carabineer,
she was safe. The coyotes loped back into the interior of the
pen and disappeared into the vegetation.
Lynne’s hands began to shake. She dropped the pin stick, fell to
her knees, and began to sob.
“They can get their own bloody crap out of that pen.”
Excerpted from The Predator Paradox by John Shivik. Copyright © 2014 by John Shivik. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.