Coyote Consciousness

Posted on in Healthy Living by Dan Flores

Historical Lessons for
Coexisting with the Canid


In 1900 an ambitious nature writer named Ernest Thompson-Seton wrote one of the most intriguing stories ever penned about coyotes—no faint praise since his subject has inspired thousands of them. It was called “Tito: The Story of the Coyote That Learned How” and was the lead piece in the August Scribner’s that year. Like many of the Indian coyote stories folklorists were then starting to collect, “Tito” took on an observable truth and tried to explain it.

That “truth” was a widespread puzzlement about coyotes that begged the question, Why weren’t they doing the proper thing and dying off? Americans at the turn of the 20th century were hip-deep in the largest destruction of wildlife in modern world history. Thirty million bison were all but gone. So were 15 million pronghorn antelope. We had so devastated elk, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears that they were surviving only as tiny remnants that had fled into the mountains. Three million wild horses were on the verge of becoming pet food. By 1920 we had poisoned to death half a million gray wolves. By the time Seton wrote “Tito,” the most numerous bird species on earth, the American passenger pigeon, had but a decade of existence left.

And yet, as the Scribner’s article put it, despite the “fierce war” that “had for a long time been waged against the coyote kind,” for some inexplicable reason coyotes were not following suit. Indeed, the more we shot them, poisoned them, trapped them, ran them down with dogs, blew up their dens, the more there seemed to be.

To offer an explanation, Seton invented Tito, a little female coyote captured as a pup and chained in a ranch yard as a curiosity, where she shrewdly observed how her human captors used guns, traps, dogs, and poisons against her kin. Ultimately she escaped, found a mate, had pups of her own. . . . and then proceeded to teach her pups and “their children’s children” all the tricks of coyote extermination. Seton’s human analog?—Moses, of course. Moses grew up among the Egyptians and learned their plans, enabling him to save the Israelites from destruction.


Seton’s “Tito” proved a charming allegorical story, and if you weren’t a sheepman or a government predator hunter, it was fun to imagine it might be true. But in 1900 coyotes really were becoming more numerous. They were also spreading out of the West and starting to show up in cities, first in arid Southwestern ones like Los Angeles and eventually in urban jungles as far flung as Denver, Chicago, and New York, as they are now in North Coast towns like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. It turned out the coyote puzzle Seton tried to resolve with “Tito” was going to require figuring out a hell of a lot more of the coyote biography than was previously known. What a biography that turned out to be!

When we humans got to North America 15,000 years ago, coyotes greeted us at the front door. The Canidae family – it produced not just wolves, jackals, and coyotes but eventually your pup at home – is a 5-million-yearold family of indigenous American animals. Jackals, gray wolves, and others did eventually migrate across the land bridges into the Old World, gray wolf ancestors in particular colonizing most of the planet before returning to America about 30,000 years ago. Coyotes, however, never left, and by 800,000 years ago were evolving into their modern form as a medium-sized jackal-like wolf. If you want to understand what it’s like to be a true native of North America, study the canid that never left. It’s been yipping and howling the original national anthem across the continent for nearly a million years.

When humans wandering out of Africa and across Asia finally made it to North America, they confronted a massive die-off oddly similar to the one Seton invoked in Scribner’s. Mammoths, camels, horses, lions all were disappearing. But a particular survivor of that crash caught the attention of these first Americans, and soon they started thinking of it as an avatar—a stand-in for humans in the imagination. In the stories they began telling about him, Coyote emerged as one of America’s oldest gods, a deity responsible for creating the terrain and rivers of North America and also as the main character in our oldest literature. For some people, like the Karuks, he invented fire. In stories from the Yanas and others, it was Coyote who famously introduced death into the world. Coyote is Old Man America, a god out of the continent’s Paleolithic past.

Coyote was an avatar of survival in the human imagination. He stood upright on two legs and had arms and hands, though he brandished a tail and a wolfish head. He was also the personification of the full suite of humanity’s traits. On one hand he was admirable, inspirational, imaginative, energetic, a whirlwind of biophysical force with an outsized capacity for taking sensuous pleasure in life. But Coyote was also selfish, vain, narcissistic—and deceitful, envious, lustful, ridiculous. Crucially he was possessed of an overconfidence that got him into endless fixes. The stories about him survived thousands of years because, frankly, they were potent, often comic shout-outs to human nature.

howling coyote

We have long referred to Coyote as a “trickster” and for a century we’ve been missing the point. In Coyote literature it’s not the trick that’s the thing—it’s why the trick works that’s important. Invariably the reason the trick works is a consequence of our classic flaws. Coyote, it turns out, is an unusually useful god for telling us who we are.

California, including the Bay Area, has played a critical role in preserving Coyote’s place as an American avatar, but in this rollercoaster biography there were previous stages. Europeans arrived in America with experiences of bears, foxes, and wolves, but none with coyotes. When Americans encountered them in the West they were called “prairie wolves.” By 1872, when Mark Twain published his funny but knife-edged coyote sendup (“a living, breathing allegory of Want”) in Roughing It, Americans had picked up the Southwestern term for the animal, “coyote,” an ancient Aztec name. But the wolf association was all that stockmen wanted to know about them, and with the Biological Survey—a federal agency to do their bidding—they launched America into the most vicious war of extermination ever attempted against a native animal.

It started with strychnine and then introduced newer poisons like thalium sulfate, sodium fluoroacetate (better known as 1080), and sodium cyanide. Between 1915 and 1972 the agency killed some 8.5 million coyotes, when then President Nixon ended blanket coyote genocide.

Persecuting coyotes in such an unremitting war was purely and simply an act of ideology. From the 1920s on, ecologists—including Aldo Leopold—had been opponents of the coyote war. But no one since Ernest Thompson-Seton wrote “Tito” was quite prepared for the unexpected outcome. It’s true that millions of individual coyotes died, but the species remained undiminished. The war against coyotes only spread them out of the West and into every state in the Union. Coyotes further proliferated in urban areas just as new dog laws were being enforced. While dog catchers were rounding up stray dogs this created an opportunity for coyotes, who already had an ancient history of co-existing around Indian camps and villages.

But yet again, how had coyotes managed to survive what wolves and scores of other species could not? “Tito” had been an allegorical answer. Another came from folk tradition in the Southwest: “The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.” But a pair of biologists finally came up with the answer. As a result of co-evolution alongside larger wolves, which had long harassed them, coyotes had evolved a set of remarkable survival traits. Under assault, they had larger litters. If coyote numbers went down, more food sources meant they got more pups to adulthood. Most remarkably, they evolved a rare ability called “fission/fusion.” Like us, coyotes are normally a social (fusion) species. But, also like us, when conditions warrant they can split into singles and pairs (fission), scatter across the countryside, and colonize widely. As a result, the science showed, you could kill 70% of a coyote population year after year without ultimately reducing its numbers. All you accomplished was spreading them.

The conclusion to draw for those of us living in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and just about every modern American city is that resistance is futile: Coyotes are here to stay. Our task is not just to learn how to live alongside them, but it’s also to learn to become good at having a small wolf in our midst—to become appreciators of the wild canid show. Project Coyote, a Bay Area activist organization headed by Camilla Fox, the recipient in 2015 of the John Muir Conservationist of the Year Award, is a national leader in showing urbanites and their pets how to co-exist in this brave new coyote world.

The truth is that, as with so many cultural trends, California has long pointed the country toward that new world. From the mid- to the late 20th century, Warner Brothers Studios provided a sympathetic cartoon coyote to identify with in the form of Wile E., who in classic coyote avatar fashion taught us all manner of things about obsession and humiliation, as well as instilling a certain wariness about being gullible consumers of corporate whiz-bang technology. At a competing studio, Walt Disney may have fought to keep the Cartoonists Guild out of his shop, and he may have been a red-baiting Republican in 1950s Hollywood, but he invented the nature documentary. From 1962 to 1974 Disney made six pro-coyote films that helped change the attitudes of many about this junior American wolf.

California provided one more important lesson about coyotes. In the 1950s and 1960s, led by a writer named Jaime de Angulo, whom Gary Snyder called “a San Francisco and Big Sur post-World War II anarchist-bohemian culture hero,” Bay Area writers and hipsters discovered the Western Indian deity Coyote, the continent’s ancient literary hero. In the hands of writers like Gary Snyder, James Koller, Philip Whalen, Richard Brautigan, and Peter Coyote—often in a publication they founded called Coyote’s Journal—deity Coyotes became a kind of god of the counterculture, an embedded social critic of modern American life. This influenced writers and visual artists in the West for the next half century.

Such “Coyote Consciousness” may be poised for a second act. Now that coyotes are a national phenomenon with newspaper cartoons and art featuring urban coyotes on the rise in eastern cities, America’s ancient literary avatar may be emerging from the West to conquer the East. That could be the West Coast’s most interesting offering so far in helping America make sense of our new Coyote America.

Dan Flores is a retired University of Montana history professor specializing in cultural and environmental studies of the American West. He is the author of ten books, including Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History and American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.

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