Sunday, January 4, 2009

God's Dog: The North American Coyote (A Review)

A few weeks back, I posted an especially endearing passage from Hope Ryden's God's Dog: The North American Coyote. I felt it superbly illustrated what a wonderful creature this much-maligned predator actually is.

The excerpt also exhibited Ryden's strong dedication to her subject. She spent two years camping, often under difficult conditions, in isolated backwater areas of Montana and Wyoming, watching her coyotes for hours while trying not to alert them of her presence (not an easy thing to accomplish – they have excellent smell and hearing). At one point, her life became endangered when she got lost in deep snow. But most impressive is that she was actually able to keep of track specific individuals over the course of months. How she was able to recognize them after being away for weeks is beyond me, but the insights she gained as a result are well worth the effort and will doubtlessly transform any reader into a coyote lover as their eyes are opened to their hidden world. Coyotes are, after all, notoriously secretive, a trait that has undeniably contributed to their plentiful numbers and incredible adaptability. The puppy chapter is as adorable as expected (Dad is at one point described as "long-suffering"), although the parents' poor treatment of the "nanny" is rather sad. They also seem to have the astonishing ability to produce a mouse on demand for their babies to play with.

Although Ryden's focus was wild populations, a brief section that focused on "pet" coyotes is also highly informative. There was the female, for example, who took a black Lab as her mate for life and had a black puppy by him. Ryden's skills as a writer, as well as her obvious admiration for the animal, are at their best when she relates the story of beautiful Amber, whose mute sorrow tells of her betrayal by the humans who were meant to care for her. Charlie fans will certainly enjoy being able to compare Shreve Stockton's experiences.

It was actually Stockton's blog The Daily Coyote that first got me interested in the species, but it is God's Dog that contains all the requisite "technical" information that puts Charlie in greater context. Although the book was published in 1989, the field research was done in the mid-70's, which is reflected at times in Ryden's prose, particularly when she launches on a sort of hippie-esque rant about how the white man destroyed everything. But then again, her reports on the cruelty of "pest control" programs, as well as individual humans, may well prove her point. The bit about using guard dogs to watch sheep sounded very promising (instead of killing coyotes, they will often enact canine dominance rituals) and I wonder how widespread that has become since then. They should really come out with an updated edition, especially since the coyote's habitat has now expanded to all of North and Central America. Today, a book like this is more vital than ever.

But of course! "Crimes against humanity"! Let us all bow our heads and have a moment of silence in remembrance of a dark time in history, when a fanatical pack of coyotes rounded up millions of hunters and transported them to the gas chambers of Andersonville.

(Photos are from the Flickr group Honoring Coyotes.)


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