Coyotes are resilient, intelligent, social canines who have survived everything from federally-funded extermination operations and mass poisoning crusades to political smear campaigns and dramatically reduced wild habitat.
As much as they’re revered in Indigenous American religion and lore, there’s an ongoing saga of hatred, fear and violence perpetuated by a very different mythology. Since the time of North American colonization by westerners, coyotes have been cast as despicable pests worthy of eradication whose pelts, like beaver, were once used as actual currency at trading posts in places like Kansas. Today they are still seen as dangerous pests, but now their fur, attached to a Canada Goose parka, has paradoxically become a luxury status symbol steeped in frontier heroism and nostalgia for the age of arctic exploration.
In Dan Flores’ book, Coyote America, he describes in great detail the incredible story and plight of coyotes in America, but it’s a story that, against all odds, ends in their triumph. Today, coyotes are thriving even in cities, and their fur is the defining feature of what has become one of the most ordinary outwear companies, Canada Goose.
From it’s humble beginnings in 1957 supplying coats to scientists in arctic climates to it’s deliberate brush with Hollywood and the soon-to-follow public offering that raised over $255 million in 2017, Canada Goose at scale performs a well-established role in the fashion industry: turning an animal for whom we have manufactured contempt into something that flatters the ego and represents power, status and proximity to, protection from and power over nature.
CANADA GOOSE AT SCALE PERFORMS A WELL-ESTABLISHED ROLE IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY: TURNING AN ANIMAL FOR WHOM WE HAVE MANUFACTURED CONTEMPT INTO SOMETHING THAT FLATTERS THE EGO AND REPRESENTS POWER, STATUS AND PROXIMITY TO, PROTECTION FROM AND POWER OVER NATURE.
I had the opportunity to ask Dan, who is a Professor Emeritus of Western History at the University of Montana, some questions about this intersection of fashion, economics and animals, and some of his answers shocked and surprised me.
Joshua Katcher: Science is not on the side of those who spread “a century of hate messages about coyotes”, as you say in your book. What has science actually revealed about coyotes that contradicts the prejudice?
Dan Flores: One of the remarkable things, perhaps peculiarly American, is that the US passed a federal law in 1931 appropriating $10 million dollars for exterminating coyotes before we ever did any scientific investigations of their role in nature. In other words, we made assumptions -- calling coyotes "the arch-predator of our time" -- before we ever had any evidence about them. When the Murie brothers, Adolph and Olaus, finally conducted research on coyotes in the 1930s, they concluded that 85% of what coyotes did in the world was beneficial to humans. It turned out their major prey were rats, mice, and rabbits, and that because of their ancient presence on the continent, game animals like mule deer and pronghorns had long ago evolved the ability to do fine in the midst of coyote predation of their fawns (pronghorns for example consistently have two fawns). But killing coyotes had become an ideology that was almost immune to science (if that sounds familiar). As extermination efforts spread coyotes across America, what ecologists finally realized by the 1960s was that persecution and harassment of coyotes triggered old evolutionary adaptations in them that actually increased their numbers and their range. We know from Yellowstone Park in the 20th century that if you leave coyotes alone their numbers stabilize to the carrying capacity of the landscape. Persecute them and you stimulate their spread and ever larger populations.
…THE US PASSED A FEDERAL LAW IN 1931 APPROPRIATING $10 MILLION DOLLARS FOR EXTERMINATING COYOTES BEFORE WE EVER DID ANY SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATIONS OF THEIR ROLE IN NATURE.
Coyotes caught by Ranger McEntire of Malheur National Forest, Winter 1912 & 1913. Photo: J. Taylor, Izle. Library of Congress, National Photo Library Collection.
JK: What is popularly believed about coyotes - that they are superfluous pests, that they pose a dangerous threat to humans, that they are somehow symbolic of everything despicable comes from somewhere. Can we singularly blame Mark Twain? What has your research revealed about the origins of despising coyotes?
DF: Because Europeans had no experience with coyotes before coming to America, initially we were puzzled about them. Many 19th century literary descriptions struggle to understand coyotes. But the fur trade fairly rapidly began to exploit their pelts, so much so that coyote pelts began to function as stand-ins for cash money at the level of a dollar a pelt by1850 or so. Like most scavenging predators, coyotes got poisoned by the hundreds of thousands for their fur during the late 1800s. But Mark Twain's comic send-up of the coyote in Roughing It did seem to establish a way of viewing them as worthless, breathing up good air. And livestock associations scarcely distinguished between wolves and coyotes in their bounty war on predators. So after thousands of years when coyotes were a sacred animal for Indian peoples, for Americans, despising coyotes became common by 1900. In 1920 even Scientific American would run a story arguing that coyotes ought to be shot on sight, not because there was much value to be derived from shooting them, but out of patriotism, since "the coyote is after all the original Bolshevik." The steps from that to a federal Eradication Methods Lab in Albuquerque, NM, and the 1931 appropriation for their extermination, were pretty short steps.
…AFTER THOUSANDS OF YEARS WHEN COYOTES WERE A SACRED ANIMAL FOR INDIAN PEOPLES, FOR AMERICANS, DESPISING COYOTES BECAME COMMON BY 1900. IN 1920 EVEN SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN WOULD RUN A STORY ARGUING THAT COYOTES OUGHT TO BE SHOT ON SIGHT, NOT BECAUSE THERE WAS MUCH VALUE TO BE DERIVED FROM SHOOTING THEM, BUT OUT OF PATRIOTISM…
JK: The government actually made it a big priority to try to completely exterminate the coyote population through agencies like The Biological Survey, PARC (Predatory Animal and Rodent Control), Animal Damage Control and Eradication Methods Lab. Why did they do this? Was it lucrative?
DF: The Biological Survey, which became the forerunner of PARC and today's Wildlife Services, happened upon predator control in their efforts at getting appropriations from Congress to keep their agency afloat. Offering itself up as a federal solution to predators appealed both to the agency and to livestock associations. So, yes, in many respects there was money to be made -- budgets to be met and personnel salaries to be paid -- by pursuing a war on predators in America. By the 1920s and especially by the 1930s, as the scientific community began to study the role of ecological niches and how predators functioned in healthy systems, ecologists like George Grinnell and Aldo Leopold began to turn against the predator war. But the livestock industry, in the case of coyotes especially the sheep industry, wanted an eradication campaign, as did congressional representatives from rural states. With wolves extirpated in America the focus shifted to coyotes.
JK: What killing methods did most coyotes face during that time and about how many of them do you estimate were killed?
DF: With ever-more potent poisons created from chemical experimentation in the world wars, between 1915 and 1972 federal agencies killed between 8.5 and 10 million coyotes in America, a war some in the agencies likened to the campaigns against Nazi Germany and Japan. Most of it was done by poisoning, at a scale difficult to imagine -- in one year in the 1920s federal hunters put out more than 3 million strychnine baits. But because coyotes were so intelligent and good at cause-and-effect, when they saw a pack-mate eat a bait and quickly go into convulsions, that level of intelligence led the agency's labs in the 1940s to invent new poisons that killed them more slowly than strychnine did. So agency scientists created a trio of ever-more deadly killers -- thallium sulfate, sodium fluoroacetate, and sodium cyanide -- that often took a day or days to kill. The coyote walking dead often suffered their hair falling off their bodies and their pads coming off their feet before they succumbed. It was unimaginable cruelty against an animal that the biologist Adolph Murie had thought, in the 1930s, was in love with being alive.
…BETWEEN 1915 AND 1972 FEDERAL AGENCIES KILLED BETWEEN 8.5 AND 10 MILLION COYOTES IN AMERICA…
JK: The stereotype of the loathsome coyote seems to be the justification that Canada Goose uses to absolve themselves of the cruelty inherent in fur trapping. The Canada Goose website claims that, “in many regions of North America, coyotes are considered a pest as they attack livestock, endangered prey species, pets and sometimes even people.” Are coyotes the sinister monolith that Canada Goose claims?
DF: I'm afraid that Canada Goose knows next to nothing about coyotes, and of course that is very unfortunate. To some degree it's understandable, though, since scarcely any Americans or Canadians have been taught the coyote's rather epic biography, which stretches back 5.3 million years in North American history. The handful of biologists who have known some parts of the story have rarely communicated it to general audiences. Providing readers with a sense of this animal's remarkable story is of course a primary reason I wrote Coyote America. I hope Canada Goose takes notice. I would not like to think that they'd prefer the folkloric version, which casts coyotes as nature's criminals, just so they can sell their garments.
…CANADA GOOSE KNOWS NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT COYOTES, AND OF COURSE THAT IS VERY UNFORTUNATE.
JK: The distinct coyote-fur-trimmed hood that has made Canada Goose coats so ubiquitous is a status symbol. Is there historical precedent for something that requires body parts from a feared and hated animal being flipped into something so aspirational?
DF: We have many examples from history of wild animals and birds serving as aspirational fashion statements. Women's fashions at the turn of the 20th century sometimes featured whole birds like Carolina parakeets, North America's only native parrot, regarded as an agricultural pest and now tragically erased from the world. And of course the feathers from breeding snowy egrets got used so commonly in status-based fashion during those times that egrets were threatened with extinction, leading the Teddy Roosevelt administration to set aside some of the first wild bird and wildlife refuges in American conservation history. Canada Goose's use of coyote fur comes at a different time in our environmental awareness, which I suspect is why they feel obligated to cast coyotes as reprehensible criminal animals to their customers.
CANADA GOOSE'S USE OF COYOTE FUR COMES AT A DIFFERENT TIME IN OUR ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS, WHICH I SUSPECT IS WHY THEY FEEL OBLIGATED TO CAST COYOTES AS REPREHENSIBLE CRIMINAL ANIMALS TO THEIR CUSTOMERS.
JK: On their website, Canada Goose states, “We believe all animals are entitled to humane treatment in life and death, and we are deeply committed to the ethical sourcing and responsible use of all animal materials in our products.” How do you feel about the use of the term “humane” in association with coyote trapping and killing for fur?
DF: I grew up hunting in my home state of Louisiana, and although I long ago gave up the pursuit, in my years in Montana I once or twice did shoot a deer in my horse pasture in order to fill my freezer. But depriving an animal of its life is a very weighty, almost god-like thing to do, it seems to me. I draw a vivid line at animals killed for fashion, or sport, or "fun." An animal like a coyote does not die in sport. It dies in earnest.
JK: Another claim they make is that, “…trappers are strictly regulated by state, provincial and federal standards, and play an important role in properly managing abundant coyote populations that are known to endanger pets and livestock." Is this fear-mongering to sell a luxury coat?
DF: That Canada Goose argument does certainly strike me as fear-mongering to sell an expensive coat. The motivation here seems to me the same one that kept the Biologial Survey going in its coyote extermination efforts a century ago. Money is the bottom line, not ecology or science or an understanding of how the world works.
MONEY IS THE BOTTOM LINE, NOT ECOLOGY OR SCIENCE OR AN UNDERSTANDING OF HOW THE WORLD WORKS.
JK: Investigations from Born Free USA reveal that animals like coyotes suffer immensely in leg hold traps, snares, and other traps. In some cases they’ll be trapped for days, exposed, injured, bleeding - some will even chew off their own feet in an effort to escape before trappers return to kill them. From a historic standpoint, what else happens to wild animals whose body parts become a profitable industry?
DF: The old, traditional ways of looking at wild animals in the western world, based on the Judeo-Christian idea that the rest of the animal world is separate from us because we're made in the image of a deity and alone have souls, suffered a fatal blow when Charles Darwin exploded the myth of human uniqueness more than 150 years ago. We now understand how close we are to other creatures, that we are ourselves animals out of the Earthly evolutionary stream, that other animals have cultures, experience emotions, that some even have a theory of mind enabling them to grasp thought and intention. In Coyote America I wrote a passage about the hundreds of thousands of coyotes who died in the fur trade in the 19th century, arguing that every one of those coyotes "wanted to live rather than be shot down, struggle in bewildered fear in a steel trap, or suffer a wretched death from poison." Given the kind of emotional lives coyotes have, that level of trauma -- it seems to me -- sparks in them some profound, rudimentary sense of unfairness, the kind of mental sense that in us becomes a powerful idea: injustice.
GIVEN THE KIND OF EMOTIONAL LIVES COYOTES HAVE, THAT LEVEL OF TRAUMA -- IT SEEMS TO ME -- SPARKS IN THEM SOME PROFOUND, RUDIMENTARY SENSE OF UNFAIRNESS, THE KIND OF MENTAL SENSE THAT IN US BECOMES A POWERFUL IDEA: INJUSTICE.
JK: What do you wish people knew about coyotes?
DF: I wrote Coyote America in large part because I understood that despite the coyote's ancient role as a purely North American animal, we know almost nothing about them. And I knew that as coyotes spread across the continent, millions of us are coming into contact with them with little but rumor and urban legend to go on. The truth is, the coyote is an avatar for us. It has survived in the world using many of the same strategies, particularly intelligence, that we have used, and intelligence after all requires factual information, not instinct, not urban legend. The coyote may be our true North American totem animal. And even if it's not, it is a fellow-traveler well worth understanding. If you really want to be an American and know something about America, grasping the coyote's roller-coaster ride through history is a wonderful way to start.
You can get more involved in helping coyotes but support a #FurFreeNYC. Write to Canada Goose directly, file a complaint with the FTC, contact Truth In Advertising, talk to managers at stores that carry Canada Goose and ask them to drop the line.