You Are Animal

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Photo Credit: "CostaRica_20161109_081" by QuiRag (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Fear-inducing headlines do not serve coyotes well. Such news-like, fact-adjacent bids for our attention do not serve humans well, either.  

As recent headlines did their best to grab readers’ and viewers’ attention about the possible threat or oddity of coyotes in Chicago (a phenomenon unpacked well by Bethany Barratt in the previous City Creatures Blog post, “Telling Coyote Stories”), I’ve been trying to reflect on my own reactions, which have been a mixture of frustration and puzzlement about the “news.” We know, as humans, we tend to gravitate toward flashy objects. And with all the outlets to choose from, news organizations are prone to seek eyes at all costs. The thinking is economic not ecologic: the squeaky wheel gets the advertisements, which generates the revenue, and quarterly reports become the arbiters of taste. 

These efforts to get eyes on the page or the screen do not lend themselves to what one might call “teachable moments.” Many of the articles written in the first days after the coyote biting incident bore this out; their contents often made it difficult to distinguish between speculation, hearsay, actual events, and hot gossip. News about other animals is especially vulnerable to this type of lax reportage, which is compounded when readers can’t untangle truth from conjecture. Or even humor. (I had a very sweet, older woman approach me at a recent talk swearing up and down that coyotes had been intentionally released by city officials to “patrol” the streets and keep the rat population in check. When I later looked up the article from which she was sourcing her information, it was clear that the language was intended to be tongue-in-cheek.) In a rush for a scoop or something titillating, news outlets too frequently deliver half-baked, unnuanced perspectives, without discussing the complexity and responsibility of living with other animals.

What all this chatter about coyotes reinforced to me was how many of us have fallen headlong into a digital jungle that demands a continuous stream of “hot takes” and opinions absent of quality control. It’s best to be first at the dubious starting line if one wants maximum attention for delivering the latest, up-to-the-second misinformation. On the receiving end, we wait with mouths ajar, like aquarium fish, for little flakes to drift down. Pressed for time, we catch tiny morsels between texts, emails, and updates to our social feeds. 

Have you ever watched a crowd watching tennis, with heads shifting from side to side in unison? Maybe quite a few of us are in danger of becoming such spectators, except that we are watching multiple tennis matches at the same time. Think of how these heads would look. When we’ve had enough, and our eyelids sag, we power down and fall asleep, exhausted and abuzz. 

I was contacted by a CBS reporter on the day a coyote bit a child near the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, the first such incident to ever occur in the state of Illinois. It’s my fault. I don’t mean the coyote bite. The reason for that is known only to the coyote, though descriptions of the event would lead one to suspect that the coyote was surprised and defending himself with the tools at his disposal. No, it’s my fault I was contacted because I wrote a book called The Way of Coyote, which emphasizes how coyotes are quintessential urban adapters. And I am Google-able. Perhaps the reporter had the best of intentions and wanted to give a broader context for the incident. I suspected, however, my two cents wouldn’t add up to anything good if they were given in a context meant to provoke people’s panic response. I let the moment pass, and the reporter didn’t bother to follow up. He was on a deadline and probably got the quotes he needed.

Forgive me if I’ve begun to sound like an old man in bathroom slippers on his front porch, shaking his fist at the paperboy who made an errant toss into his azaleas. 

The reason I highlight these headlines and stories is because they reflect something more substantive and more troubling than a single, outlier incident with an urban coyote.

When a wild animal makes an unwanted intrusion into our everyday lives, why does this so easily generate shock? Why do we presume that something must be done when bodily harm occurs? Since thousands of people die on the road every year and I have yet to hear demands to decommission automobiles, something else must be at work. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there are 800,000 dog bites, per year, that receive medical attention—that’s 2,400 every day (!)—so it’s also not simply that an animal caused harm to a human being. I think the reason is this: our sense of mastery, our presumption of dominion over all other species, our overwhelming desire to control any potential threat or inconvenience, is called into question when a creature that has never been within our control—such as a coyote—violates those presumptions.  

I’ve got my own completely confirmed tidbit of news to share: You are animal. I state this not to denigrate anybody reading this in any way. In fact, I state it as a celebration of what we are. It is corroborated by a number of incontrovertible facts: your breathing, your vulnerable flesh, your hunger, your thirst, your need for sleep, your generating new life (if you chose to do so), and your (eventual) dying. Here comes the celebration part: you have many fellow earthlings who are also animals. You share much more—genetically, physiologically, and even emotionally among our close kin—than you don’t. And the differences are glorious: the pinpoint accuracy of a Cooper’s hawk’s eye; the foot hairs of a gecko that allow for ceiling-walking; the albatross’s ability to sleep on air; an elephant’s talent for subsonic communication; a monarch’s moxy in migrating thousands of miles without an external compass or map; a wood frog’s antifreeze-like blood that makes her capable of freezing solid in the wintertime and waking up freshly thawed in the spring; the tardigrade’s astounding physiological resilience to endure nearly any extremity and keep chugging. I could go on. We haven’t even touched on the stupendous diversity and abilities of plants or fungi, but we’ll stick to our own somewhat arbitrary kingdom, Animalia, for the moment. 

Say it with me: I am an animal. You are part of a glorious outpouring of diverse ways of being in the world; relations that stretch through billions of years of evolutionary groping; life generating still more complex bonds and configurations and mysterious ways of living on a planet warmed by a single sun, spinning in the spiral arm of a modest galaxy. And, though odds are high there are other lively planets out there in some cluster of stars, so far as we yet know (and admittedly, we don’t know much when it comes to the universe), this is the only planet on which this is occurring and we are a species that is conscious of it. Your fellow earthlings—what amazing company. 

So. Two animals of the city come into momentary conflict. A child is running, probably thrilled to be free and spinning circles, up a trail near an urban pond. The coyote’s story I don’t pretend to know. Maybe cutting across the trail on the way back to his or her den. Perhaps avoiding traffic and hoping to grab a rabbit in the restored prairie grasses. But the two converge and the startled coyote bites the child several times, receives a beating from two college students who are running nearby, and runs away.

A coyote has since been caught, and a recently released statement noted that DNA tests confirmed this coyote as the one involved in the biting incident. Also revealed was that this is the same coyote spotted several times in the days preceding the incident who was limping through Lincoln Park. The coyote, the statement notes, had been shot in the chest with a BB gun, which “could have caused the limp in its [sic] movements as well as the aggressive behavior.” The coyote will remain in a wildlife rehabilitation facility. In this particular situation, there seems to have been good reason to capture this injured coyote—to prevent further harm to the coyote or anyone else. Perhaps we should also consider expending energy on tracking down the person who fired the BB gun. 

I sometimes wonder about how to better articulate the value of living with coyotes. Often, one will see an appeal to utility, a coyote’s “function” in an “ecosystem.” Coyotes, it will be said, do good work in keeping various “pests” (rats, mice, Canada geese, etc.) in check. (The advocates of this logic say: think of all the extermination costs you can save, given this “free” service!) This may be a convincing line of argument to some. An argument for utility would seek to satisfy you that coyotes have a “purpose,” they serve to improve our city, they do us good. Fine. But to stop at values that rest solely on functionality, built on a workplace metaphor—what a violent reduction of another creature’s fullness of being! My son is “useful” when he empties our household trash. I would never let that be a stand-in for his value.  

Why do we often reach for utility values first? Because it is difficult to name values, to put a finger upon why another creature might be worth something apart from the “work” they do. We are conditioned to think this way. But I think we must reach for alternative sets of value, soft and fuzzy as that may seem to some. 

I know from giving book talks for The Way of Coyote that people are curious. I think there are many, many people who want to know and affiliate with other forms of life. Encountering other animals may rekindle memories of wondrous worlds left behind, when whether through forced submission or of our own accord we were entrained for “adult” behavior. How might we instead nurture wonder and curiosity in ways that demonstrate respect for our fellow urban-dwelling animal kin?  

Here are some values (by no means complete) I think coyotes communicate by their presence in urban areas like Chicago. 

  • Humans are not alone. 
  • The land is not exclusively ours; we are part of a larger community of life. 
  • The world (and the city) is not made of objects but relationships.
  • If we are to live with, enjoy, and celebrate our relationships to our animal kin, we can and should alter our behaviors so that conflict is minimized and wonder is maximized. 
  • Wherever and whenever possible, the physical infrastructure of our cities—including roads, buildings, greenspace, and so on—should reflect an ecocentric moral infrastructure, one that welcomes other animals into our midst and treats them with respect and dignity. 

As we move through a city of other lively beings, there may be confrontations with other creatures who don’t share our sense of self-importance. We are one voice in a larger conversation. We don’t always need to do something if that means removing an offending threat in an attempt to reassert a (false) sense of mastery over a wild city, or a wild planet. Asserting mastery—over the oceans, over the ground beneath our feet, over the atmosphere above our warming heads—has resulted in a great deal of the (truly) panic-inducing news we currently see: a planet on fire, intense storm events, destructive floods, the extinguishment of many of our fellow earthlings. I won’t offer statistics about this because they will convince you of nothing. Nor, for that matter, will this bit of writing. (If you’re interested in why words alone aren’t persuasive, here’s a nice article on the problems of working under the assumption of an “Information Deficit Model.”) Words only scratch the surface. They are easily twisted to various ends. 

Instead of statistics or a pile of words, experience and values for other expressions of life must be our guide; we must test our words against the breathing world. I recently discovered that the etymology of the word “conversation” means to “live with” or “dwell among,” which signifies how conversation is much more than merely verbal interaction (with other humans, of course, but I’m thinking in particular of nonhuman animals, plants, and landscapes). Conversation depends on being present to and with others, allowing them space to express their being. Living-with. When I mentioned this to a friend, she added that the root of conversation is verse—to turn. She asked, “I wonder if [conversation] could also be looked at as a turning toward another—turning with another? So interesting that turn is the root. And so maybe we can also look at turning to or turning with another living thing. Well, at least not turning away from.” 

This is our animal conversation. As a fellow earthling, the joy of conversation—of turning to and with—relies upon learning to respect life, to honor other animals with our presence, to engage in reciprocity with a landscape rather than claim ownership over it. We might call this the conversation of relationship. 

What now seems like a long time ago, my dissertation research focused on the human dimensions of Mexican gray wolf reintroduction. I gathered a lot of ephemera during the course of that research, including historical photographs. There is one in particular, taken in 1926, I can still see in my mind’s eye. It is a display arranged by the U.S. Biological Services (USBS), an ironic name for a federal agency responsible for “clearing” the land of harmful threats to livestock (i.e., by trapping, shooting, and poisoning massive numbers of carnivorous animals). In the diorama are taxidermized wolves and a dozen or so wolf skins. But the thing that stands out about the photograph is the motivating philosophy of the USBS, which is explicitly stated on a large sign behind the display: “Conservation, Utilization and Control of Wildlife. Control.” It’s as though a single “control” wasn’t enough to get the message across.

Arguably, the rogue species that needs to be brought under control is our own. Physician, control thyself. 

When advice about how to engage and not engage with coyotes is offered, typically a number of safety tips and common-sense practices are listed. Don’t leave pet food out. Make sure garbage is secure. Do not approach. Keep dogs on leashes. And then, oftentimes, there are more proactive “hazing” measures that are advised. The following techniques to “discourage” coyotes are from a Chicago Animal Care & Control booklet: yell and wave your arms while approaching the coyote; make loud noises with whistles, air horns, megaphones, soda cans filled with pennies, pots and pans; throw projectiles such as sticks, small rocks, cans, tennis balls or rubber balls at the direction of the coyote; squirt water from a hose, water gun, or spray bottle (with vinegar water). 

I’ll be honest. This kind of advice, while perhaps necessary and precautionary, leaves me disheartened. If there are children or pets in the area, and a coyote is acting aggressively, sure. But what about all the many other kinds of encounters? Rather than throw sticks, I think a better question to throw out there is: How can we properly connect? Coyotes have something to teach us here: give adequate space; watch with curiosity; don’t be arrogant; don’t assume the world is domesticable or needs to be cuddled in order to have value. Let that begin the conversation of relationship. 

Not everyone is going to care. Yet the recent headlines about coyotes may represent more than hot gossip. Some people are genuinely, and maybe even pleasantly, surprised to find that we are not the only animals inhabiting urban areas. Some people may be fascinated to discover that we are not alone. That fascination can be a portal to relationship, to considering what is broken and what needs mending in our cityscapes, an opportunity to turn toward and with. 

You are animal. There are many other fellow animals who inhabit this place, and many more to follow if we become good conversation—“living-with”—partners. This does not mean a harmonious Eden. This does not mean we can’t get hurt (that’s part of being animal, too). This does mean we can use these big brains of ours to craft mental and physical infrastructures that accommodate other animal kin, in collaborative conversation, and perhaps in wonder.

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for Humans & Nature Press Books. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of the award-winning Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Humans & Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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