Dan Flores has had quite the year. The environmental historian and former University of Montana professor released two books in the span of four months, with each one covering monumental shifts in the animal kingdom over millions of years. American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, published in March, draws a vivid portrait of the large mammals that once roamed what's now known as flyover country. Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History, released this month, details the 5-million-year history of the coyote.
The Indy recently tracked down the prolific author to discuss both books, the history of open season and the coyote mystique.
In American Serengeti you talk about how market forces dictated what was happening across the Great Plains, where it was essentially open season all the time on just about every animal that lived there.
DF: It was open season. One writer who wrote about this 30 or 40 years ago called it "The Great Barbecue." It was like throwing a party and putting meat on the grill and basically inviting everybody that you knew—all-comers—to all-you-can-eat, and far more people than you ever expected came and they ate everything down to the bone. That's kind of what really happened in the West.
And there were a lot of people who couldn't do anything but go west.
DF: That's right. A lot of them came out of the Civil War. If your farm got burned up and pillaged in Georgia or something, or if you had no prospects in Massachusetts and one of the things you could do is shoot—and the Civil War trained people to do that, they knew a lot about guns—your options were basically to head west and start shooting animals because there was money to be made from them. You could translate their hides, their hooves, their tongues—if you could get them to market—into money. This is the largest destruction of animal life we're able to document anywhere in world history.
What made you decide to write about the coyote?
DF: I was growing up in Louisiana in the early 1960s when [coyotes] were first beginning to colonize the East and the South. I sat in 1962 and watched the first of five pro-coyote films that Walt Disney did. It was called The Coyote's Lament, this kind of animated cartoon documentary. It was Walt Disney telling the story of what coyotes think of us. Within a year I was seeing them myself ... I was able to watch this invasion of the East and South firsthand and remained fascinated with [coyotes] the rest of my life.
The invasion meaning them adapting to our efforts to eradicate them in the West?
DF: Yes, exactly. The coyote is now a national animal. It's not just a Western animal. Coyotes are all over North America and in every big city in the United States.
People always think of the bison as being kind of the signature animal as far as native people are concerned, but the coyote has been a large part of that culture too, correct?
DF: Absolutely. They've been stand-ins for us in human culture—avatars, is how I argue it—for 10,000 years. That body of stories about them, those Old Man Coyote stories, that's the oldest literary canon in North American history. And so this is an animal [that has been] functioning as a teacher of human nature for millennia in North America. It mirrors us in so many incredible ways. I mean, one of the easiest ones to grasp is that there are not too many animals other than us and coyotes that are as successful as the two of us are. These guys are amazingly successful.
Last spring about this time, in Queens, N.Y., a bunch of people walked out of a bar and heard a noise. They looked up on the roof and there was a coyote standing on the roof of the bar. So people got their phones and starting shooting pictures ... Within about 10 minutes an animal control truck rounds the corner and comes toward the bar. The coyote takes one look at this truck, turns, and there's an abandoned building with broken window glass in it and, like some Hollywood action hero, and—
Away he goes.
DF: And away he goes.