First Published March 19, 2018
This article considers the irreducible indeterminacy of the coywolf and how this shapes human perceptions of the animal, as well as attempts to manage it. The hybridity of the coywolf matters very much to its interactions with humans, as well as the panic that has ensued over its evolutionary success. They are genetic and morphological intermediaries, an admixture of western coyote, eastern wolf, and dog. They hunt in packs like wolves but demonstrate a fearlessness to humans more common of coyotes. They thrive in urban or semiurban environs, moving along our highway, transit, and green space systems in search of food and shelter. I suggest it is the putative ferality of the coywolf—its margin—dwelling between urban and wild, between wolf and coyote—that disrupts our prevailing narratives about how, and on whose terms, animals can occupy the world. But it is also an animal that offers an opening to think about mutual flourishing. I contend this is a fruitful place to start tackling the questions raised by the Anthropocene, and reimagining all creatures as cotravelers.
Keywords Anthropocene, coywolves, more-than-human geographies, urban wildlife, ferality
In 2014, PBS ran a documentary entitled Meet the Coywolf, which introduced its viewers to a new urban predator. But it was an animal with which many were already familiar as it was the lead in a series of stories—from Toronto to Chicago—about dog-snatching wolves. Most startlingly, coywolves hit the national media in Canada in 2009, when a 19-year-old hiker in Cape Breton Highlands National Park was attacked by two canids at the time thought to be coyotes. Other hikers came upon the scene and had to scare the animals away from the hiker’s body in what clearly appeared to be a predatory event. The woman later succumbed to her injuries. In response, park wardens set traps for coyotes in the attack area and eventually killed one that appeared to be acting aggressively. Genetic analysis done on the animal’s body indicated that it was not a coyote, or at least not straightforwardly so. Instead, the hiker was taken down by a critter named at turns the “eastern coyote,” “northeastern coyote,” or “coywolf,” a hybrid of eastern wolf and western coyote, with some dog genes thrown in the mix (Way and Lynn, 2016; Way et al., 2010).
This story might have remained a somewhat shocking footnote in the history of Canadian national parks, a stark reminder that wildness still remains. Beyond the Canadian context, it might also have served as an instructive example of what can happen to nonhumans when they transgress human boundaries. But the problem with consigning this story in such a way is that coywolves have not stayed in the wilderness. Instead, like coyotes, raccoons, fox, and sometimes bears and cougars, they have become part of the multispecies assemblages that comprises some of the biggest cities in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States.
This article contends that notions of indeterminacy that are sometimes embedded in human perceptions of the animal can make it seem unnerving and most certainly out of place. In all respects, the coywolf is an “unsettled mixture” (Tsing, 2012), crossing the supposed species lines between wolf, coyote, and dog; the spatial assignments of wild, rural, and urban; and the categorizations of valued species and vermin. Its indeterminate classification—its resistance to taxa—make the coywolf an indistinct and troublesome creature, and one that works to reveal the instability not just of the boundaries which it exceeds, but the project of boundary making in the first place. As a result, some see it is a form of biological pollution, one that deserves extermination rather than conservation. However, I suggest that the coywolf might also offer an opening that those who care about the more-than-human world would be wise to seize. As Waterton and Yusoff (2017) point out, indeterminacy can work both ways, eliciting all manner of affective responses. Talking about “indeterminacy as a site of political possibility” (p. 6), Waterton and Yusoff show the potential in attending to the unpredictable, unfixed, and incoherent, which requires an acknowledgment not only of the porous relations between animal species, but also between human and nonhuman.
To make these arguments, this article proceeds as follows. First, I situate the case of the coywolf in the broader literature around posthumanism, both within and beyond geography. I also consider the ways that the notion of the Anthropocene has both deepened some of the insights of more-than-human geographies, while presenting new hazards in terms of how we respond to its complexities. Then, I offer an account of the coywolf itself, exploring, as much as possible, the ways in which this creature has come to be in the world, as well as the taxonomic firestorm it generates in its wake. I document the ambivalent reactions these canids engender, where discursive signals often hinge on notions of invasion and impurity, if not toxicity, comparing and contrasting perceptions of the coywolf with historical understandings of wolves. The article ends on the more theoretical question of what the coywolf might teach us about living well in the Anthropocene. It is here that I gesture to notion of ferality (Tsing, 2005; Van Dooren, 2015) as generative, opening up space to rethink multispecies connection.
More-than-human geographies in the Anthropocene
“The animal” has had its moment in the academic sun over the last two decades in (inter)disciplines as varied as political science, anthropology and sociology, English literature, philosophy, psychology, and history. But geography has, in some ways, offered the most sustained engagement with this question. Beginning with early efforts at zoogeography, geographers have been preoccupied with animals since at least the early part of the 20th century. However, the ways that animals have been apprehended in geography have changed through time. As Julie Urbanik (2012: 21–47) notes, there have been three phases in animal geography, with the last taking a posthumanist turn, focusing on the themes of decentering the human while emphasizing animal agency, entanglement, and hybridity (see also Buller, 2014). This has produced what Henry Buller (2014: 310) has called “an emergent scholarly community” where “animals matter individually and collectively, materially and semiotically, metaphorically and politically, rationally and affectively.” As a result of this scholarly community, acknowledging that animals are individuals with lifeworlds of their own, existing in networks with other animals, including humans, no longer represents a theoretical risk. This is thanks to the labors of geographers like Barua (2014, 2016, 2017), Collard (2012, 2014), and Lorimer (2007, 2014, 2015)1 who have demonstrated the ways that all our practices are formed through interspecies relationality; put another way, and to quote Claude Lévi-Strauss (1970), “animals are good to think with,” allowing for the fact that species other than humans shape the places, landscapes, and practices we encounter on a daily basis.
In recent years, the notion of the Anthropocene has become central to many of these analyses of human–animal relations. Now famously defined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000 as the proposed geological epoch defined by human intrusion into the biosphere, the concept has taken root across the traditional solitudes in academia, spreading like wildfire in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. This is no surprise; as Jenny Turner (2017) notes, “it has a luscious mouth-feel, and seems just the thing to bring new urgency and direction to all the tired old arguments about climate change, resource depletion, the future of the planet.” As a scholar of environmental studies, I take for granted the salience of the Anthropocene concept, acknowledging as it does that my species (or at least parts of it) have reshaped the world in ways which are sometimes irreparable. But the trouble with depicting humans as a geological force, of course, is that it is at once awfully self-centered and totalizing. It abstracts up both differential cause and effect, rendering the racialized, classed, gendered, and imperial forms of violence that have, in part, created and perpetuated this human defined moment occluded from view. Instead, an undifferentiated Anthropos has ravaged the wild. It might also be taken to mean that to remedy the worst excesses of the Anthropocene, we need a different yet still totalizing new story to tell. By contrast, Donna Haraway (2016) suggests we should talk about the Chthulucene, which rejects both the boastfulness of the Anthropocene as well as the end of the world-ishness of the Capitalocene, proposed by Jason W. Moore as an alternative. Here Haraway (2016: 55) is at pains to emphasize the chthonic: that which is of the Earth. In so doing, she suggests that the “Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen—yet.” So, Haraway points to what is beneath notions of the Anthropocene, hewn as it is to a fiction of separation, is an exaltation of human mastery even as it decries its impacts. Following Bruno Latour, she provides reinforcements here for the broader sweep of her work; the Chthulucene hinges on the notion that we have never been just human, but are always and inevitably an assemblage, a “tentacular” composition constituting and constituted by the more-than-human world. While I take her critique of the Anthropocene seriously and have long accepted the kind of ontology that Haraway has spent a lifetime so brilliantly espousing, I also think the notion of an epoch defined by human-induced change can be generative, implying both acknowledgment of asymmetrical harm and a responsibility to act. The notion gestures toward an ethical thrust. There are political stakes for accountability to both humans and nonhumans which the Anthropocene implies. Following Collard et al. (2015: 323), the idea of the Anthropocene opens up the possibility of thinking through “abundant futures” while recognizing that we live among “capitalist ruins.”
It bears mentioning, however, that neither posthumanism nor the Anthropocene are innocent descriptors of the world; these can be too-slippery shorthands which simultaneously reveal and obscure. Nor were geographers the first or the only people to think about the ontological relationality that characterizes the more-than-human world. As Kim TallBear (2011) writes of the “interspecies communities” so venerated by posthumanism, “It sounds to me like ‘we are all related’,” a long-held truth of Indigenous knowledge. Indeed, she contends that the recent turn to animal studies leaves out much of the nonhuman that is included in Indigenous relational ontologies—for example, glaciers (Cruikshank, 2005)—which may also be considered lively parts of creation. Zoe Todd concurs in a paper which ties the much heralded “ontological turn” directly to colonialism. She writes of the long wait—in vain—for Western scholars to “credit Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations” (2016: 6). In geography Juanita Sundberg (2014), like both TallBear and Todd, has cautioned those who sometimes wield posthumanism as a shibboleth to recall that what they are saying is not precisely new, and often reasserts colonial dividing practices as it seeks to destabilize them. By claiming, as much of the literature in more-than-human geographies does, that the divide between nature and culture has been universal, posthumanist thought can erase ways of knowing not structured in this way while also reifying the very Euro-American dualism being critiqued. TallBear, Todd, and Sundberg remind scholars, then, to be cautious not only of totalizing narratives, but of those that seek to upend them. Thom van Dooren argues for a humbler view, one which acknowledges both the politics and stakes involved in multispecies assemblages. Van Dooren (2016) writes, “There are worlds in which lives are lived in zones of inescapable overlap. My house, my body, are always already others’ territories too; often without our really ever knowing about the others’ existence.” For the remainder of this paper I contend that the coywolf might encourage this openness to the many creatures that make up our daily lives.
Coywolves are recent entrants into the biological record, only emerging in the last 100 years or so. Yet in this time they have displayed a remarkable degree of evolutionary plasticity and adaptability, seizing on the areas “dewolfed” by the bounty across Canada and the United States. The bounty system in both countries served as a technology of colonization, one tentacle in an all-out assault that replaced a complex web of Indigenous nationhoods, lifeways, knowledges, and practices with European ones. The aim of extermination is rendered legible in the context of the anxieties that wolves induced, both similar and different to anxieties generated by coywolves. For white settlers, the transformation of appropriated lands to “productive” use—forestry, trapping, ranching, farming, and fishing—was the mainstay of their lives. Wilderness—and the people and animals that inhabited these spatial imaginaries—needed to be eliminated: one landscape replaced by another. As Jones (2002: 104) attests, “The abundance of wolves in the Canadian West symbolized the primitive state of the region, a condition that had to fall before the advance of civilization.” Put differently, wolves (among others, both nonhuman and human) resisted the sweep of colonial transformation, both actually and by what their bodies represented. With relation to the wolf, anxiety was generated on two registers: the fear of becoming a food source (through wolf attack) and the fear of losing their food sources (by way of wolf predation on livestock) (Coleman, 2006). For instance, the howl of the wolf, so often heard across the early frontier, signaled its failure to submit to colonial will. Many of the stories about wolves in Rod and Gun in Canada, the Canadian equivalent to Field and Stream, recount the panic at the howl of a wolf, in part at the fear of becoming an animal’s dinner (Rutherford, 2016). And their adaptation to the changes wrought by colonialism—for example, prey switching to domesticated ungulates like cows and sheep once elk and deer were less abundant—sealed wolves’ fate. Settler relationships with wolves were dominated by fear.
I would contend, along with Coleman (2006) and Wise (2016) that the root of this fear is that wolves were seen as boundary crossers, upending the natural order which placed white European humans at the top of every hierarchy of which they could conceive. Accordingly, wolves were anachronistic animals; their time had passed. Even those who professed love for the wolf—like Ernest Thompson Seton (2009 ), noted nature writer—saw their fate as inevitable. Indeed, the actual and imagined threats posed by wolves were often read as similar to those presented by the Indigenous peoples they sought to displace; both hinged on notions of moral corruption. This was so much the case that wolves were often conflated with Indigenous peoples. Of course, the efforts to put animals and Indigenous peoples in the same discursive space have long been a strategy of colonialism in North America and elsewhere, serving as a mechanism to legitimize the stealing of land (Braun, 2002; Thorpe, 2012). For settlers, wolves and Indigenous peoples were reminders that the colonial project remained unfinished. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the invocation of wolves as part of the “civilizing mission” at Canadian residential schools. For instance, a 1935 letter written by the Acting Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs to the Principal of the Anglican Indian Residential School in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, asked that nuns embark on a “campaign of education” to convince students they should “destroy wolves” and end the Indigenous “superstition” against wolf extermination. The Principal replied that the school would “make every effort to eradicate the superstition from the native mind” (Correspondence between Parker & Mack, 1935 – 1936). In the kind of nation imagined by the Department of Indian Affairs, neither the wolf, nor Indigenous understandings of it as more than a beast to be eliminated, could survive. A similar conflation can also be seen in the US, where Michael Wise (2016) contends that wolves and Indigenous people (specifically the Niitsitapi) became central to defining a difference between predatory and productive labor. Wolves and the Niitsitapi were put in the same discursive space, both understood as predators in a nation that sought to redefine work as only productive. Wise suggests that one of the key tasks of colonization was boundary making, and both wolves as Indigenous people found themselves on the wrong side of this line of demarcation. Bounties, which spread to each province, territory, and state in Canada and US from the 1700s to the mid-1900s, worked to make the killing of those animals that threatened colonial progress profitable.
Bounties served a variety of aims (in Canada, see Loo, 2006; in the US, see Coleman, 2006), but perhaps chief among them were boundary maintenance and the reinscription of order on a landscape in transition, to ease the anxious settlers’ mind. Wolves were seen by colonial settlers as rapacious beasts and ambassadors of the uncontained wilderness the imperial project sought to subdue (Rutherford, 2013). As vestiges of a supposed uncivilized time, their destruction became imperative. And the bounties in both Canada and the US achieved much of their aim, such that wolves were eliminated from much of their range in both countries at the turn of the 20th century. As a result, by the early 1900s in Ontario, Canada, eastern wolves (Canis lycaon)—something of a hybrid itself, or at least subject to taxonomic debate (Grewal et al., 2004)—were hunted for bounty or killed by government predator control units until near extinction. As keystone predators, wolves limited coyote range extension, which were found in the southwestern US since the Pleistocene (Pennsylvania Game Commission, n.d.). However, the gap created by the bounty meant that coyotes could move east, expanding their population and extending their range. According to Kays et al. (2010: 89), “coyote colonization was fivefold faster via the northern route through Ontario, which exposed them to wolf populations, compared with the southern route through Ohio, where wolves were extirpated prior to coyote expansion.” The speed of this colonization was amplified by the landscape change that coyotes encountered, one in transition to large-scale industrial agriculture. Because wolf numbers had been so decimated, they began to look upon coyotes—animals that wolves would normally drive from their territories—as potential mates (Way, 2013; Way et al., 2010). In this way, human persecution of wolves made the coywolf an evolutionary possibility; we created a window for a new species to emerge, one which thrives in wilderness and disturbed ecosystems equally well (White, personal communication, 2013) and by some estimates, now number in the millions in northeastern US and Canada (—, 2015). In the course of less than 100 years, they have become the largest predator in the region and have taken their place at the top of the food chain (Kays et al., 2010). But this would not have been possible without the enactment of settler anxieties about wolves and the colonial imperative to reshape the land. As Brad White, a geneticist at the forefront of canid research suggests, “this animal is a creation of human impact on the planet” (White in Vyhnak (2009)). Put another way, the coywolf is an animal of the Anthropocene.
Yet, there remains much debate in the scientific literature and amid conservation circles as to whether the coywolf is an actual “thing.” By way of example, one might take a quick look at a recent debate that played out in The Conversation, an online platform meant to deliver academic research and opinion on a range of issues in an accessible and interesting way. In November 2015, zoologist Roland Kays (2015) wrote a piece for the website contesting the use of the term coywolf. The author takes issue with the word because it imputes, in his view, equal gene contribution from wolves and coyotes. Kays asserts that the coywolf remains mostly coyote (somewhere between 60 and 84%) and in some cases there are animals with almost no wolf genes. As such, “there is no single new genetic entity that should be considered a unique species” (Kays, 2015) and hence, no coywolf. He concludes the article with the somewhat testy exhortation, “Call it a distinct ‘subspecies’, call it an ‘ecomorph’, or call it by its scientific name, Canis latrans var. But don’t call it a new species, and please don’t call it the coywolf” (Kays, 2015). In May of 2016, the other side answered. Jonathan Way, who has written extensively on coywolves, including the book Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Massachusetts (2007), entered the fray. Way (2016) argues, contra Kays, that the coywolf is in fact a distinct species and should be hailed not as a coyote variant, but as Canis oriens. Way (2016) contends that the animal is “significantly different—genetically and physically—from their parental species since the coywolf is about 60 percent coyote, 30 percent wolf, and 10 percent dog; thus, nearly 40 percent of this animal is not coyote.” He ends his intervention with the suggestion that coywolves might act as something of conservation role model, demonstrating the importance of not only protecting species that live in wilderness, but also those with whom we are more likely to share space.
Whereas Kays’ argument hinges on similarity—coywolves are too much like coyotes—Way’s functions on difference—they are dissimilar enough to be considered their own species. The language seems to matter quite a bit here, working as it does to enforce taxonomic boundaries that reify species divides. These arguments also suggest that the divisions between species are more calcified than they may actually be. For my purposes, this debate is less interesting as a means to determine the truth of species-hood, and more because of its insistence that defining the animal as either a distinct species, or not, is central to understanding it. And so, I use the term coywolf precise to stick with its indeterminacy, for its inability to be contained either by the geographical imaginaries that are imposed upon it, or the species boundaries which its body actively resists.
Dwelling in between
What is interesting about coywolves is the blend of morphological and behavioral traits they display from their progenitors. For example, they fall between wolves and coyotes in size, somewhere between 30 and 55 pounds. They hunt in packs, like wolves, but demonstrate a degree of fearlessness, or at least curiosity, toward humans—more of a coyote trait. They thrive in urban environs, moving along our highway systems, abandoned rail lines, and segmented green space in search of food (Cortorneo, 2013). They are opportunistic omnivores, with the ability to eat deer (because of their larger jaws) or urban compost (cbc.ca, n.d.). There have also been reports that suggest that the animals are “bolder and smarter than regular coyotes” (Vyhnak, 2009). And it appears it is their very hybridity that has ensured their evolutionary success; rather than genetic pollution, interbreeding has led to species strength in the form of adaptability (—, 2015; Velasquez-Manoff, 2014). Coywolves, like Rosemary-Claire Collard’s (2012: 24) cougars, are “hard to pin down.”
The unsettledness of the coywolf has in some cases provoked a fearful response that has been part of the media narrative around the coywolf expansion across southern Canada and the northeastern US. This disquiet follows, at least to some degree, the well-worn grooves laid down by settler interactions with wolves. Like wolves, coywolves are seen as out of place. They occupy places that wild animals should not. For wolves, there very presence marked them for extermination. In the case of coywolves, it is their presence at the margins of city life which generate affective responses in the humans that encounter them. This is especially true because of their ubiquity. Since their first sighting in central Ontario in 1919, coywolves have in recent years become something of a shadowy fixture in urban and suburban areas. As a result, the interactions between coywolves and humans have grown. While they might be difficult to categorize, for many, especially those who have lost a beloved family pet to their predations, coywolves fit the definition of “urban terrorist” assigned to other “trash animals” (Nagy and Johnson, 2013: 2). Predatory wildlife in the city presents challenges to our normative spatial understandings of what belongs where, generating registers of fear and anxiety around wildness radically out of place. As Jennifer Wolch (1996, 2002) suggests, the urban setting offers an illusory sense of separateness from nature, where the ordering and segmentation of space proceeds almost entirely on human terms. But, of course, animals and other nonhumans have always been integral to cities not only in the form of urban wildlife but also pets, livestock, disease vectors like cholera, cockroaches and bedbugs, and so on. Moreover, rather than eschewing contact with humans, some animals may choose to live in close proximity for a number of reason, like access to food or safety from hunters (Thompson, 2007). Despite this evidence, the idea the cities are somehow antinatural is prevalent, causing Jerolmack (2008: 88) to suggest that urban wildlife “signals a cityscape that is not subdued.” As a result, intrusion upon this fiction is often vigorously policed, particularly if the multispecies encounter leads to human loss (property damage, missing pets), or perceived loss (“aesthetic insults”) (Wolch, 1996: 35). For example, the flying fox, a large fruit bat native to Australia, has been purged from its chosen home in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens (Thompson, 2007). So too have Van Dooren’s (2016) “unwelcome crows” in Hoek van Holland. Along the same lines, the coywolf, with its less predatory cotravelers, like raccoons, rats, weasels, feral cats, and fox, disrupts our narratives about how and on whose terms animals can occupy the world.
It is in part because of the very indeterminacy of the coywolf that how humans encounter its presence in (sub)urban settings is amplified. Writing about coyotes in Toronto, Blue and Alexander (2015: 155) contend they “refuse to remain within such tidy geographical orderings and imaginaries. In transgressing these categories, coyotes can be viewed as out of place and risk inciting potentially dangerous reactions for the human community.” The coywolves’ success in using urban infrastructure—of moving along remnant greenspaces designed for recreation, of using highway off-ramps for dens, of howling at the sound of fire truck sirens—suggests a sense that they can navigate urban terrain capably and without human awareness. They are synanthropes that have adapted to urban environments and “are able to adjust their behavior to habitat fragmentation and human activities” (Birnie-Gauvin et al., 2016: 417). Put differently, coywolves are novel animals for novel ecosystems that show a kind of phenotypic plasticity that some find so troubling.
To determine popular perceptions of the coywolf, I took aim at the proliferation of news sources which have turned their attention to this creature in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, conducting a systematic search of news aggregator Factiva, spanning the first mention of the coywolf in this source in 1994 to October 2017 (with mentions peaking in 2015). This yielded 193 publications dealing with the coywolf. However, this approach to accessing public opinion has its own hazards. As numerous animal geographers have pointed out, animal subjectivity is lost when a scholar only looks at narrative sources about animals (cf. Hodgetts and Lorimer, 2015; Van Patter and Hovorka, 2017). I agree wholeheartedly with this admonition to pay attention to the lives of animals. However, my goal here is less to understand coywolves’ lived experience (which is better left for another article), than to get at the way their indeterminacy has generated affective responses, often concentrated (though not entirely) around fear and panic.
Some of these articles were reflective think pieces on the emergence of coywolves and their remarkable capacity to live in some of the biggest cities in Canada and the US (cf. Matheny, 2015; Richardson, 2015). Others were more focused on the taxonomic classifications that such critters resist (cf. Miller, 2015). However, a good number displayed angst at a new predatory force that seems capable of moving among our spatial and genetic categories with east. Take, for example, some of the more overwrought headlines:
Victoria Beach under siege by a vicious new predator—Winnipeg Free Press (Owen, 2015)
The super coyote is here…They are here, maybe right in your own backyard, and they’re bred to hunt.—Windsor Star (City Desk, 2013)
Coyotes taking over East Haven backyards—WTNH Connecticut (Simoni, 2014)
This is our town’s Jaws—Motherboard (Knafo, 2015)
Coywolves have taken over the Northeast—Business Insider (Welsh, 2014)
Coywolves, coyote-wolf hybrids, are prowling Rock Creek Park and D.C. Suburbs—(Dingfelder, 2014)
Of course, as mentioned above, these are not the only stories to tell about human–coywolf encounters. Some media outlets have been far more admiring in their depiction of these canid hybrids. But I would suggest that these stories—the ones that dwell on the affective registers of panic, fear, and horror—are the ones freighted with the most potential to impact the lives of coywolves. While, each of these news reports might be read as a hyperbolic lead to attract viewers in a media-saturated market where “click-bait” is prevalent, the degree of fear and disdain is palpable as one delves further into these news reports. For example, in the case of Chappaqua, New York, an affluent suburb in Westchester that is home to Bill and Hillary Clinton, the presence of coywolves has torn community ties precisely along the lines of those who believe the coywolves should be trapped and killed because of an impending “coyote jihad” (sporting freshly made coyote gloves at town meetings to emphasize the point), and others who suggest that maybe we need to find better ways to live together (Knafo, 2015). In the case of Victoria Beach, Manitoba—and in the absence of any documented cases of coywolves—the description given is of a pack of roving (and ravening) canids, completely unafraid of humans (Owen, 2015). Indeed, members of the suburban community indicated they preferred the long-reviled wolf to the coywolf, because it stayed away from humans; wolves it seems, unlike their kin, know their place. Members of Victoria Beach asserted they felt “under siege” from having to keep their pets inside (Owen, 2015). Similarly, in a central Ontario town called Gravenhurst, resident Lori Kennedy recounts being attacked by a coywolf as she attempted to rescue her pet cat. She remarks that since the attack “the neighbours have all been living in fear” (Kenny, 2014). Bette Jean Crew of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture echoes this sentiment: “From what I know talking to farmers, the animals are getting bigger and bolder” (Winsa, 2011). The article goes on to suggest that “in recent years, stories have spread about the hybrid eastern coyote, a once solitary animal that now hunts in packs like a wolf and lures off expensive guard dogs so other pack members can move in for the kill” (Winsa, 2011). Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s (2010) coyotes are wily too, charged with four attacks on children in one summer and leaving the community on alert from this new suburban predator.
Most articles also deal head-on with the indeterminacy of the coywolf, remarking on wolf–coyote hybridity in the US and Canada in sometimes less overstated but no less important terms. For instance, as far back as the early 1990s, the Toronto Star (1990) suggests that “[w]olves are threatened by a lust for coyotes” in ways that “threaten their genetic integrity.” Ron Nowak (1995: 1), a former United States Fish and Wildlife Service zoologist, amplified this concern in a 1995 article for Canid News, where he outlined the taxonomic peril with recognizing hybridization.
The wolves of North America are under a severe new threat from an influential group; not the lumber companies, fur trappers, or stockman, but the zoologists, or at least some among them who are keen to publish claims that wolf populations have hybridized with other species.
A more recent article about wolves in a national park in western Quebec echoes this lack of distinction, suggesting that in the six packs found in Gatineau Park, the lines between wolf, dog, and coyote are blurred (Spears, 2015). Indeed, almost all of the articles I looked at referenced the “canid soup,” the futility in separating out species lines among canid populations as exemplified by the fight about whether coywolves are a distinct species or not. The presence of the coywolf alerts us to the invention of species boundaries in the first place.
The discursive signals in these articles work through fear of a new predatory species or the biological risks it poses, and often hinge on the notion of invasion and intrusion—that coywolves represent some kind of biorisk that needs to be eliminated from the urban landscape. This terrain has been expertly covered both with reference to predatory wildlife (cf. Collard, 2012) and with the broad literature on so-called invasive alien species (cf. Larson, 2008). Invasion carries its own lexicon of political prescriptions, but the vast majority dictate extermination of one species for the conservation of another (Ritvo, 2017)—the one which is “in place” rather than exceeding its spatial or species boundaries. Similar to wolves, those species deemed out of place, either by virtue of geography or taxonomy, unsettle the certitude with which humans navigate the world. And yet, in my estimation, it is not just that the coywolf is wild but that it occupies a space in between that gnaws at the edges of normalcy in urban life. The coywolves’ success in using urban infrastructure—of moving along remnant greenspaces designed for recreation, of using highway off-ramps or overturned canoes for dens, of howling at the sound of fire truck sirens (Meet the Coywolf, 2014; Way, 2009)—suggests a sense that they can navigate the urban terrain capably, making use of the novel ecosystems we have provided for them. Rather than wild, I would suggest it is the instability of coywolves that has induced the kind of moral panic we see elaborated in these news reports. At the root of this is the notion that the coywolf is an abject animal. For Kristeva, the abject has to do with “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva, 1982: 4; see also Van Dooren, 2015). The coywolf represents the loss of distinction, of secure moorings with which to define not only the human-dominated landscape of the urban, but even the supposed impermeable divisions between species themselves. Not only does the coywolf resist our spatial categories, it refuses our notions of genetic purity. Its biggest violation is that it insists on being in the first place. It is, as Donna Haraway would suggest, a string figure, emphasizing the knottiness of enmeshed living. This I think, if nothing else, is what is fruitful in the idea of the Anthropocene. For all of its conceits around the importance of humans to the stories of the earth, it does invite a recognition that the world only operates via entanglement. Coywolves, then, can be thought of as an embodiment of the Anthropocene’s most interesting conceptual elements. They call into question what Fiona Probyn-Rapsey (2017) has called the “purifying logic” we apply to the nonhuman world, pointing instead to the evolutionary possibilities of hybridity, of unsettled mixtures, of indeterminacy.
As mentioned above, some of the responses to coywolves follow a longer lineage of both fascination and revulsion around hybridity. Hybridity, as Homi Bhabha (1995) so famously remarked, is a site of ambivalence. One can see this ambivalence at work when looking at animals like the coywolf that unsettle our taxonomic practices. As Caccavale and Reise (2011) suggest, monsters captivate. Those creatures that do not fit within our classificatory practices are at once bewitching and abhorrent, titillating yet disquieting (see also Ritvo, 1998). This ambivalence is often sutured through a reestablishment of the categories that such creatures unsettle. This is very clear in the insistence that the lines between species are distinct and bounded. However, the emphasis on species boundaries is as much an imaginative act as a biological one, yet one which is “deeply rooted in our culture” (Caccavale and Reise, 2011). Since Ernst Mayr’s elaboration of the biological species concept, based on the notion that species boundaries are calcified through the (im)possibility of breeding, this understanding has become normative way of conceptualizing species distinction (Mitchell, 2016). But, as Mitchell (2016: 34) points out, this move to abstraction can only be maintained by disregarding “the creative promiscuity and proliferation of life forms.”
As Mitchell, Latour (1993) and others have signaled, beneath the boundary policing between species, hybridization thrives. Perhaps because of this, efforts at purification may be redoubled. In revealing the historical contingency of species divides, animals like coywolves are rendered unworthy of conservation (Stronen and Paquet, 2013) in language that often echoes eugenic desires to purge the body of impure elements (Pêgas, 2013). Referring to the instability of these notions, as shown by genetic modification, recombinant DNA and animal hybridization, Caccavale and Reise (2011) go on to suggest “This has provoked a deep anxiety among many people, an anxiety that has been variously described as a rejection of the ‘unnatural’ or a fear of the ‘alien’ or the ‘dangerous’.” Conservation biology is not immune to these views, where, as Rodrigo Vargas Pêgas (2013: 1) attests, hybridization has an “unnatural image.” We see this in Nowak’s panic around an acknowledgment of hybridization, as well as Geise’s (2005: 865) more recent work on coywolves, which asserts “the wolf now faces a new and unlikely threat. Molecular genetics research suggests that gray wolves have hybridized with coyotes in the northeastern United States.” Underpinning this contention is a biopolitical move that carries the resonance of the wolf bounty, but instead of killing wolves, they are saved from genetic swamping. What is interesting, of course, is that this discourse and practice assumes that wolves are somehow pure species, whereas coywolves are not. This essentialism falls apart once we recognize that the eastern wolf, with whom coyotes bred in the first place, is part of the canid soup that makes up the northeastern US and southeastern Canada. The politics of purity has no place in the canine world.
Even so, animals like the coywolf—genetically, spatially, and discursively indeterminate—are remade into threats in need of management. For Mitchell (2016: 30), these are the “unloved” creatures of conservation practice, in this case rendered so because they thrive where they should not. This unlovability is present in both conservationist and popular discourses of the animal. For instance, it is hard to miss the underlying racial logic at play, most obviously in the language of jihad above, but also present through an elaboration of the perils of genetic swamping, or “extinction by introgression” that is pinned on this animal. The coywolf is talked about as an agent of invasion. As Probyn-Rapsey (2016) suggests, “The categories into which animals are made to fit are both cultural and scientific… We have ferals because we have a stubborn insistence on categorical thinking.” Livingston and Puar (2011: 7) stick with the implications of the genetic transgression offered by creatures like the coywolf, arguing that attention must be paid to the “social and affective processes when barriers are breached” and “the hierarchical classificatory system is subverted or reworked.” In this way, the kind of horror expressed by the residents of some of the towns featured in the news makes a little more sense. In many of the accounts presented in the media and some scientific understandings, the coywolf’s eradication is necessary: it inverts some of the certainties through which we order our lives and throws into relief the futility of these attempts at demarcating the world.
Love your monsters
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story from the perspective of multispecies encounter is that we made the coywolf possible. By attempting to exterminate one species, we allowed another to emerge, one which is highly adapted to human socioecological relations. The critical question, then, is if we made it, what is our responsibility to it? The more predictable reaction charted above does not have to be—and indeed is not—the only one. Just as often as people want to trap and kill the coywolves (and make them into silky mittens!), others want to ensure their continued ability to live in the places that they choose. If the coywolf is an animal of the Anthropocene, then, as Collard et al. (2015: 322) suggest, it invites “the question of how humans ought to intervene in the environment; how to live in a multispecies world.” French philosopher and scholar of science and technology studies, Bruno Latour, tells us to love our monsters. He contends that “Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself” (Latour, 2012). What if we take this seriously, accepting both responsibility for and the humility to learn with more-than-human critters, like the coywolf?
The wolf, the coywolf’s cotraveller and kin, has played an active role in the lives of humans for millennia, even as we spent centuries trying to eradicate them. Indeed, there is evidence of the domestication of wolves since at least the Neolithic period. But what is perhaps interesting about this story is that new research contends that wolves domesticated us, rather than the other way around. The notion that wolves approach us first, perhaps hanging around the edges of a cooking fire in 10,000BCE, suggests a kind of “survival of the friendliest” which is marked by our relationship with dogs today (O’Callaghan, 2013). In the end, we have coevolved. Throughout much of the history of our relationship with and to wolves, we have attempted to deny this coevolution, this multispecies assemblage. Some wolves became dogs, and others remained resolutely part of the wilderness that needed taming. But coywolves show us yet another layer of this coevolution. Fugitives from a feral landscape, their presence jars us into thinking about the stakes of decisions about livability, and how we might rework them—both discursively and materially—if our goal is coflourishing.
So, I think the coywolf is good to think with precisely because it disconcerts. Put differently, it asks how we learn to love our monsters, beings that upset the neatness of our conceptual boundaries, that function as examples of Kirksey’s emergent ecologies (2015). In what ways can we foster intimacy by way of new forms of attentiveness, while at the same time making room for autonomy? What do cohabitation and livability look like for the coywolf? It is here that I think a return to the notion of ferality leads in interesting directions, not to reify a discourse of genetic purity but to deny the political value that an attachment to a fictive purity offers. I contend that the coywolf is feral, but not in the putative sense of a domesticated animal returning to the wild. I would invite a broader interpretation. Ferality points to the ways that some (all?) animals are made possible through human interaction and disturbance and that encounter shapes all those doing the relating. In the case of the coywolf, its relationships to humans, to particular kinds of landscapes, and to wolves brought it into being. In the way I am deploying the notion here, ferality might be a synonym for symbiosis, always entangling multiple actors in a messy and unending negotiation of difference. So, ferality is risky. It shreds certainty and violates limits. Yoon (2017: 136) asserts that the feral “evokes liminal, excessive, inappropriate, and transgressively abject connotations, marking the need to correct, neuter, or even exterminate ecological and political outcasts.” It is the unruliness here which I think it might be important to hang on to, for in my view, it offers a way forward in the politics (and poetics) of ecological revivification and repair. As Haraway and Tsing (2015) tell us, “resurgence is always a multispecies affair.” And it is necessarily relational, often occurring at the “neglected margins or the seams of empire” (Tsing, 2012: 155). The coywolf is an animal of the edge, full of the potential that ferality implies.
And yet, there is much to be critiqued in the flat ontologies that often accompany an unambiguous celebration of resilience in nature. This emphasis on enmeshment, on resilience, on the capacity of the more-than-human world to respond to and shape our shared environment can also work to evacuate politics out of questions of human–animal relations. If we acknowledge that humans are not always, as Steve Hinchliffe and Nick Bingham (2008) suggest, the most interesting place to start, then there is the attendant possibility that an emphasis on agency obscures asymmetry, coercion, and domination. As Rosemary Collard, Jessica Dempsey, and Juanita Sundberg have so insightfully shown, mainstream conservation is becoming more both “neoliberal and postnatural” in its embrace of the Anthropocene, emphasizing ecosystem services over biodiversity protection, where the more-than-human world becomes instrumentalized through new forms of green governmentality. A potential hazard, then, of this posthumanist celebration of entanglement, coconstitution, assemblage, and biopolitical collectivities, is that it actually perpetuates the very circumstances that require nonhuman resilience in the first place. Because, while these creatures have survived the legacy of human-induced environmental change, they may not survive their continued interaction with humans on human-only defined terms. There are better ways of relating to the fact that we are necessarily and inevitably entangled with the nonhuman and that have everything to do with reciprocity, exchange, improvisation, and liveliness than doubling down on the kind of technological utopianism espoused by the folks at the Breakthrough Institute through their Ecomodernist Manifesto (Asafu-Adjaye et al., 2015). Conservation triage or deextinction is not, in my view, options. So, I would suggest we need to find another way.
Put differently, when I say we need to love our monsters, I am gesturing to the ways that rejecting humanism is a political project, and one with real stakes not only for nonhumans but those people who, through the epistemic violence of the nature–culture divide, have found themselves on the wrong end of that boundary. How do we open space for all parts of creation—human, nonhuman, biotic, abiotic, person, polar bear, and lichen? How do Western subjects invite a curiosity and attentiveness to the world outside of the human, a world which fundamentally makes us up even as we have sought to deny this material reality? How do we make life liveable for each other? In this context, the coywolf may offer an example of the degree to which some humans have intruded on and shaped the biosphere, but our reaction to it does not need to continue along this thread. The coywolf is illustrative of the precarity that the Anthropocene implies, but also of the ways that that there is life in the midst of death. Said differently, the coywolf could be considered an agent of “genetic rescue” (Stronen and Paquet, 2013: 391) in the context of the rate of extinction we have wrought. While the Anthropocene presents us with dire indictment of violences against the nonhuman world, it also may not be the end of this story. For J.B MacKinnon, “a story of loss is not always and only a lament; it can also be a measure of possibility” (cited in Collard et al. (2015: 327)). This does not provide an alibi for the destruction of the natural world; rather if gives a place to go that sidesteps the politics of purity. Instead of balking at the environmental change the coywolf represents or denying our role in producing it, those whose lives are enmeshed with coywolves might seek a productive and generative attention to difference and livability in the context of that difference. Rather than panic and issue exhortations around genetic pollution or animals out of place, instead there could be embrace the kind of resilience the coywolf exemplifies, while also recognizing that we need to do more for those animals that cannot live in such close proximity to humans. In cities, what this might look like, at a minimum, is the acknowledgment the urban is a space constituted by multispecies encounters, which cries out for a “transspecies urban theory” (Hovorka, 2008). At a concrete level and at the very least, planners could extend spaces for the coywolf and other predators to survive, establishing nodes, buffers, and corridors, where wildness is a characteristic not defined by proximity, but the chance for autonomy and self-determination (Collard et al., 2015). Or, instead of embarking on ecological restoration projects which deny the value of novel ecosystems, there might be an acknowledgment that sometimes humans increase rather than decrease biodiversity, or at the very least allow for different kinds of biodiversity to emerge and thrive. Some of us may be required to accept the potential for loss—particularly of beloved pets—if we allow them to roam outdoors, negotiating the knotty entanglements of sharing space. Further still, the possibilities for urban wildlife to thrive might be made manifest if we see them not simply as pests or wildlife out of place, or even as victims displaced through the Anthropocene, but as individuals that may have chosen to occupy the city on their own terms. More broadly, Stronen and Paquet (2013: 394) offer an option that is at once common sense and challenging at the same time:
Where hybrids have filled the ecological niche (or parts thereof) of one or more extirpated parent taxa, such as the eastern coyote in the northeastern United States and parts of southeastern Canada, the focus should be on preserving the ecological role currently held by these hybrids.
One wonders about the possibilities for interspecies exchange that are opened up when we allow for the fact all animals, human and otherwise, make choices to pursue their own lifeways. In this context, the existence of the coywolf gives us some reason for hope; they might be our accomplices in dwelling well in the Anthropocene. Either way, it seems, the coywolf invites us to unfix our conceptual rigidity, opening up what Livingstone and Puar (2011: 11) call a “politics of curiosity and vulnerability,” where risky and contingent attachments maybe be formed and reformed in a continuous negotiation of mutual responsibility. Working out how this might make these choices less asymmetrical and more about flourishing is, in my view, the critical task of our time. This curiosity and vulnerability can be put into practice through the politics of encounter where we come to relationality bereft of assumption. Maan Barua (2015: 266) sketches eloquently what this could mean:
Encounters point to taxa being occurrents, inseparable from the heterogeneous bodies, technologies and practices through which they are articulated. Multiple modes of knowledge are fused in classificatory schemes, evident when plicated histories of encounters between colonizer and colonized are unraveled. Encounters scramble genealogical trees: introgression and horizontal gene transfer happen across phyla and scales. They herald involutions, organismic filiations based on contagion and symbiosis.
The choice to encounter requires something of us; apathy becomes an unacceptable response. There is hope here, but not the kind that is blind to the perils we face or the enormity of the task at hand. As historian Tina Loo (2017) has recently suggested, “perfection is the enemy of hope.” Learning to love our monsters is an iterative process, one which we will almost certainly get wrong again and again. Paying attention to one another in ways that are both intimate but also allow for autonomy will be difficult. The likely result will be an inevitably flawed effort to come to know another animal in a way that grants it has lifeways that we may not understand, but are worth attending to. So then, it is important to deploy hope as a verb, as an ethical obligation, and, for my purposes, a way of doing research. If, as Haraway (2016) contends, “it has become literally unthinkable to do good work in any interesting field with the premises of individualism, methodologically individualism, and human exceptionalism,” then political hope must be a relational multispecies affair.
Many thanks are due to the research assistants who have aided this project: Adam Marques, James McBride, and Brook Schryer. Thanks also to the editor and three anonymous reviewers whose careful reading and suggestions for revision greatly improved the paper.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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