Coyote, Ugly

The fields of Killing Coyote run red with cruelty in powerful documentary

The title is Killing Coyote, and that's quite literally the subject. But as Hollywood's own Wile E. has taught us, that's easier said than done.

The documentary, directed by Doug Hawes-Davis, is a chronicle of the brutal and little-publicized "predator control" policy toward the ubiquitous canines in the contemporary American West. It focuses on the grim works of the Animal Damage Control division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of livestock producers, before climaxing with a stomach-turning portrait of the practice of "body count" hunting contests. As depicted here, it's a tradition of slaughter (and, in some cases, grotesque "scientific" torture) that would be comical in its ineffectiveness if it weren't so appallingly cruel.

Except possibly for a few of the hunters who appear in it, this is not a film anyone's likely to watch for pleasure, though it's inevitably powerful. It's a coyote snuff movie, full of graphic, all-but-unwatchable footage of the creatures whirling in death jigs as they're shot by hunters or picked off from airplanes. We see them struggling in paw-mangling leg-hold traps, and shut up in government-run kennels as the subjects of contraception experiments. Near the end, we're shown the results of a "body count" contest in Wyoming, a killing field of coyotes that's a hair-raising spectacle. Nor does the film sugar-coat the coyote's own nature -- there's vivid footage of a coyote killing a sheep.

All the same, Hawes-Davis manages to keep the film from turning into dreary and unproductive rhetoric. Within its harrowing visual context, it still presents a range of viewpoints. Its frame is the hearing last year in Flagstaff at which the Arizona Game and Fish Commission passed a rule banning contest hunts for "predators, fur-bearers or non-game mammals." The rule has not been enforced -- it was later rejected by the Governor's Regulatory Review Council, but comes up for a second vote on Tuesday, September 12.

Among those testifying are the usual suspects -- the new agey-looking ladies spluttering about how much the hunts horrify them, and the creepy rednecks and hunters asserting that it's their God-given right to kill any damn thing they please any damn way they please. Intercut with this are talking-head interviews. We meet ranchers who try, with unconscious irony, to paint coyotes as romantic villains who take pleasure in killing their sheep and cows. While it's clear that Hawes-Davis isn't in sympathy with the hunters' side of the issue, it's also clear that he developed some feeling for them, and he gives them their due -- it's plain that many of the hunters have a genuine, if psychotically expressed, fondness for the creatures they stalk.

Among all of these factions are the dweeby biowonks, to whom falls the duty of wearily explaining the rich irony: that the mass slaughter of coyotes may actually be a factor in their population boom, because it increases the number of litter survivors and also the incidence of mating by eliminating alpha males from packs. It also may increase the likelihood that coyotes will hunt sheep, since larger litters require larger meals. In the same way, the elimination of large predators such as wolves and cougars has had the effect of spreading the coyote's range far to the east of the Mississippi. As individuals, coyotes suffer horrendously in Killing Coyote, but it's also clear that as a species, they aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and they emerge as the beleaguered and deeply endearing heroes of the movie.

These sentiments are echoed by the most charming human in the film, an elderly, soft-spoken Montana cattle rancher who remarks that his accountant, the IRS and the Ford dealership are all higher than the coyotes on the list of those who get his cows away from him. "If they get any, I'm sure they're entitled to them," he says.

 
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