My mom gently shook me awake. It was 5 a.m. “Quick—you’re going to miss it!” she whispered excitedly, rushing out of my bedroom and downstairs. I was still half-asleep, but I followed quickly. This had happened before, and I knew I didn’t want to miss it.
The coyote was back.
Groggily, I scampered downstairs and sidled up against my mother, who stood with her face squished against a window pane at the front of the house, peering outside. I squeezed my face next to hers. Our noses pressed flat on the cold glass, spreading a fog of collective breath across the pane. I used the sleeve of my Red Sox pajamas to wipe it away. I didn’t want anything to ruin the view.
The summer I turned twelve, this was a regular occurrence at my family’s house in Massachusetts. Our home, nestled in a heavily wooded housing development and closely bordered by horse farms, was no stranger to wild visitors. Still, the coyote was different from the deer, rabbits, foxes and even wild turkeys that frequently made cameos in our yard.
His presence could draw a twelve-year-old willingly from bed at the break of dawn. He was majestic. His vaulted ears made him look like a king. And he was intelligent. His calculating eyes flashed yellow in the dusky dark as he assessed his surroundings.
But above all, the coyote was dangerous.
Anyone who has seen a mammalian predator—a wolf, coyote, cougar or bear—knows the feeling of awe and fear that I felt as a child, watching that coyote from behind the safety of my front door. The heart beats fast. Eyes grow wide. The spine tingles. Our fascination with predators is obvious, but it’s also conflicting. We both fear and respect them. Simultaneously, we find them beautiful and abhorrent.
Wildlife management expert John Shivik has a term for this conundrum. He calls it the predator paradox. At the root of the paradox is one resounding question: Can humans and mammalian predators coexist? Up until now, the answer has been yes—but at a staggering price.
Shivik’s new book—aptly titled The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars, and Coyotes, available now from Beacon Press—explains that predators have long been paying with their lives for their human neighbors’ peace of mind. Shivik notes that the U.S. government has been engaged in all-out war against mammalian predators for the past 100 years. Indeed, the government has been using lethal force as its primary means of “predator management” since 1914.
Consider for a moment that 90,000 wolves, bears, coyotes, and cougars are killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services every year. (The most notorious of Wildlife Services’ deadly tactics, aerial wolf hunting, was made famous by Sarah Palin’s 2008 endorsement of the practice, which entails gunning down the animals from low-flying helicopters.)
While these animals’ rising death tolls go largely unnoticed and unreported by the mainstream media, the rare mammalian predator attack on humans always makes front page news. Intense coverage of such attacks, while understandable, exacerbates already-high levels of public fear of mammalian predators—which, in turn, further entrenches the government’s policy of lethal force against the animals.
But, as Shivik argues, the government’s mass killing of predators is doing nothing to protect humans from attacks; doing even less to establish a long-term, effective strategy to protect livestock and cattle from predation; and ultimately wreaking havoc on environmental ecosystems that rely on predator species to keep them healthy.
Fortunately, Shivik presents an arsenal of alternative predator management tactics, nonlethal techniques—such as shock collars, physical barriers, “frightening devices,” and more—that he’s pioneered as a federal and university researcher.
I’m moved by Shivik’s insistence that we can coexist with the animals around us. We can lighten up on our fear and embrace our respect of predators. We can use our political power and our creativity to find new ways of interacting with our predatory neighbors that benefit both sides of the equation.
And we can come to a more nuanced understanding of predators, recognizing that while they are indeed dangerous, they are also intelligent, majestic and beautiful. Just like the coyote who visited my childhood home.
Stephanie Mann is the publicity intern at Beacon Press.