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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The killing of coyotes: From violent video to the federal war on wildlife

With the trial scheduled to begin today, a last-minute plea agreement was reached in the case against a Michigan hound hunter in connection with the gruesome killing of a coyote captured in a YouTube video. A second defendant, facing a felony charge of torturing an animal and misdemeanors for animal cruelty and failure to kill wounded game, was found not guilty a few months ago.

Coyote-ffawc-Allison-Gibson-270x240
Photo courtesy of Allison Gibson/For The HSUS

The outcome of this case should be disappointing to anyone who stomached the tough stuff on these sickening snuff films, which showed decidedly dark behavior about as far removed from responsible hunting as you can get. These films were disquieting portrayals of dead-eyed apathy to the suffering of living beings.

In the first video, a coyote, injured and prostrate after suffering several gunshot wounds, lies in the snow as a narrator records the animal’s suffering and describes his intent to “let [the dogs] finish him off.” The barking and braying of hounds can be heard in the distance, and when the dogs finally reach the wounded creature, the resulting “fight” is more brutal, deflating, and outright soul-crushing than you can imagine. The cries of the wounded creature as he weakly attempts to defend himself only get shriller, more desperate and high-pitched until finally it ends, the animal’s life essence bleeding out and turning the snow to crimson. A 12-year-old child looks on as the dogs tear the creature to shreds—as if it were some sort of enjoyable or educational experience.

The second video depicts another coyote lying in the road, having been run down and hit intentionally by the truck from which the videographer films the animal’s agonizing final moments. For several minutes, the animal is left to the realities of his pain and imminent death, before he is eventually shot with a pistol from the vehicle.

In the hounding case, a jury found the cruelty statute applicable only to domesticated companion animals like dogs and cats, and not to wild animals in a hunting situation. Meanwhile, the hunter in the road killing case pled guilty to reckless use of a firearm, despite the appalling sequence of conduct that involved intentionally running down a coyote with a car.

The hunting ethic calls for a clean and quick kill, and these two individuals were seeking just the opposite—to prolong the animals’ agony for sadistic sport. Any responsible hunter or decent-minded person should call for the state and federal laws to be strengthened, to clearly punish the malicious torture of a defenseless animal.

While there are individual acts of cruelty to coyotes that go beyond the pale, there are also more concerted and normalized campaigns against these creatures. For 30 years, the federal government waged war on coyotes, killing millions of them in a scorched-earth campaign to eliminate unwanted animals from the United States. The result—aside from coyotes’ biological adaptation and the spread of ever more of them throughout the country—was a national hardening of conscience against them.

As writer and historian Dan Flores describes in the recent book, “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,” they became scapegoats and targets of an irrational animus, despite field observations from revered biologists like Adolph Murie who documented them as intelligent animals capable of a wide range of emotions. As Flores wrote this month in a New York Times op-ed, “No other wild animal in American history has suffered the kind of deliberate, and casual, persecution we have rained down on coyotes.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s century-old “Wildlife Services” program is a little known, taxpayer-funded agency that principally focuses on the outdated and inefficient model of lethal control when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. And the killing it authorizes and carries out routinely utilizes shockingly inhumane and indiscriminate methods, such as toxic poisons, steel-jawed leghold traps, and aerial gunning to kill tens of thousands of coyotes each year. These animals are poisoned, gassed, shot from the ground and from aircraft, and killed in painful traps and snares to benefit private ranchers grazing their livestock on public lands.

There is a legitimate case to be made for a federal agency that helps to solve wildlife conflicts and provides training and research on best practices with an emphasis on innovation and non-lethal solutions. But Wildlife Services in its current form is a relic of the past. It exterminates wildlife as a government subsidy for private ranchers and other special interests, using inhumane and ineffective methods, while the U.S. taxpayers foot a large share of the bill. 

We have a right to expect better from our government, especially when humane alternatives are on the rise. The Obama administration should ban the most inhumane and indiscriminate methods of killing coyotes, and bring much-needed reform to this outdated and wasteful government program. It would be an amazing capstone to a presidency that has already produced substantial benefits and protections to animals.

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