Suburban Howls by Jonathan G. Way: A Review
Jonathan Way began his research on coyotes (Canis latrans) while attending high school in Cape Cod Massachusetts. The passion to learn more about coyotes motivated him to continue his education in the sciences, ultimately culminating in obtaining a Ph.D. in 2005 from Boston College.
Way uses Suburban Howls to disseminate his research findings to a non-academic audience. But the book is more than just a source for facts. For in many instances, Suburban Howls is a political manifesto and personal diary because it details Way’s intimate thoughts, feelings, triumphs and frustrations about his work with coyotes. Anyone interested in learning what a doctoral student in wildlife science must endure to achieve his/her degree will find this book enlightening.
Substance of the Book
Way’s research encompasses 3 different components and the book is organized around those research foci. The first component was the field study where Way had to capture coyotes and attach radio-collars on them in order to monitor their movements and activity. This research protocol is not unusual except Way is not trapping coyotes in states with reasonable wildlife control law; he is trapping them in Massachusetts, where in 1996 the citizens foolishly listened to the animal rights protest industry groups and voted to ban foothold traps even for research purposes. The passage of this referendum meant that Way could not use efficient, low-cost and humane tools to catch coyotes but instead he had to spend thousands of hours trying to catch coyotes in cage traps, which, as he discovered, has an efficiency rate of less than 1%. Phrased differently, Way had to monitor a trap for 100 days (on average) to catch a single coyote. The joys and trials of this highly time-wasting, and indiscriminate capture method are chronicled in painful detail.
The second component consisted of his experience raising coyote young in captivity. After obtaining the necessary permits, a significant obstacle in itself, Way details his experience in finding a litter of coyote pups and the monumental effort given to their care in the first 60 days. Given the lack of sleep that he endured, one can only wonder where he found the physical and psychological fortitude to complete the task.
The final component involved creating a curriculum based on his coyote research to enhance student understanding of coyotes and encourage student engagement and learning about the natural world and science in general. His description of his interaction with a high school class convinced me that I wish I had a class like his when I attended High School.
Evaluation of Surban Howls
It is difficult to evaluate this text because it doesn’t neatly fall into any of the traditional categories. As I stated above, Way writes about his research findings along with extended descriptions of his personal thoughts and emotions. The book is part science paper and part diary. In addition, Way repeatedly preaches to the reader about the evils of hunting and trapping and why America’s relationship with coyotes needs drastic alteration.
I can appreciate his frustration. I am sure it is heartbreaking to spend hundreds of hours trying to cage-trap a coyote only to lose that coyote to a hunter’s bullet before all the data is gathered. I would probably be angry too. But to vent anger at hunters, when the majority of his coyotes were lost to automobiles seemed misguided and could be considered a form of psychological transference. Transference is a term to describe a person’s tendency to express emotion to someone or something that is unrelated to the actual source of that emotion. It is like being angry at your boss but you don’t get angry at the boss, instead you go home and kick the dog.
I found it slightly ironic that Way rails against the public’s and media’s ignorant views regarding coyotes yet he himself holds a number of ignorant views about hunters and trappers. He tries to separate bad hunters (he calls them red necks) from the ethical hunters, but his disdain about hunting in general makes the distinction less than persuasive. For example, Way says he cannot understand how hunters can claim to love coyotes and still hunt them. The fact he can’t understand that the love of a human to an animal is of a different order than the love between humans is truly frightening in light of the fact he is a trained wildlife biologist.
Perhaps more disturbing than Way’s animal protectionist bias is his tendency to speak beyond the evidence. On page 4, he makes the unsupported claim that trappers use shotguns to shoot trapped coyotes in the head. A .22 cal round, sure. But a shotgun is just too messy, expensive, and destroys the pelt. I for one would like to see evidence that this occurs, unfortunately, Way provided no evidence. Second, Way decries the injuries of coyotes that are winged but not outright killed by hunters. I can understand his anguish. Sportsmen should always seek to reduce the likelihood of bad catches and bad shots. But to simply call a hunter who made a bad shot a red neck is like calling a surgeon who makes a mistake a butcher. The fact is we must distinguish between mal-occurrence and malpractice. Just because a shot didn’t go as planned doesn’t mean it was a bad shot from the start. Sometimes the manufacturer’s load was light or a gust of wind moved a branch etc. There is any number of explanations to account for bad outcomes and not all of them are a result of sloppy hunting practices. There are too many more misunderstandings in his work for me to mention at this time, so I will end with just one more. On page 222, he tells homeowners to stop using rodenticides to control mice and get a house cat instead. I was stunned to see this claim by a trained biologist as it demonstrated how little he knew about the control of commensal rodents. If he is just worried about mice in the living space, then cats will work fine. But I suspect homeowners don’t want mice in the walls either which is where cats are completely useless. If you don’t believe me, read the literature by Dr. Robert Corrigan.
Final Comments about Suburban Howls
In sum, if you want to learn a little about urban coyotes interspersed with long diatribes about how Way was “wronged” or angry about coyote policies then this book is for you. The narrative is light and easy to read and filled with lots of anthropocentric images of Way holding and interacting with coyotes. If you want less fluff and more solid, straightforward research, skip this book and read his journal articles instead.
About the Reviewer
Stephen M. Vantassel is a Certified Wildlife Control Professional and specialist in wildlife damage management. His most recent book is the National Wildlife Control Training Program (2010) published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Cornell University.