originally published in Waccamaw Journal
“Hiding in plain sight, this highly intelligent, creative, and adaptive animal has managed to thrive against the odds,” Kathryn says.
I lived in Boston and L.A. for almost twenty years. I never knew wild coyotes were living there too. Kathryn tells me that coyotes are entangled in many North American urban networks. Where the native tribes who cherished them were ousted or exterminated, coyotes survive.
It’s their refusal to lie down and die––their adaptability and elusiveness, their uncanny staying power even as white men came a-slaughtering and concrete swallowed up the fields––that earned coyotes their trickster-magic in Navajo legends. Ma’i is “a taboo-breaker,” wrote Barre Toelken, folk historian. Ma’i isn’t just a wiry animal, suspiciously doglike but too undoggedly wary. For the Navajo “there is no possible distinction between Ma’i, the animal we recognize as a coyote in the fields, and Ma’i, the personification of Coyote power in all coyotes, and Ma’i, the character (trickster, creator, and buffoon) in legends and tales, and Ma’i, the symbolic character of disorder in the myths.”
Philadelphia. Denver. Toronto. New York City boasts a research organization devoted to metropolitan coyotes. “They’re New Yorkers too!” says the Gotham Coyote Project. In Chicago, radio-collared coyotes work as civil servants, hunting rodents in the city center. In Tucson, biologists found that 50% of the city’s human residents enjoy seeing coyotes in their neighborhoods. Up to 85% believe coyotes pose no threat.
So when Kathryn tells me 400,000 coyotes are hunted down each year, I can’t wrap my head around it. That’s roughly the number of people in Atlanta, “mercilessly shot, tortuously caught in steel traps, their pups gassed inside their dens.” Chicago’s coyotes live under constant surveillance. They’re executed if they overstep their usefulness. Crossbows and flying arsenic are involved.
Biologist Stanley Gehrt, an urban coyote specialist, says although cities have overtaken their home ranges, coyotes try their hardest to avoid humans. Problem is, wildlife refuges are nearly as anthropo-saturated as cities, what with outdoorsy amusements becoming trendier in the ever-expanding human population. Still, of the 181 coyotes Gehrt studied, only seven were called “nuisances” by their human neighbors, all seven were sick at the time, only one had ever attacked a pet. In fact, Gehrt concluded, pets are way more likely than coyotes to attack humans. Officially, though, coyotes are vermin. That word, redolent of enmity and filth, offers illusory justification for those 400,000 painful deaths.
Talk abounds about coyotes colonizing “our” cities. But the fact is coyotes, an indigenous species, are on imperialism’s receiving end; hunted as indigenous humans were hunted, driven or exterminated from the same lands for the same reasons—they are not us. Yet they’re enough like us—cunning, resourceful, enigmatic—that those who kill them despise their differences the more.
Kathryn Eddy wants to change that.
I used to be a serious pianist. I played underground composers’ experimental works. That explains, in part, why I didn’t get many gigs. I met Kathryn at a convention of artists and writers who actually like weird experiments in border-busting art. She was born in Atlanta. She calls herself a “non-medium-specific” artist-activist. So although she trained as a painter, she works with sound, collage, sculpture, wallpaper, closets, paint, tables, video, and more. And for her there’s no distinction between making art and doing animal activism. Both practices are her. They’re Kathryn’s mode of being-in-the-world. She couldn’t make a requiem for her late husband without recordings of ewes and lambs who’d been separated from each other by a farmer. She couldn’t just say, as she said to me, “Chickens are terribly misunderstood,” she made a twelve-track sound artwork from cluckcluckcluckbaGAW. These days, in her Urban Wild Coyote Project, she’s turning noisy hunting decoys into vocal animal advocates.
Enter the sonic “game caller,” a machine that uses sound to lure coyotes to their deaths.
Sound. My first medium. That coincidence of air and flesh where I learned what joy and beauty are. I was incredulous when Kathryn told me about this machine. I researched it compulsively, more aghast with every click.
In 2017, Simon Romero of The New York Times reported that near Columbus, Ohio, a sheriff named Dennis Murphy dresses up in full camo and hunts coyotes with a silenced AR-15 assault rifle “in settings like strip mall parking lots, housing tract cul-de-sacs, and plazas in the shadow of skyscrapers.”
The Times had a photo of the sheriff brandishing two handfuls of flayed coyote corpses. He gets a hundred bucks a hide from the fashion industry. “We’re waking up to the realization that coyotes are in our cities to stay,” he told the Times. “And since that’s the case, their fur is a renewable resource. I have no qualms about killing as many coyotes as I can.”
Because coyotes are our neighbors, we might as well kill them for money? You live next door to someone. “Since that’s the case,” your body is theirs for the selling? Are you a renewable resource? Maybe Murphy’s reasoning has to do with coyotes’ heroic associations among Navajos and lesbians, none of whom would be welcome in his cul-de-sacs either. But if so, it only makes things worse.
Actually it does get worse. Murphy enjoys killing. Several people told the Times that they “enjoy the thrill of urban hunting.” Personally I don’t get it. Where’s the thrill in waving a gun around a Toys ’R’ Us?
It’s about image, I think. Delusions of grandeur. It’s about make-believe soldiers, “respectable” men and women like the sheriff, trying to fill an imaginary enemy’s empty seat with real coyotes. Consulting Kathryn about this, I realized staking out Home Depot with assault rifles boils down to nothing more than a spectacular display of the hunters’ personal power to stamp out difference. A display they need to remind themselves that they’re “Americans.”
In 2006, American feminist philosopher Bonnie Mann published a powerful essay describing the US “national identity,” as it’s popularly understood and cultivated, as a “masculine national identity” to which even women must subscribe. “Indeed, the superpower identity,” the fantasy that underlies US imperialism, “can only be maintained and expressed through repetition, through a staging and restaging of its own omnipotence.” What’s really scary, Mann wrote, is when that “stylized Rambo-on-steroids identity” becomes part of individuals’ personal aesthetic, coloring and styling “every manifestation of how we are toward the world and one another.” Including other animals.
Why make enemies of others, four-legged or otherwise? To the self-nominated superhero, the main thing is looking like you’re winning somewhere because that’s what superheroes do. The Biblical fantasy that humans rule the Earth is absolutely a force in this. Likewise, faith in Technology, that hyped-up deity, feeds on every restaging of the “military-technological” might-as-well-be-Iron-Man aesthetic. And this—amidst the hunter’s truckload of plastic deer, terrifying metal contraptions, and dead bodies—is where the scream machine comes in.
It looks like a cross between a boombox and a spaceship wearing camouflage. You can get it on Amazon. It comes with 75 preloaded sounds, including 3 varieties of Coyote Distress: Coyote Pup Distress, Coyote Pups Frenzy, Adult Cottontail Distress, Baby Cottontail Distress, Gopher Distress, Deer Fawn Distress, Cardinal Death Cry, Bird Wounded Panic, Domestic Baby Pup Distress. Murphy’s favorite sound is Squeal of Dying Rabbit.
The soi-disant “game” caller lures concerned or hungry coyotes into silenced-rifle range. Silenced, says the Times, because hunters “avoid alarming residents.” Human ones, that is. But really nothing’s more alarming than Coyote Distress 22 Seconds. You can hear it on the caller manufacturer’s website.
“Having a voice is important,” says an incensed Kathryn. “For a hunter to use an animal’s language in an attempt to kill them takes anthropocentrism to new heights.” Not to mention recording agonized death throes and selling them to killers for profit.
“What can I do?” Kathryn asks. “What can art do?” She buys a game caller. One day, via Skype, she activates the thing so I can hear it. “This is Distressed Starling,” she says.
Bear, her patient Yorkie, tears down the steps and pounces––not on the decoy, which Kathryn has turned off, but on the thing’s remote control. Supposedly the remote lets the hunter conceal himself far away, so Juvenile Coon Distress won’t smell to a coyote like Adult Human Bloodthirsty. Bear hears right through it. Slapping the thing and crying, he understands, because real pups don’t smell plastic, that these ghostly torture victims aren’t actually here. Still, he’d do anything to stop the screams. Kathryn shows him that she’s putting the remote away. She administers hugs, forgiven. Bear nestles in her lap, plunging into sleep as if to chase the horrors from his consciousness.
Only then does Kathryn show me what she’s done. She’s painted the caller red. Cut pictures from magazines and pasted them all over it. Pictures of disembodied human lips and eyes. She’s added bulbous taxidermy eyeballs, stick-on googly eyes with jiggling flat pupils. She’s done the same with the remote. Now the game caller looks like the game it really is: ridiculous and deadly.
Eyes snipped from fashion magazines are recurring motifs in Kathryn’s work. It’s about blindness, she says. We’re so busy ogling specimens of our own species that we’re blind to how we treat other animals.
It’s also about things daring us to meet their gaze. Things we want to pretend don’t feel our gaze and can’t gaze back. A gaze is an interrogating look. A gaze is soundless speaking. From the plastic legs of Kathryn’s “bedazzled” game caller, from the handle and self-amplifying loudspeaker, disembodied eyes looked right at me. Aloof. Sometimes half-lidded. And the lips. Pink and full but closed or only slightly open. With this air of studious indifference, the decoy seems to ask, So what do you want me to do? The eyes seem to wait for me as if to dare me, Take the remote. Instead of being a prosthetic extension of the hunter, this machine, just by sitting there, interrogates the potential hunter by looking them in the eye: You’re the one who’d have to press the button. Those languid paper eyes, that inert plastic body, demand without a word that the one with movable legs and itchy trigger finger take responsibility.
A gaze demands a response. A smile, a turned-up nose. Conspiratorial chuckle, lowering of the head. You can meet a gaze and hold it. Or look away, concede that you can’t bear it.
But Kathryn’s changed the caller on the inside too. She’s attached an mp3 player like an extra mouth. So besides mortal screams, the caller plays popular music. Pushing buttons on the remote could randomly get you a Cha-Cha, a Bee Gees number, or Baby Jackrabbit Distress.
In other words, Kathryn interrupts the decoy’s gruesome programming with other commodified sounds. Other voices-for-sale that lure humans into buying things from the music industry and whoever uses music to make sodas, phones, and politicians seem like good ideas. Next to consumerism’s excesses, it’s easy to feel how hunting decoys fit right in. Sure the manufacturer sells Coyote Pups Frenzy like it’s only software, just one of a thousand products, like a mass-produced camo-colored balaclava. But when Rodent High Distress shows up after “How Deep Is Your Love,” you can’t mistake the rodent’s cry for something meaningless or emotionless. Or lifeless. And it’s tough to look away from sound.
Kathryn’s radical absurdity: adding the hunter’s species to the hunting decoy’s playlist. Using its very own modus operandi to brainwash the decoy, so we will feel how absurd urban hunting is. Singing “Stayin’ Alive” all bright red and glamorous, the game caller’s useless for its intended purpose. As a hunting partner, it’s hopeless. A deserter. A subversive.
Kathryn wanted The Urban Wild Coyote Project to be an outdoor artwork. She’d make bedazzled decoys forget how to scream, take them full of music to places where hunters and victims were known to meet and kill and die. She hoped Meat Loaf and Edith Piaf would warn coyotes away.
But the humans who love Kathryn begged her not to do it. “I was met with a resounding no,” she says, laughing. “Something like: Why would you want to inflame a testosterone-fueled group of people holding guns?” Human urban hunters do shoot humans. Generally, humans with guns kill more humans every month than all the coyotes who’ve ever lived have scented from afar.
Kathryn agreed to make a gallery installation instead.
Here we are in the gallery, you and I. Even here, the Urban Wild isn’t exactly cozy. It’s as if, though withdrawing into a wallpapered corner, Kathryn has refused the gallery’s familiarity, the safe enclosure of “home.” The place seems neither gallery nor house but the uncanny setting for some kind of ritual. The room is dark. The dark is twittering. Shadowy things poke up from the floor, ill-shaped stalagmites. More shadowy things protrude from the low ceiling like restless spiders. Drawn to the only light in the place, five small sparkles in a line high upon the innermost wall, I head for it, my shoulders hunched. The way forward twists and turns between the pillars and the hanging things. The twitterers could be birds or bats. I find I’m trying to dodge the sounds slithering out of the invisible loudspeakers, making for what seems to be familiar.
The wallpaper. Five panels, floor-to-ceiling, lit from above by little cups of light which make the almost solid darkness into draperies of shadow. The papers hang like giant sacred scrolls, possibly because of how Kathryn had to handle them. With the ends rolled up, just a small part of the middle laid out flat so she could work on it by hand.
It’s easy to see some of the papers are delicate. Some are vinyl. Each has a different color scheme and old-fashioned pattern. The repetitive pattern of red squares and flowers. They’re not flowers at all, really, they’re flat abstractions of flowers. Trapped in circles, alternating with the squares, they’re more like fencing. Four walls of this could feel like a brocaded cell. Behind me, you press a button on a thing you found hanging from the ceiling, one of the stalagmites lets out a grating screech of agony; the sound of a too-loud ice cream truck playing “Turkey in the Straw” in maddening tinkly tones having already set my nerves on edge, I almost jump out of my skin, and you give a little yelp you try to pretend is a laugh. “Maybe next time I’ll get the Bee Gees,” you say nervously. But you don’t, it’s more like Coyote Pup Panic Attack. The other wallpapers are neurotically repetitive. Yellow with gray onions cut off from one another by bars in hexagonal arrangements. Fragments of pastoral scenes, goats and fowls and butteries, trees and little bits of wheat field complete with grazing sheep and youthful peasants wielding sickles, all stamped willy-nilly in cement gray on a sidewalk-gray background. One of the speakers plays “Pop Goes The Weasel” on top of “Turkey in the Straw” in tangled-up glockenspiels. A creepy child’s voice says, “What’s a bad guy?” And the dark voice of a man obsessed: “Real pretty eyes.” Your remote control triggers Coyote Distress. Coyotes are bursting out of the wallpapers.
In some places Kathryn’s drawn them in by hand. Coyotes sneaking in among the flowers. In other spots she’s freed four-inch coyotes from full-color photographs and stuck them on top of the wallpapers. From atop abstract blossoms a coyote looks in on us with yellow eyes, bristling with liveliness––not as if he’s broken through the chintzy trellised fencing, but as if it doesn’t exist for him; no fence, no wall, no neat suburban flower bed has any power over him. Another coyote stands in vivid color on the roof of a tiny cement-gray farmhouse. Another spurns the bars between fat white onions. And there’s another sitting in a tree and another. It’s an infestation. Coyote ghosts are everywhere. Images of coyotes who are long gone; screams of coyotes dying again and again; coyotes in potentia, those whom the dying screams might have baited to their deaths.
The stalagmites are pillars with bedazzled game callers on them. Suspended from the ceiling are the callers’ remotes. There are two callers with the winged-boombox shape and three smaller units that fit in your hand. Your hand is full of deaths. Moments of mad terror and unbearable pain. Final moments of real beings who felt every second of the shock, split of their flesh, the pain, the bafflement of Why?! Even an omnivore knows when her blood spurts out of her it is her own. Whether she’s coyote or raccoon, she understands wanting to live, and so she’s terrified and pain turns terror into panic. And panic erupts from her insides in a scream so horrible no one would have believed her capable of it, least of all she herself. And that moment. That’s the moment in your hand. The ghost of that moment how many times over.
“So what’s with the loudspeakers?” you ask with hesitation.
The glockenspiel folk tunes really are from ice cream trucks. Occasionally their horns toot out of the speakers. But it’s the playful tunes that lure the human pups out of their dens. Smashed together in a high-pitched mush, these tunes are truly maddening. Frightening, if you want my opinion. They fade in and out of a four-minute loop. There’s also birdsong, which creates a sort of lulling texture that makes us think of parks and farms, the Great Outdoors, undemanding barefoot peasants. There are snippets of TV commercials (“Meet the all-new SimpliSafe home security system!”). There’s no barrier between domestic “inside” sounds and sounds of the urban “outside.” Right next to a human baby bawling, there’s the voice of a white New Yorker using a puppy to lure children to follow him down the street in full view of their parents. (The man was conducting a study on “stranger danger” and susceptibility to pedophiles). There are voices of TV actors playing serial killers.
All this at the same time as you stand there pushing buttons on the remote, causing screeches, shrieks, and squeals to fly out of the game callers at random. It’s haunted-house scary. But not a fun haunted house. You never know what’s going to happen when your trigger finger twitches; so whatever happens, you’re never ready for it. You wield the hunter’s weapon with the terror of the hunted. And by the way, Kathryn chose the creepiest serial-killer voices she could find.
We hear how they lure their victims out of cars and doorways. “Real pretty eyes . . .” We hear, again and again, the moment just before one sociopath or another starts having his way with his victim. “Are you scared?” Puny sob, click of gun. “You should be.” They’re clearly from second-rate TV. You can hear the tinny sound quality. Canned: these voices are commodities. They’re for sale. They’re resources. Like “Turkey Distress” and Meat Loaf songs, they’re easy to find. Consumers everywhere pay to hear things being murdered, things that know they’re being murdered by people we’d call sociopaths. And you know what? We like it. We enjoy bringing prefab fantasies of the moment of death, of masterminding that moment, into our homes.
When Kathryn injects recordings of TV serial killers into the same not-quite-cozy room as canned sounds of real animals dying under torture, she asks us to wonder what their connection is. Might a human who lures others to violent deaths for kicks and a quick buck be encouraged in their sicko predilections by certain cultural predilections? In what moment of recent history has some serial killer, televised or literary, not been successful popular entertainment in the West?
None of that justifies urban hunting. I don’t believe “cultural training” necessarily prevents us from choosing how to behave. If you ran out and ate a flute player just because Hannibal does it in The Silence of the Lambs, that wouldn’t just be a problem with The Silence of the Lambs. Responsibility isn’t just cultural. It’s personal. But it isn’t just personal. Responsibility is also communal and therefore cultural. Kathryn’s Urban Wild sounds out a disturbing relationship between seemingly unrelated phenomena in hope of turning unquestioned assumptions about culture into disruptive questions about both cultural and individual choices.
Instead of “chill out, it’s only entertainment, everybody likes it,” Kathryn hopes that as the remote controls tumble from our hands, we’ll find ourselves wondering: What’s the difference between an urban hunter and a serial killer? Wouldn’t it be better to know coyotes might get in the yard than to know there are people who think killing for fun is reasonable? What do I do or think that might put me at risk for developing my own version of the hunter’s fantasy, the delusion that it’s okay for others to suffer if it’ll help my self-image?
Image again. Kathryn often talks about the toxic connection between “ruthless consumerism” and the widespread human tendency to hate or value others based on their outward appearances. This is one reason why The Urban Wild Coyote Project emphasizes sound and keeps images in shadow.
But the visual elements are still important. Coyotes gaze at us from wallpapers, their Old-Europe designs harkening back to an age when a wallpapered home was a sign of affluence on both sides of the Atlantic. Most wallpapers from that time had arsenic in them. It made the colors richer and long-lasting. It also slowly killed people by seeping into the air. This was public knowledge, but for decades no one wanted to believe it. It mattered more that they looked like they were somebody.
It was Kathryn who told me about this bizarre, self-destructive phase in the history of interior decorating. She said, “It is my hope to point out the absurdity of our choices.” Everything in her Urban Wild participates in this. Buying poisonous home decor is as ridiculous as buying “Cat Domestic Mad.”
On a pedestal outside the installation is a box of coasters, the things you slide under people’s drinks so they don’t leave circles on the coffee table. Kathryn used cutouts from magazines, furniture catalogs, and wallpapers to make collages that she sent to an online digital printing service. The service, which can “personalize” knick-knacks with the image of your choice, churned out squares of lacquered wood with Kathryn’s collages on them. Each one’s different, but they all feature coyotes quietly interrupting or brazenly overtaking some lavish domestic interior.
In one of my favorites, a chandelier hangs before what appears to be a picture window with a grand view of snowy mountains. You think this is some ritzy resort; “the wild” as vacation destination for moneyed metropolitans. But creeping across the floor are lumps of snow-covered stone. Once you’ve seen the snow, the floor beneath the chandelier begins to look like water. Not so exclusive after all; the wild is oozing in. As big as the chandelier itself, furry as it is sparkly, the coyote interloper gazes at you pensively.
Another favorite shows an art gallery in a huge home. There’s a floor-to-ceiling portrait of a woman. Her gown is the same yellow as a coyote’s eyes. She’s a thing to be looked at. But the coyote in the foreground seems to look past her, maybe in the process of turning from her to look at us. There’s a chandelier above her frame, suspended from a white ceiling with a human eye staring out of it. Thirteen disembodied eyes seem to fall like old leaves out of the chandelier. They drift down into a pile at the coyote’s feet.
The idea is to use “household objects to highlight the presence of this often hidden animal within our everyday environment,” Kathryn says. “The idea of the seen and the unseen converge in an attempt to redirect the gaze.”
Coasters keep things clean. They’re mini-borders. The coaster is a hygienic little wall between the home and the possibility of dripping fluids occasioned by an outsider. To cover such a wall in images of the wild seeping in, including images of “vermin”: this is a symbolic subversion of the coaster’s purpose. But it didn’t have to be coasters. Digital printing services, which are ubiquitous, can print on anything you want. “Coffee mugs, dish towels, keychains . . . there are endless opportunities for unbridled consumerism,” says Kathryn. The problem is, whatever it is, the cool smartphone case or smartphone wallpaper typically overshadows the actual animal whose flattened, ghostly image gives the product (and its owner) its cool character. No matter how many coyote-ghosts stare out of trendy sweatshirts (I found one online that says, “I WORK AT COYOTE LOGISTICS WHAT’S YOUR SUPERPOWER?”), still we don’t acknowledge real coyotes with any dignity.
But Kathryn’s coasters aren’t things you’d slap a beer on. These are things you’d normally slap a beer on exhibited as artworks in a fine-art gallery. Artworks in galleries ask that you look at them thoughtfully. I take the coasters in my hands. Wonder what urban coyotes have to do with chandeliers. The living agonies and needless deaths of real coyotes are illusory adornments to the urban hunter, delusional displays of nonexistent niftiness. One coaster shows a disco ball. I look at the coyote smack in the middle of it. Hear, over my shoulder, ice cream trucks tinkling and dying animals screaming.
Kathryn’s Coyote Project doesn’t say how complex and important coyotes are, doesn’t declare urban hunting is despicable. She just exposes me. Physically exposes my body, my senses, to distressing juxtapositions. She puts in my hand the means to make those connections felt. Felt not just in my own ears but by everybody in and around this gallery, a gallery with trappings of a prospering or at least stable home.
But how stable is it? Has Kathryn not placed in my hands—drink coasters, remote control—trappings of a stable home that because they’re infested with coyotes and wild eyes could actually shake these paper walls and shatter their priorities? Wouldn’t that mean they were never stable in the first place?
Somewhere in a corner—it may be a shadowy corner of the screaming room, perhaps opposite the wallpapers, perhaps among them, peering out of the dark . . . or a corner in the coasters’ room full of light, perhaps beside the black cutout in the wall where the screams are coming from (it all depends on the gallery and how Kathryn feels that day)—a coyote rendered in oil on a six-foot-tall canvas looks up at me from the floor with fur I can almost smell and a cool gaze, curious and questioning.
We have to live and die with others who aren’t like us. Besides the fact that wildlife reserves are shrinking, wild things are wild because the walls we build to contain them mean nothing to them. And because reserves are shrinking thanks to anthropo-consumerism, nonhumans do have claims on human territories. Homes are habitats. Permeable ecosystems. When you think about this, you’ll see you knew it all along: the myth of homeland security.
Never have the Navajo hunted the coyote. But sometimes, it is said, guilt over the other animals they kill for food distresses a Navajo hunter to the point of illness. Treatment is nine nights in a sweat lodge in a ceremony called Coyoteway.
For the first four “misfortune” nights, the hunter invites Ma’i, Coyote, to possess him. This is an ordeal. It amounts to feeling as a nonhuman animal feels; and this, although Coyote is not among his victims, stirs up the hunter’s anguish to an intolerable level. It takes several people and the next five nights to help the hunter symbolically lay his guilt aside by ceremonially disentangling his spirit from Coyote’s.
Sometimes I see Coyoteway in connection with Coyote Project. As though a guarded nod slips between them as they pass each other in recognition and quiet dissonance. Coyote Project also summons us to invite Coyote in. Coyote, the anguished prey. Coyote, the spirit of disorder seeping through the walls. Coyote-spirit, if we let it, may guide our curiosity to take the bait-remote. To our benefit and misfortune, take up that burden of guilt. Listen to the mewls of fantasized murder victims bleed into the screeches of real victims like Coyote-prey. But we have to invite that spirit in. Without us as co-conspirators, the decoys won’t make a sound, the paper walls won’t show themselves.
Even if they don’t, there is no disentanglement. Coyote’s already here, we never weren’t under its wild influence. It clashes, discordant, with what we think we want and how we think we want to live. And so it will outlive us.