Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia is about what the relatively recent phenomenon of wide-scale urban and suburban development means to the landscape, to wildlife, to people, and to our planet in general. Based on my personal and professional experiences, the book is simultaneously a memoir, a textbook, and a personal philosophy.
As a professional wildlife biologist, I have worked on a variety of wild animals in natural settings throughout North America and in a few other places around the world. It is only recently that I have developed a focus on those animals that live among us in our towns and neighborhoods. Society’s response to these animal neighbors has been as varied as the range of human emotions: admiration, fear, love, hate.
Perhaps no other species triggers a wider array of emotions and behaviors from people than the North American coyote. Before European settlement, the coyote was restricted to the central prairies and plains of western North America. But as the continent was settled and changes, such as the extirpation of wolves, took place, the way was opened for coyotes to disperse. Coyotes now occupy every state in the U. S., except Hawaii, and they are one of the most successful species in North America.
Each of the book’s 12 chapters is divided into three separate but interrelated parts. I chose to include a variety of approaches in the discussion of the topic of urbanization—or sprawl, as it has been called. The chapter opens with a narrative that describes experiences I have had with wildlife away from suburbia. These introductory passages serve a few purposes: to provide a contrast between wild and built environments, to explore the similarities that may exist between the two, and to simply take the reader away from urban/suburban settings for a while to experience nature in the wild.
The main portion of each chapter then explores and describes issues related to urban/suburban living: cities and towns as ecosystems, the growth of human population and resource use, the impacts to and responses of wildlife, and human-wildlife relationships, as well as traffic, noise, and artificial lights. Each chapter ends with the life and times of a female coyote as she navigates both wild and human environments.
In each section I strive to explain the interrelatedness of wildlife, humans, and the environment, and what that might mean to our collective futures.
“I focus on suburbia because that is where much of the interface between wildlife and people takes place.”
In much of the world, cities are expanding and growing to astronomical sizes. Along with the growth of cities comes the spread of suburbs. Suburban areas now dominate the perimeter of most cities and extend out into rural areas. Farmland, ranchland, forests, and deserts in private ownership are being “parcelized”—tracts are subdivided into smaller and smaller parcels for single family homes, shopping centers, and the like. This process of urban and suburban sprawl affects the landscape, wildlife habitat and populations, and human society.
Wildlife responds to human development of the landscape in different ways. It depends on the species. Some large carnivores, for example, decline and disappear with increasing development. Others, notably ecological generalists, non-native species, and species that can exploit human environments, can do quite well in urban and suburban areas. Among the latter are birds such as robins, starlings, house sparrows, house finches, crows, blue jays, and cardinals. And there are mammals too—house mice, opossums, squirrels, deer, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes. Similar processes are at work for other taxa (amphibians, reptiles, and even invertebrates).
In Coyote at the Kitchen Door I address the issue of urbanization and sprawl, and both the impact it has on wildlife and the response of wildlife to these rapid changes in the landscape. Although I try to cover issues related to urban areas, as well as rural country and even wilderness, I focus on suburbia because that is where much of the interface between wildlife and people takes place.
Of interest are those species whose populations diminish in the face of increasing development, but perhaps more compelling, from a human perspective, are those animals that actually exploit human resources (food, water, shelter) and flourish within our neighborhoods. And the North American coyote is perhaps the master of adaptation in the face of continued human domination of the landscape.
While cities and towns throughout North America represent wonderful places to live, their unbridled growth threatens wildlife habitat, open space, biodiversity, and the resources upon which we depend. Many such dichotomies are evident in our relationship to nature. The case of the coyote embodies one: an incredible, adaptable, beautiful animal that many people admire, and at the same time a predator that many people fear, capable of threatening livestock, family pets, and even humans.
Coyote at the Kitchen Door tells the story of urbanization from my own perspective as a wildlife biologist—while I weave in the book the biology and life history of the coyote, through following a female coyote’s travels and life among humans.
The preface provides a perspective for the book, as well as an explanation of the structure of each chapter, so that might be the appropriate place to start browsing.
The prologue (subtitled “Suburban Beginnings”) also helps set the stage for much of the writing. There I describe my first job as a biologist, working on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape Churchill, Manitoba and encountering a wide array of wildlife, including polar bears. Later in the prologue I introduce the coyote, and what the species means to our society and what it represents in terms of how we now view nature, and how nature continues to infiltrate our lives, independent and indifferent to our wants and desires.
The prologue also introduces the idea of the dichotomies that proliferate when the worlds of humans and wildlife merge. Although we tend to think of human and wildlife realms as separate, they are indeed one world; we share one planet.
I have been fortunate enough to experience the mysteries and beauties of nature in different biomes in the world, and I portray these in the introductory vignettes at the beginning of each chapter. These should give the reader a feel for that aspect of the writing. Although these opening narratives are connected in some way to the chapter, they could be considered stand-alone pieces.
To me, all of the issues discussed in the book come down to our collective philosophies, feelings, and actions toward the land. Because our lives are so busy, our time is filled with so many gadgets, and we have grown accustomed to so many conveniences, I think it is easy to forget, or at least take for granted, the reliance we have on the land. So the last chapter, “A Suburban Land Ethic,” embodies probably the book’s most important message.
My ideas regarding the land come from Aldo Leopold’s writings, particularly Leopold’s essay “The Land Ethic” (in A Sand County Almanac). I think it is worth repeating today what Leopold advocated several decades ago.
“Although we tend to think of human and wildlife realms as separate, they are indeed one world; we share one planet.”
The coyote is an important icon or symbol to our society, and to the societies in North America that came before us. For example, our relationship with predators like coyotes can be seen as emblematic or representative of our relationship will all of nature. This, in turn, leads to the theme of the dichotomies that we face in life and in nature, which appear often in the book: We cherish and fear nature; we preserve it yet exploit it; we try to live our lives sustainably and yet with such a profusion of consumer goods and services that we strain the ecological systems upon which we depend.
At times, my writing may have gotten almost too personal. I hope this will not be seen as self-indulgent but rather as an attempt to put our continuing struggle to understand our place in nature on personal terms. The issues I write about are not restricted to those who might call themselves environmentalists or conservationists—they are rather both a challenge and an opportunity for everyone in our society.
A friend who read the book thought that I may be too optimistic regarding our ability to understand our place in nature, formulate a land ethic, preserve open space and wildlife habitat, and live a more sustainable life. In the face of so many global crises, such as depleting oil reserves, climate change, an exponentially growing human population, and unending wars, it may be difficult to maintain a level of optimism. However, I have continually been amazed and impressed at the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people to seek and implement solutions. It is with that hope that I ended Coyote at the Kitchen Door.
Stephen DeStefano is a Research Wildlife Biologist with the U. S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Research Unit Program, and a Professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He has B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Wildlife Biology from the Universities of Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Idaho, respectively, and has served with Cooperative Research Units at Oregon State University and the University of Arizona. Stephen has worked on a variety of wildlife species and issues, including endangered species, forest wildlife, urban/suburban wildlife, and human-wildlife interactions. He is a board member of the Urban Wildlife Working Group of The Wildlife Society (TWS) of North America, a Fellow of TWS, and has several awards for research, service, and publications. He has produced over 100 academic papers and reports and co-authored two scientific books. Coyote at the Kitchen Door is his first book for the general reader.