This is the second post in the series Learning from and with Invasive Species: pluralities, refractions, futures, a 4 part series of pieces edited by Estraven Lupino-Smith concerned with how humans choose to relate to species perceived to be “out-of-place” as shaped by ontologies, socioeconomic context, place-based histories, and desires of knowing and belonging to the world. By drawing attention to invasivity as historical production and the fickleness of its adoption, the series takes up discussions around invasion ecology and its relationship to the politics of land, labor, resources, selfhood, and place-making.
It is not uncommon to come across species labeled native, invasive, introduced, and more. At face level, they seem to represent straightforward and natural belonging (or lack thereof) attached to particular geographies. However, these labels are more than straightforward ecology; they hold the power to delineate, through the language of ecological sciences, who does or does not belong to various lands.
This power was made particularly clear to me at a town hall I attended nearly five years ago in a wealthy suburban enclave north of San Francisco (Coastal Miwok land). This town hall centered an unusual subject: coyotes. The species had been deemed too adept, too comfortable, and too successful living amongst the local human population. The community social network platform, Nextdoor, listed myriads of crimes the coyotes were responsible for: trespassing into backyards, walking around during the days (how bold!), being seen near school yards, growling at dogs on hikes, and the presumed cause of any missing domestic felines.
At the town hall, a wildlife biologist presented a slide deck of facts intended to demystify the species. While coyotes were often referred to as ‘German shepherd-sized’ on Nextdoor, the biologist presented the fact they they are 16 kilograms at their largest (for Western Coyotes). Many assumed the canines to be nocturnal, the biologist confirmed that they are in fact diurnal, and some populations have moved their schedule to night to avoid human activity. The biologist also reported that coyotes defend their den sites during pup season, potentially growling and lunging at dogs or people who get too close, and that while their yips and howls make it sound like there is a large pack, it is often just one or two coyotes vocalizing, rapidly making a multitude of other-worldly sounds.
The presentation was met by some with enthusiastic curiosity who were eager for the newfound information regarding their wildlife neighbours and understanding the species as an undomesticated medium-sized canid, rather than terrifying foe. Others, however, were not so open to coexisting with coyotes. They proclaimed that coyotes endangered small dogs and cats, would threaten small children, and finally, that they did not belong there—that coyotes were, in fact, invasive.
This last claim came from an elderly white gentleman, who gave anecdotal evidence. He had lived in the county for forty years. Back then, he never saw coyotes; now, he saw them regularly—on hikes, walking down the street, and even once in his backyard. They were a threat that was multiplying. He furthered this narrative, making the claim that the species had been introduced. Therefore, he concluded, they should be eliminated from the landscape.
While his claim is not supported by science (coyotes are, by paleontological accounts, native to North America), his tactic–labeling a species invasive to dictate who does and does not belong – is a long and hallowed tradition within the United States. Banu Subramaniam (2001; 2014), for example, draws parallels between language of invasive species and xenophobic anti-immigrant discourse, noting similarities in imagined invasions of unwanted species and peoples. Much like most immigration, being an introduced species becomes criminalized, making species targets of ‘conservation’ campaigns.
Considering the social complexities of labeling an animal invasive, this (white) man’s claims that coyotes were introduced, invasive, and needed to be eliminated from this wealthy suburban landscape appeared, in short, problematic. What this man appeared to really be saying was that coyotes were unruly–and therefore unwanted. Coyotes certainly do not abide by the polite and formal rules of an elite, white, settler society. To make the claim that they are invasive appears to be a societally adept way of convincing others to eliminate an entire species from a landscape. After all, discourses of invasion (whether applied to human or animal bodies) are particularly strong tools for identifying bodies that do not serve settler-colonial stories of nation-building and capital accumulation (Collard & Dempsey, 2017; Kim 2015; Subramaniam, 2001, 2014).
Labelling coyotes as invasive might be a new strategy, but targeting predator species as threat, nuisance and pest is not a new phenomenon. Throughout histories of the United States and Canada, Indigenous lands have been appropriated alongside the killing of predator species, making way for settlers and their accompanying livestock (Anderson, 2004; Belcourt, 2015; Collard et al., 2015; Collard & Dempsey, 2017; Crosby, 2004; Emel, 1995). The archives of the United States Department of Agriculture refer to coyotes as an “archpredator”, a “very serious menace” and, a “destroyer of useful creatures” (Goldman 1930, p. 330). Rosemary-Claire Collard and Jessica Dempsey (2017) attribute this to the way in which capitalism orients human settler-society to nonhuman animals. Coyotes (and other predator species), which threaten lively livestock or other valued animals such as companion dogs and cats, are oriented in our society as a threat worthy of elimination (Collard & Dempsey, 2017).
Claims of invasion, while seemingly scientific and uncontroversial, cannot be disentangled from the capitalist settler-society from which they emerge. Knowledge from Indigenous communities present different ways of responding to ‘introduced’ species. Newcomer species are understood as the arrival of new nations (animals are persons within Anishnaabe and other Indigenous cultures; Reo & Ogden, 2018). Their arrival marks an opportunity for new relations, including new foods, medicines, and knowledge (ibid). Some Anishinaabe expressed being less concerned with the settler notion of “invasive species”, and instead presented greater concerns with an “invasive land ethic” (ibid). Privatizing land, limiting river access, poisoning or otherwise culling certain species were evidence of such (ibid).
Despite the man’s claims at the town hall, coyotes are a native species to California, and throughout most of North America. In fact, the most concerning invasive entity at this meeting may have been the invasive ethic the man invoked, which encouraged killing species, rather than an acceptance and welcoming of relations that newcomers of human and animal varieties bring.
Anderson, V. D. J. (2004). Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. Oxford University Press.
Belcourt, B. R. (2015). Animal bodies, colonial subjects: (re)locating animality in decolonial thought. Societies, 5(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc5010001
Collard, R.-C., & Dempsey, J. (2017). Capitalist Natures in Five Orientations. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 28(1), 78–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2016.1202294
Collard, R.-C., Dempsey, J., & Sundberg, J. (2015). A Manifesto for Abundant Futures. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(2), 322–330. https://doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2014.973007
Crosby, A. (2004). Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (D. Worster & J. R. McNeil, (eds.)). Cambridge University Press.
Derrida, J. (1991). “Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject: An interview with Jacques Derrida. In P. C. Cadava & J. Nancy (Eds.), Who Comes After the Subject? Routledge.
Emel, J. (1995). Are you man enough, big and bad enough? Ecofeminism and wolf eradication in the USA. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 13(6), 707–734. https://doi.org/10.1068/d130707
Goldman, E. A. (1930). American Society of Mammalogists The Coyote : Archpredator Author ( s ): E . A . Goldman Published by : American Society of Mammalogists Stable URL : http://www.jstor.org/stable/1374154. Journal of Mammalogy, 11(3), 325–335.
Kim, C. J. (2015). Dangerous Crossings: Race, species, and nature in a multicultural age. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107045392
Reo, N. J., & Ogden, L. A. (2018). Anishnaabe Aki: an indigenous perspective on the global threat of invasive species. Sustainability Science, 13(5), 1443–1452. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0571-4
Subramaniam, B. (2001). The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 2(i), 26–40. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/meridians/v002/2.1.subramaniam.html
Subramaniam, B. (2014). Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity. University of Illinois Press.
Feature Image: Coyote in Yosemite National Park. Harry Collins.
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