Should A Coyote Be Indicted?
One of Chicago’s most notorious criminals was recently captured: the limping coyote. A six-year-old boy was attacked and bitten by a coyote while walking with his caretaker. A concerned citizen chased away the coyote with a tree branch. The boy, who was bleeding from the head, was hospitalized and then released. Later, a thirty-two-year-old man claimed that a coyote followed him and bit him. This man was also treated and released from the hospital. Over the past several years there have been several reports of coyotes attacking and killing small dogs in the city and suburbs.
The executive director of Chicago Animal Care and Control warned people not to engage with coyotes in any way, and certainly not to feed them, stating that they usually avoid people and like to feed on small rodents and that they are an important part of the “urban ecosphere.” About a week after those attacks, the coyote was caught and tranquillized.
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News reports suggested that the coyote had ventured toward human venues because it was lame and could not hunt for itself. We were told that it had been shot with a BB gun. It was decided that this animal would not be euthanized because it was not aggressive after capture. (Of course, it was not tested near children.) The coyote, now named “Mercy,” was placed in a “permanent educational setting.”
Just weeks ago, a man in New Hampshire suffocated a coyote in the snow after it
grabbed his two-year-old son by the coat and dragged the boy to the ground. Had this coyote lived, would it have been named a “teaching assistant” at an “educational setting”?
In various places in recent months citizens have been caught feeding coyotes and are warned not to lure them into contact with human beings.
Two things entered my mind immediately after hearing about these incidents. The first was a question: Is it true of coyotes, as it is of at least some animals, that there is a danger of repeat attacks once they have, as it were, tasted human blood? The second is an ancient biblical law from the Book of Exodus (21:28-9): “If an ox gore a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be punished. But if the ox was wont to gore in time past, and warning has been given to the owner, and he has failed to guard it, but it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner, also, shall be put to death.”
The Talmudic Rabbis interpreted this passage as referring to any animal, not just an ox which, they observed, was mentioned here because it was the most common. They added that warning had to be given through witnesses, and that, in this case, the death of the owner was left to God and not to a human court (as they determined through parallel wording made to other places in Scripture where punishment is left to God). The ox that kills must be stoned to death and the owner who was warned had to pay “redemption” money to the victim’s family.
Human beings were not permitted to feast, as it were, on the tragedy of an animal run amok. This was in keeping with the biblical dietary laws which fostered the sanctification of life and a reverence for life by limiting the eating of meat to a spiritual discipline in which it was forbidden to consume or to exploit blood, the life force (Genesis 9:1-4), and in which certain abundant animals were barred from human consumption. (Leviticus 11)
In The Jewish Dietary Laws: Their Meaning for our Time (1959) Rabbi Samuel Dresner points out that the biblical discipline ruled out hunting as a “sport” and made the slaughtering of animals a professionalized, religious act designed to minimize pain to the animal and to curb human lust for killing.
Bible scholars have observed that no benefit could be derived from the executed animal because its death was a kind of expiation for the community which had to take responsibility for a human death even by one of its domesticated animals. But what is the responsibility of a community for wild animals that are out of control, particularly animals that are protected and maybe even planted for their part in the “ecostructure”?
The coyote accounts also called to my mind the concerns and tireless dedication and zeal of an independent researcher in the Chicago area named Dorothy Margraf, who recently passed away at age 78. Dorothy was a fierce opponent of New Age trends which she regarded as efforts to alter the values and mores of American society. Inspired by Constance Cumby’s book, The Dangers of the Rainbow and other exposes of New Age thought, Dorothy was unrelenting in urging people on her U.S. mail and then email lists -- and anyone who would read and listen, particularly clergy -- to recognize New Age trends and incursions into public discourse and values.
While I sometimes questioned the “New Age” label Dorothy placed on certain trends, I must say that her research was fascinating and went into places dark, light-hearted, heady, newsy, spiritual and religious, chatty and arcane or occult.
Beginning in 2004, Dorothy emailed me articles which, she felt, revealed a trend of placing protection of animals above the safety of human beings. Initially, she was concerned about cougar and mountain lion attacks, but in Talmudic fashion, her concerns could be applied to any animal that becomes a public nuisance or is deemed untouchable. She was troubled that animals were seemingly given priority over the safety of children, when, for example, parents were advocating for the removal of mountain lions near a public school. She was particularly piqued by the “rewilding” movement to release lions, elephants, tigers and zebras into areas designated by the Senate as “wilderness,” including an area near Joliet, Illinois, as reported by Joyce Morrison.
Some years back, Dennis Prager reported that he asked a group of young teens, “If you saw a stranger drowning and your pet drowning, how many of you would save the stranger first?” Only three raised their hands. He asked why the majority would have saved their pets first. They all responded, “We know and love our pets. We don’t know the stranger. The stranger is a stranger.” Then, out of curiosity, he asked the three who said they would have saved the stranger first, “What kind of pets do you have?” They all responded: “Fish.” Apparently, they had decided that their fish would fare better in the water than a drowning stranger. Prager observed that he believes that twenty or thirty years ago, most of the kids would have said that they would have saved the human being first.
Concerned university educators have believed for at least thirty years that they must make a case for the unique status of human beings, and some have drawn upon biblical literature. Dr. Leon Kass noted that the account of creation in the Book of Genesis affirms that human beings share special powers with God -- speaking, naming, blessing, articulating goals for the future, etc. -- which distinguish us from the animals. “This is not anthropocentric prejudice; it is cosmological truth,” he observed, pointing to “demonstrable truths [that] do not rest on biblical authority.” But, he added, the biblical scriptures remind us that we must retain humility before the rest of creation because we may be created in God’s image, but we are not God. (“Evolution and the Bible, Genesis 1 Revisited,” Commentary, November 1988) Hence, I would add, the many biblical verses that remind us of the human role to be stewards of the earth and of animals.
To wear down the hierarchy of people over animals is to open the floodgates to dehumanization. After all, the world’s most infamous advocate for reverence for “animals” as somehow more pristine and purer than humans was Adolf Hitler. His hateful limitations on the definition of humanity led to millions of murders and to bloody and destructive war that destroyed people and animals and nature alike. To be good environmentalists, we have to self-respect our own species, our humanity, enough to affirm the preciousness of every human life and our capacity to carry out our responsibility to the natural world and especially to human beings.
Steven Soderbergh’s well-acted, well-written and brilliantly directed thriller, Contagion (2011), has been credited with anticipating the current Corona Virus epidemic. Interestingly, the film’s villain is an animal rights blogger. While many are risking their lives to save others and to come up with a vaccine, this blogger complains that it is “bad to be a monkey. First, we shoot them into space. Then we shot them through with virus.” Writers Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh effectively called out New Age thought that puts animal life on the same level as human life.
Fortunately, no one was killed by the Chicago coyote. But what message should be sent once an animal attacks and is very publicly apprehended? What would best deter the public from feeding the animals and therefore endangering people and animals? Is the sacrificing of some animals the best way to save human life and to prevent more widespread purgation of animals later? Why do laws call for the euthanizing of a bear that attacks a man, but not for a coyote that attacks a child?
In suburban Colorado, a woman attempted to pet a moose that had wandered into a boutique district and, in turn, the animal tried to kick and perhaps trample her before running away. The public was warned that a moose can become curious about human doings, especially foods, and that a moose will stand its ground when people approach. Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that the woman received a ticket for “harassing wildlife.” Wouldn’t it have sent a better message to have ticketed her for “endangering human beings and wildlife” -- that is, endangering herself and perhaps others and setting off a chain of events that could have resulted in destruction of wildlife?