American Serengeti and Coyote America book covers

American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains (University of Kansas Press, 2016) and Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (Basic Books, 2016), by Dan Flores

The transition of the Great Plains from a once thriving, diverse grassland ecosystem to the homogenous agricultural fields and suburban sprawl of today is the subject of two recent books by environmental historian Dan Flores, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains (University of Kansas Press, 2016) and Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (Basic Books, 2016). Both of these books are interested in the removal, both purposeful and otherwise, of keystone animal species that thrived on the short-, mixed-, and tallgrass prairies of the midcontinent for over 10,000 years, from the time of the Pleistocene mass extinctions that ended the reign of mammoths and saber-toothed cats to the arrival of Euro-Americans whose interest first in fur and hides, then in large-scale agriculture, pushed many of the species covered in Flores’s books to the brink of extinction. American Serengeti is the slimmer of the two books but casts a wider net, looking at the natural history and current prospects of pronghorn antelope, coyotes, wild horses, grizzly bears, bison, and wolves. As the title suggests, Coyote America gives its complete attention to the wily canid and its long, often troubled, history as America’s preeminent mid-size predator. The former offers a thorough critique of the policies and practices of “de-buffaloing,” “de-wolfing,” and “de-grassing” the American midcontinent that has characterized most Euro-American activity in the region since the Louisiana Purchase.[1] The latter is a more intimate portrait of a single species, from its evolution in North America alongside other members of the Canidae family across several million years to its central placement in Native American cosmology and storytelling, to the concentrated efforts of extermination—mostly through hunting and poisoning—over the last 200 years, to its continued survival and eventual spread into even the most urban environments of North America. Read together, both are an exercise in what Flores describes as “opening your mind to the possibilities of deep history,” wherein “a few moments of imagining can bring this [prairie] landscape back to life.”[2] The last three words of this passage are key, because with the exception of a few small pockets here and there, this ecosystem and most of its keystone animal species have been wiped clean.

Flores doesn’t mince any words as to how we got here, stating early in American Serengeti that the “nineteenth-century Great Plains was a slaughterhouse” that “experienced the largest wholesale destruction of animal life discoverable in modern history.”[3] In fact, the whole of this book can be read as a lament for the choice, made not long after Lewis and Clark’s initial foray through the region, to use the Great Plains as a testing grounds for the limits of free-market capitalism. All of the animals covered in this book suffered as a result, first with the fur trade (bison and pronghorns), then with homesteading and small-scale farms (grizzlies and wild horses), and eventually with larger farms and ranches of industrial agriculture (coyotes and wolves). Writing specifically about the collapse of bison populations at the end of the 19th century, Flores makes a point that is applicable to each chapter of this book: “Regardless of who was doing the killing, it was the profit motive, for wealth and status, that had wiped the animals out.”[4] His larger point is to offer a counterargument to the “government conspiracy” narrative of the 19th-century animal slaughter, which may have been, and perhaps remains, preferable to those who settled in the region in the slaughter’s aftermath, because it lessens some complicity both in the act and in the benefit gained by having all of this wide open space to settle.

The passing of John Berger at the start of this year deprived the world of one of its most discerning critics, most notably of the visual arts and Western imperialism, or, as in the case of his seismic Art and Revolution (1969), the two together. Yet Berger might have been his most compelling in his writing about animals. He was one of a small number of people who have been allowed to enter Chauvet cave in southern France to view the 30,000-year-old cave paintings that stand as one of the earliest known instances of creative human expression. The paintings inside Chauvet recount a world that we no longer recognize in the landscape of southern France, with lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses making up many of the animals depicted. For Berger, the paintings in Chauvet are the embodiment of a human culture that saw the world differently: “They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped.”[5] In the rest of this essay, it is clear that Berger feels a powerful connection with, even a longing to join, these artists who “lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries,” as opposed to our present culture “of ceaseless Departure and Progress” that “instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.”[6]

How human culture came to “outflank” the most central of those “mysteries”—namely, the animals with which we once shared every space we inhabited—is the subject of Berger’s enduringly prescient essay “Why Look at Animals?” (1977). As with his writing on Chauvet, the first half of the essay details the many ways that animals were once front and center in human life and culture, the most foundational way that we had for understanding the world: “Everywhere animals offered explanations, or, more precisely, lent their name or character to a quality, which like all qualities was, in its essence, mysterious.”[7] As time passed, and most (but not all) human societies across the globe transitioned from predominantly hunter-gatherer to predominantly agricultural to predominantly industrial, our relationship with animals was irrevocably changed. We are still drawn to animals but in a much different way: “The animal has been emptied of experience and secrets, and this new invented ‘innocence’ begins to provoke in man a kind of nostalgia. For the first time, animals are placed in a receding past.”[8]

Among the numerous ways that Berger identifies as a struggle, mostly in vain, to keep some animal presence in our lives, he is most insightful on what he has to say about zoos. This essay predates the current characterization of zoos as bastions of conservation, preservation, and protection of animal species that might otherwise be lost if left in the “wild.” But the principle animal encounter that takes place in a 21st-century zoo is the same as it was when zoos first came into existence in the 19th century and the postwar zoos that Berger is mostly addressing in “Why Look at Animals?” As charitably as zoos want to present themselves, the fact remains that “each cage is a frame round the animals inside it. Visitors visit the zoo to look at animals… Yet in the zoo the view is always wrong. Like an image out of focus.”[9] Also unchanged in the four decades since the publication of this essay is the reality that zoos are advertised mostly as an activity for children, but all too common is the experience of disappointed adults and frustrated children, as animals are frequently lethargic, unresponsive, out of sight. In addition to disappointment, a creeping sense of guilt is also common, in large part because “However you look at these animals, even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it.”[10] Zoos may in fact keep some endangered species one step back from the precipice of extinction, but Berger forces us to question if what we’re looking at in these zoos ought to be thought of simply as this or that species of animal or instead as a “living monument to their own disappearance.”[11]

Berger’s essay is always on my mind when I visit a zoo with my young daughters, mostly Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, but we’ve also visited the zoos in St. Louis and San Diego and an aquarium in Las Vegas, all of which share the “enforced marginalization” assessment that concludes “Why Look at Animals?” Different in practice but similar in principle is the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, a drive-through animal experience near Ashland, Nebraska, that is run by the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. The essential elements of a traditional zoo—cost of admission and the chance to look at animals—are certainly in place, but instead of mostly walking (or taking a tram, train, or “skyfari”), visitors to the Wildlife Safari primarily remain in their cars, and the animals in question are ostensibly regional species living in their native habitat. That means elk, deer, a couple of bears, a handful of gray wolves, sandhill cranes, and bison. While the Wildlife Safari draws enough visitors to justify keeping it open from May through October, it clearly does not draw the same crowds that frequently overwhelm the Omaha zoo, which forces some closer scrutiny. On the one hand, thinking of Berger’s analysis in “Why Look at Animals?” and Flores’s discussion of animals of the Plains, why do these “native” animals not have the same appeal to Midwestern tourists as “exotic” animals like tigers, gorillas, and elephants? On the other hand, does the slightly larger pen space for these animals justify the phrase “Conservation Park” that is part of the Wildlife Safari’s name? Or, is it possible that these “native” animals have been marginalized even further than their companions in the traditional zoo? Those who are turned off by the confined quarters of a polar bear or snow leopard might feel better about the open air and space to do more than just pace back and forth provided by the Wildlife Safari; however, these animals are still confined to pens designed to maximize viewing angles, with the sound of accelerating cars and trucks replacing the crowd noise of the zoo. Furthermore, whereas zoo animals are exoticized due to their rarity or a unique physiological feature, the Plains animals of the Wildlife Safari are novel primarily because of the “lost world” that they represent—a collection of animals who, as Flores explains, once thrived in the prairies of the North American midcontinent but are now bounded on all sides by the fields of monoculture that have replaced them.

The fate of the bison is arguably the pinnacle chapter of American Serengeti, both because of the unrivaled size and scope of its slaughter and the lengths that some have gone to ensure that this animal did not go the way of its contemporary the passenger pigeon, or even the mammoths and mastodons before it. The bison also serve as the pinnacle of the Wildlife Safari experience, as they are the last animals that drivers encounter when traveling through the park. Incidentally, Flores’s assessment of the current status of bison recovery in the United States perfectly sums up the presence of the bison at the Wildlife Safari: “the American bison… [is] a trendy sort of ranched beef animal, or a symbol merely, a circus beast from history, saved as a faunal badge of conquest… Saved, but unlike pronghorns, grizzlies, even wolves now, not really free, and certainly not wild.”[12] Passing by the herd of bison kept at the park, undoubtedly there are many visitors disappointed by how stationary they are, with most sitting in the dirt using their tails to swat at the impossibly thick swarms of flies. Seeing the animals this way is certainly a challenge to the romantic notion of the bison hunt, of great stampedes by an animal nearly the size of the cars we’re all sitting in, asking the same question that Berger identifies as an inescapable part of any visit to a zoo: “Why are these animals less than I believed?”[13] Such disappointment is not a fault of the bison, but it is a fault of the circumstances they’ve been placed in, making them an even further marginalized presence in the Wildlife Safari.

There are no coyotes at the Wildlife Safari—at least none that have been placed there intentionally—which makes a great deal of sense after reading Coyote America. Flores makes it clear that few animals in the history of North America have been subjected to such a negative portrayal and outright propaganda regarding its motives, its actions, and its relations both with other animals and with humans: “almost no other creature reaped the whirlwind of condescension and hostility toward ‘alien’ American nature in quite the way coyotes did. We campaigned to erase those ‘manic, lunatic’ howls for all time and good riddance.”[14] In any of my previous visits to the Wildlife Safari, it never crossed my mind that this particular animal was missing, though coyotes have as much claim to being natives of this region as any of the other animals kept there. When I started reading Coyote America, I began to wonder about its absence and why it wasn’t deemed “worthy” of being looked at in the same way as the elk, bears, wolves, and bison. By the time I finished the book, however, I was celebrating its absence, as reading of the troubled, centuries-long relationship between Euro-Americans and coyotes in this region has helped me to realize that penning it in would be just one more injustice we’ve levied against it, a further effort at marginalization, and a reversal of its own steadfast refusal to be bothered much by our actions toward it. “Coyotes have been in North America far longer than we, they are not going anywhere, and history demonstrates all too graphically that eradicating them is an impossibility,” Flores states near the end of Coyote America.[15] Throughout the book he also draws numerous parallels between coyotes and humans, the implication being that our species has a lot to learn from this animal about adapting to perilous circumstances and dramatic changes to our environment. The difference, of course, is that we’ve brought most of these changes on ourselves and, unlike the coyote, we don’t seem to be learning from past mistakes.

There are no easy answers in American Serengeti or Coyote America about how best to go about preserving or reintroducing these once prominent Great Plains animal species, or really any other aspect of the Great Plains environment. Yellowstone National Park is held up as an example of how, if enough space is given and human influence is minimized, many of these animals can thrive as they once did. Likewise, Flores notes that the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana offers perhaps the best chance to recover a specifically grassland ecosystem within the historic range of the Great Plains. What both of these places have in common is that they are spacious and they are remote. Though tourism plays a role in how they are managed, they also are not seen as oversized zoos that have “commercial exploitation” at the forefront of their missions.[16] However it is that we come to terms with “the loneliness of man as a species,” it’s to our benefit to realize that we’ve mostly put ourselves in this situation, that our current endeavors in industry and agriculture (and the two together) are only making matters worse, and that there are no answers to be found by gawking through our car windows.[17]

[1] Dan Flores, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2016), 27.

[2] Dan Flores, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 26.

[3] Flores, American Serengeti, 6.

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] John Berger, “Past Present,” The Guardian, October 12, 2002,

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in Selected Essays, ed. Geoff Dyer (New York: Vintage International, 2001), 262.

[8] Ibid., 264 (emphasis in original)

[9] Ibid., 271

[10] Ibid., 271 (emphasis in original).

[11] Ibid., 272.

[12] Ibid., 134.

[13] Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”, 271.

[14] Flores, Coyote America, 83.

[15] Ibid., 288.

[16] Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”, 265.

[17] Ibid., p. 261.