Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Suburban Massachusetts is a documentation of research on coyotes done by Jon Way while he was at Boston College and earning a PhD. He tells anecdotes about coyotes he caught during the multi-year study of coyotes in Boston and its surrounding suburbs as well as Cape Cod; and he tells anecdotes about the frustrations of working in an urban area. While it’s fascinating to learn about the life histories of the animals he studies, it’s equally heartbreaking to learn about their deaths at the hands of hunters, drivers of cars, and in one rare case a poisoner.
Way’s writing is at times detached, in the way you might expect a wildlife biologist to discuss their animal subjects. But these moments are few and far between. The bulk of the book is emotionally charged. It’s a rare look into the inner mind and emotions of a scientist going about his research. He’s not shy at disclosing snags he hit with the Massachusetts state wildlife agency and a zoo he was initially partnering with.
If you read this book, you will learn about how coyotes use urban and suburban space — sometimes literally rooting through people’s garbage — and how often times, people do not ever realize they are sharing space with these canid neighbors. Coyotes are vastly maligned in our society, and we have a lot to learn from them, is Way’s main message.
He writes about their feeding and denning habits, about territoriality, about trapping and handling them, tracking them nocturnally with telemetry and learning to ID them in the orange-cast light of street lamps. There was the coyote family that favored a cranberry bog, an old female who lived under sheds and porches, the female that adopted a cemetery as her territory, and coyotes that set up shop in residential areas. At one point, Way found himself tracking a coyote in downtown Boston. And then of course, there are the cute pup stories of when he raised a litter of coyotes in his grandparent’s basement, sleeping in the same room with them and waking to them peeing and yakking on his bed.
Way’s group had to use box traps to catch the coyotes, due to a law prohibiting leg-hold trapping. You will learn about what they had to overcome to use these traps, and about the other animals these traps inadvertently caught (safely) such as a red-tailed hawk, skunks, raccoons and red foxes.
There is an element of humor in the book too, and at one point Way graphs his enthusiasm for the coyote research against lapsed time. The graph peaks early, then crashes, then rises again and plateaus at a level 1/3 of the original enthusiasm. I couldn’t help but laugh and interpret the graph as similar to a young person’s experience when first in love. And in many ways, you do get the impression that the work he performed was his first love. It’s so consuming, he barely sleeps; he cares so deeply about the animals that he works himself to the bone and eventually develops mononucleosis.
You won’t be disappointed in the adventurous tone that Way infuses into anecdotes of his work, that is for sure. My one and only quibble is that this work sorely needed an editor. My understanding is that Way self-published this book through Dog Ear Publishing. It truly would have benefited from a good working over for typos, grammar and structure. But if you can forgive this unfortunate outcome by understanding the context in which he wrote the book, you won’t be disappointed in the collections of stories and data he presents within the covers. (And Dr. Way, if you’re reading this, I’ll donate my proofreading services to you to assist with a future educational project like this one.)
But other than that, I definitely recommend grabbing a copy of this book and reading it over the course of a few evenings. You’ll be a little wiser about our four-footed canid friends if you do.