The stories have been as abundant as the sightings — bears, bobcats, and wild turkeys all making themselves increasingly comfortable in urban neighborhoods. The phenomenon was particularly pronounced during the pandemic, when the humans were staying home. But nature’s encroachment on our built environment has been going on a lot longer than that.
Several years ago the Rhode Island news media became obsessed with Cliff, a coyote that adopted the tony little city of Newport as its territory. Julie Marron, a documentary filmmaker based in Cumberland, grew fascinated with the debate over what to do about the growing coyote “problem” in her home state.
She quickly learned that wildlife management programs had been killing an estimated half a million coyotes across the United States each year for decades. Speaking with scientists who study coyotes, she also learned that such efforts have only made the situation worse, creating unmarked territories for more coyotes to inhabit.
Marron has previously directed films on breast cancer (“Happygram,” 2015) and the Patriots’ “Deflategate” scandal (“Four Games in Fall,” 2020). Her latest film, “American Bolshevik,” is available on demand now.
Q. I assume those news reports about the ongoing saga of the coyotes in and around Newport caught your eye and made you want to dig deeper.
A. We’d all been inundated with a lot of Cliff news. He was a famous coyote. So I started to do some basic research. I read Dan Flores’s book “Coyote America,” which is just fantastic, and I thought, wow, this is bigger than just some local conflict. There’s this long history of our interaction with this animal that has really played a role in what our relationship is with them today.
Q. Can you tell me why you chose the phrase “American Bolshevik” for the title?
A. I think it perfectly encapsulates this vilification of the coyote that has gone on for more than a century. I found that 1920 article in Scientific American [which called coyotes “the original Bolsheviks”]. Think about that. A science magazine vilifying a wild animal is insane. “Bolshevik” still to this day carries negative connotations.
Q. The researchers in your film do a great job of explaining why just trying to eradicate coyotes is futile. In the last few years, have you seen organizations like US Wildlife Services come to a better understanding of what the scientists have been saying?
A. There’s a whole host of societal and economic forces that conspire to maintain the status quo. Ranchers who want coyotes dead and don’t want to look at more effective ways of dealing with the problem are still putting a lot of pressure on to have these lethal quote-unquote “management” practices kept in place. There’s a lot of inertia. Organizations like Project Coyote and the New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition are starting to turn the tide a bit, but it requires a lot more people to be educated on the topic.
Q. In an ideal world, I’m sure you’d like to think your film could make an impact significant enough to create a tipping point towards changing the public perception. Can you name another documentary that has had that kind of impact?
A. If we think about wild animals in particular, “Blackfish” . They did a phenomenal job of bringing an issue to a much larger audience. With respect to the coyote, it’s important for people to understand two things. First, you’re not going to eliminate coyotes. We have over a century of this concerted effort on the part of private interests, local and state government, federal firepower, hundreds of millions of dollars spent using every lethal method imaginable. It hasn’t worked to either eliminate or manage coyotes. It’s only caused their territory to expand, so that now new neighborhoods and populations are grappling with the issue. Secondly, there are evidence-based strategies for coexistence, but they require us to make some adjustments to our behavior.
Q. Can you tell me about your own pets?
A. We used to live a little more in western Rhode Island, which is very rural, sort of swampish land. Out there I saw a bobcat. There was a bear at one point roaming western Rhode Island. I’ve seen foxes and coyotes, all kinds of wild animals. We actually lost a cat at one point, so I’m very sensitive to people who have lost a pet. Coyotes weren’t around when I was a kid, so it’s new. You’ve got to keep your dog on a leash, or watch out for your cats. My dogs are big, by the way, so they probably keep the coyotes out of my backyard.
Q. Coyotes are very doglike. Is that part of the appeal of this project for you? The coyote on your poster is beautiful.
A. I just love the fact that it’s kind of looking into your soul.
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.