When animals and suburbanites meet, there’s often a lot of confusion. In his debut book, biologist and conservationist Stephen DeStefano details befuddlement on both sides, from residents asking local officials what they should do about bears on the edge of their property to stunned bats plopping out of basement ceilings when their daytime roosts are disturbed by homeowners opening doors. But the biggest confusion in Coyote At The Kitchen Door: Living With Wildlife In Suburbia comes from DeStefano, who seems uncertain what his book should actually be about.
DeStefano states in his forward that the book came out differently than he expected, and involved much more first-person writing than he originally intended. The result is a rare problem in books written by scientists: a text with too much feeling and not enough fact.
DeStefano brings up amazing anecdotes, such as a story about a moose running out of a yard with Christmas lights wrapped around its antlers, but then immediately moves on to an entirely different topic, leaving the story feeling unfinished. It’s even more frustrating when he discusses the problem conservationists have battling the ecological damage caused by domestic cats. Instead of following up on that issue with more evidence or accounts of how events have played out, he dawdles, talking about a charming stray cat he encountered when having dinner.
Even at a mere 160 pages, Coyote is packed with information that seems utterly irrelevant to the topic. Each chapter starts with a little personal narrative about DeStefano’s experiences with wild animals in the field. Some of them are compelling, but they all seem out of place. While his discussion of the causes of urban sprawl is helpful, he turns a section on the growth of Boston’s suburbs into a dry U.S. history lesson.
It’s a shame, because when Coyote actually gets into the crunch of the subject matter, it makes for great reading. DeStefano seems to have an abiding love and patience for nearly all living things, but he never comes off as preachy when discussing city planners’ desires to attract “nice” nature, like butterflies and songbirds, and keep away scary nature, like big predators. Instead, he just points out the resulting comic tendency for predators to show up because their prey has been lured in with abundant flowers and cozy birdhouses. The moral is that nature refuses to obey the boundaries humans try to put around it. But if DeStefano’s writing had better structure, that message would be a lot stronger and clearer.