Unfortunately titled, not quite as polished, shot, edited and “expert” driven as you might hope, “American Bolshevik” begins with a wealthy Newport, Rhode Island philanthropist recounting stories of dogs she’s lost to coyotes. It features more disturbing still photographs and scenes of wanton slaughter and animal cruelty than the average viewer would find tolerable.
But this documentary about the durability and brutally, expensively and stubbornly-pursued efforts to wipe-out North America’s most populous and successful canine predator, the coyote, is certainly an eye opener.
It’s titled from a phrase that Western nature writer and folklorist Dan Flores, the anchor interview in the film, coins to describe these ultimate survivors, predators who have thrived despite backward, “official” and special interest-driven efforts to exterminate it the way species from wolves and grizzlies to buffalo and bighorn sheep were almost wiped out.
Like “Bolsheviks,” the Red Menace pursued with a murderous, extermination-minded zero tolerance in from the 1910s onward, the canis latrans has endured. It has survived trapping, bounty-hunting “contests,” mass-poisoning, shooting from helicopters and snowmobiles and government-backed planned-extinction efforts. Much of this has been conducted out of public sight, with public money and largely at the urging of “lazy,” shortsighted and stubbornly misguided and misinformed Western ranching interests.
An Eastern sheep farming wildlife biologist is the one who characterizes the 150 years of ranchers this way in a film that makes the case that bad human practices are always what leads to “bad” coyotes, who adapt to prey that’s made easily accessible by “open range” grazing, to suburban human “feeding nature” practices, critters who react murderously to any other canine that comes sniffing around their cubs.
“They don’t call them ‘wily’ for nothing!” one coyote-studying expert enthuses.
Being a species of dogs, there’s always the danger of sentimentalizing a predator ferocious and clever enough to hunt and kill sheep, and in its larger Eastern wolf-interbred incarnation, take down deer. But even folks who have lost pets to them — leash-law violating dog and cat owners — confess a fascination with these new “neighbors who migrated north and east from the American Southwest, west and prairies to tip over their garbage can and eat the dog and cat food left out for their household companions.
Flores, a Louisiana native now living in New Mexico and professor emeritus with the University of Montana-Missoula, collects stories and Native myths attached to coyotes, stories that pass on the intelligence and foibles they seem to share with humans in fable form, and marvels at their adaptability.
Others note the long road traveling from officially-sanctioned slaughter and the long road to turning away from it. A lot of this still goes on thanks to ranchers and their livestock associations, whose business models were built on free access to public land for their own personal use and cheap meat made possible by a 150 year long government handout. Their practices get backhanded more than once in the film, which suggests that corporate mentality drives coyote killing simply to save Big Ag and entitled fat cat ranchers from the bother and expense of fencing in their four-footed assets.
But “American Bolshevik” isn’t likely to change that mindset, or end the pointless (“Hunting them NEVER works” is explained in blunt, biological and mathematical terms.) and destructive practices in the land of “Money talks.” Nor is the film likely to reach a wide audience thanks to its title and sometimes graphic imagery and harsh subject matter.
Still, if you’ve ever stumbled into a coyote on a hike or checking out your yard or patio in passing, the film is worth a look just to familiarize yourself with what you’re seeing and dealing with and what you’re doing to enable or encourage the stigma of a “menace” laid upon a singing wild dog who’s just doing what comes naturally.
Rating: unrated, disturbing images of animal cruelty and mass slaughter
Cast: Dan Flores, Numi Mitchell, Camilla Fox and Chris Schadler
Credits: Scripted and directed by Julie Marrron. A Lemon Martini release on Apple TV, Amazon and Vudu
Running time: 1:24