A few years ago, residents of San Francisco’s upscale Bernal Heights neighborhood discovered an unusual new resident roaming upon a nearby park’s hill. The coyote, long believed to have disappeared from the urban neighborhood, had come back on its own.
Through her documentary Still Wild at Heart, Melissa Peabody interviews scientists, park employees, and American city residents and, using coyotes as a starting point, explores how humans and wildlife will increasingly coexist in American metropolitan areas and how to make these interactions peaceful and mutually beneficial.
Synchronized Chaos often looks into interdisciplinary projects – artistic technique used to further work in another field, or art/writing inspired by other fields. This documentary exemplifies the use of filmmaking and photographic techniques used not only as arts in themselves to make a film, but as tools to effectively illustrate modern ecological changes.
Interestingly, I came across the flyer for this film in an art gallery, clearly marketed as an art piece, rather than a science museum. These kinds of marketing and genre crossovers are providing a larger audience and more exposure for science-related communication and reviving some of the long Western tradition of natural history presented in an artistic manner rather than isolated as ‘science.’
I discussed the project with Melissa Peabody after watching Still Wild at Heart, and she provided some background information about the making of the film and the concepts behind it. Here are some paraphrased highlights from our conversation:
Peabody’s background and this film’s inspiration:
She earned a master’s in journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and has been involved with scientific and ecological documentaries since the mid-1990s. She has edited films for Turner Broadcasting and Animal Planet and served as primary story researcher and associate producer for KRON’s TV Documentary News Unit.
Still Wild at Heart began when Melissa saw a coyote on a hill in a grassy park near her home in Bernal Heights. Further sightings became a game with her eight-year old twin sons, everyone looking for a glimpse of the animal and coming back to tell the others.
“I was amazed by this animal. How did the coyote get there, how was it surviving?”
Regarding her vision and process in creating the documentary:
The coyotes serve as a main character/unifying thread in Still Wild at Heart, both as a storytelling device and because in many ecosystems coyotes are noticeable and a main predator important for controlling the populations of other species in the food web.
“Oftentimes it’s the small, untold nature stories which are important…the coyotes gave me a chance to tell many other stories as well, such as those of urban parrots and quails.”
She described (and I noticed while watching the piece) the level of attention paid to conveying a sense of an entire scene in 3-D space, rather than simply depicting a particular animal. The panoramic shots are important in that they give a sense of natural space, of animals existing within an ecosystem rather than simply as isolated individuals or even species. Creating them involved taking hundreds of shots from a large variety of angles over the three and a half years it took to carry out this project.
She also juxtaposes animals with humans and human artifacts in interesting ways – for example, a shot of a coyote eating an apple from someone’s garbage, and another with a magnificent view of a white heron flapping his/her wings and preparing for takeoff – when a cyclist suddenly whizzes across the camera’s field of view apparently without disturbing the bird. Following her gut while creating most of the shots, Peabody uses these juxtapositions to highlight the ways people and wild animals already do share quite close spaces.
On coyotes’ impact on human-inhabited ecosystems, and ecological issues surrounding living with coyotes:
There have never been any violent incidents involving the coyotes of Bernal Heights. Even though that particular hill has people with their dogs on it 24-7, even at 4:30 am when she came out to shoot for the film. And the first coyote Peabody and her family sighted had lived in that neighborhood for more than five years!
Synchronized Chaos Editor’s Note – there have been very few violent incidents involving coyotes and humans anywhere on the record in areas where coyotes and humans live together. Only one person has ever died from a coyote attack.
Some ecologists and wildlife biologists suggest that killing coyotes may in fact prove detrimental to population management and human safety. Coyotes are incredibly territorial, and those already among us who have peacefully integrated into human society may be protecting us from others which may prove more dangerous. A sheep rancher in Western Marin County featured in the film chooses nonlethal population control methods (fences) rather than shooting coyotes for this reason, although he was not previously on the record against killing animals.
Also, some researchers suggest coyotes may teach their offspring how to best survive in any particular environment. The young receive care and feeding by both parents, and scientists believe coyotes to be better at observational learning than wolves or other predatory mammals. Killing adult coyotes might leave litters of orphaned pups with no prior knowledge on how to coexist with humans. Also – coyotes live and travel in small packs where alpha males are more likely to mate (although they are seen hunting mostly in pairs) – so killing alpha males might actually leave opportunities for a pack’s other males to mate with females and thus produce more pups.
Peabody discussed how animals take advantage of the open space in our city’s parks and travel through open space corridors, including backyards and any adjacent ‘green spaces.’ Creating these natural corridors enables species to move from one place to another for mating and/or to search for food. If people keep cities reasonably clean and secure their garbage (and avoid feeding coyotes or any wildlife), then there will be less chance of coyotes coming too close to people and potentially sparking a violent attack.
Coyotes have actually decreased the rodent population in certain areas, which people have viewed as a positive.
Peabody sees this film as an invitation to urban planners to rethink their designs in terms of impact on local wildlife. Some more eco-conscious planning has already started in San Francisco, for example a group of homeowners putting plants in their garden which are hospitable for a rare butterfly known to exist only on two local hills. The homeowners got very excited about the project and about learning about the butterfly and their local ecology, which bodes well for educational coexistence in the future.
“San Francisco is actually becoming a surprisingly green city, with lots of open space. Wildlife sightings are fun for children, and biodiversity can be a source of civic pride.”
On how she views her documentary, what she intends as a takeaway message for Still Wild at Heart:
“This film is a total, unabashed celebration of our ecosystems and wildlife.”
You may read more or purchase the film at www.stillwildatheart.com