Of all the wild animals to come under the sweeping hand of mankind, few have managed to weather the storm of encroachment as well as the versatile coyote. Once relegated to Americana tableaus of the Wild West, coyote populations today span a majority of regions from northern Alaska to Panama in Central America. It’s estimated that Los Angeles alone is home to more than 5,000 coyotes, with cities like Chicago and New York City hosting their own growing populations.
"If one's argument for civilization holds that wild predators should never roam in broad daylight through the boroughs of America's largest, loudest, most radically urban metropolis," writes Dan Flores in his book "Coyote America," "then, truly, the end of civilization has arrived on paw prints in the snow."
That such a large predator has managed to expand its territory as a result of mankind’s increasing prevalence is not only astonishing, but unique. Coyotes now share our intersections as much as our farms and forests, a feat made even more remarkable when you consider our early efforts to eradicate them. From the 19th to the mid-20th century, the species was hunted unmercifully, with federal agents trapping, shooting, poisoning, and even striking from the air coyotes that threatened populations of sheep and other livestock. Despite this long and expensive war of attrition, coyote populations today are larger than they were a century ago.
It’s this back story that makes the development of a new film, based on one of the most cunning coyotes in American history, feel timely and needed.
Titled “Two Toes: The Coyote Legend of Green River,” the movie, based on true events, revolves around an aging trapper tasked with capturing a legendary coyote called Two Toes. Set in Utah at the end of the Great Depression, the story upends the well-worn theme of man vs. beast by presenting both sides of the struggle to survive in the rugged wilds of the range.
“I can think of many individual coyotes I’ve dealt with in my life, but Two Toes topped them all,” wrote the late Preston Q. Hale. A prominent Nevada businessman, Hale had a 15-year career as a trapper and biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1998, when Hale was 84, he published a book of his encounter with the wiley coyote nicknamed for the telltale imprint of his right-front paw missing its middle two toes.
“My uncle was an extraordinary man and became a captain of industry, but started his life tracking coyotes for the war effort,” actress Jean Hale told MNN. “He talked about Two Toes all his life and how he was like no coyote that he had ever seen.”
A coyote foraging in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. (Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr)
Jean Hale, together with veteran Hollywood producer/director Allison Abbate, are deep in the process of bringing Preston’s “Two Toes” story to the big screen. In addition to shedding light on this long-misunderstood species, the project also aims to capture a piece of American history underserved in modern cinema.
“I instantly fell in love with the setting and the tone,” Abbate says in her director’s statement. “I love westerns, and the fact that this story begins at the end of the Depression just before we entered the war effort felt like an exciting and visually interesting moment in our history.”
In the early decades of the 20th century, western states such as Wyoming, Utah and Nevada were at the peak of sheep production. Every spring, millions of these animals were herded over hundreds of miles of federal grazing lands. For coyotes, the temptation of an easy meal was too much to resist. Also because the early western settlers wiped out the coyotes’ lone enemy, the wolf, coyotes now found themselves atop the food chain with millions of defenseless animals available for the taking.
For a country on the brink of war, and with heavy emphasis on food and fiber to support that effort, coyotes presented a threat above and beyond any other apex predator. With surprising intelligence, rapid reproductive rates, and unmatched adaptability, the species’ opportunistic nature forced the U.S. government to hire full-time trappers to mitigate sheep losses.
A love letter to nature
The “Two Toes” film places audiences firmly in the middle of this conflict, focusing on a veteran trapper named Jack Willig, his young partner Brett Gale, and their efforts to track down the elusive coyote. By 1941, Two Toes was already legend, having repeatedly outwitted all manner of schemes to bring him down over the course of three years. Rather than a sinister foil, however, the film gives the coyote equal billing, presenting a welcome perspective of a species faced with a violent struggle equal to man’s.
“This project showcases the natural world in a very unique way" Abbate said. “What’s interesting about our film is that Two Toes is one of the main characters but he is also a wild animal. I feel that it is important to paint him as a character without losing sight of his animal nature.”
The filmmakers hope to take advantage of Utah's spectacular scenery, such as the Flaming Gorge, to shoot scenes for 'Two Toes.' (Photo: Scott Finley/Flickr)
The film is also a love letter to nature, with the screenplay awash in descriptive vistas of life on the range –– complete with ever-present dust, powerful storms, star-filled skies, and biting, unrelenting gnats.
“The timing of this project with the world and the shape it’s in now, and the lack of what was once pristine … I remember Utah as a young girl and the West,” Jean Hale shared. “Streams sparkled, skies sparkled, there was no pollution. It’s such a comment on what used to be and time gone by that people yearn for.”
In an effort to match the book’s vivid descriptions of Two Toes’ domain, both Hale and Abbate would love to shoot in Utah’s Green River Valley. The rugged landscape, described by Preston as a seemingly “never-ending Eden,” remains relatively unchanged from the days when flocks of sheep would graze on the grass-rich prairies.
An opportunity for technology to lend a hand
As for the challenge of bringing Two Toes’ side of the story to life, the filmmakers have teamed up with Monty Cox, an internationally recognized animal expert with more than 40 years experience in Hollywood. The film will feature both real coyotes and a mix of animatronic and CGI effects.
“To me, it’s important that it’s primarily a real coyote,” said Abbate, who pointed to the realism of the CGI animals in films “Life of Pi” or more recently in Disney's "Jungle Book" as proof of what’s possible. For those moments beyond what animal actors are safely capable of, Abbate added it’s important to lean on advancements in visual effects.
“A lot of the action and fighting is something you can’t do with real coyotes,” she said. “Luckily, technology is finally at a place where you can get realistic and seamless transitions between what’s real and what’s not. That said, it is very important to me as a director, that the bulk of the performance be led by the actions of a real coyote."
Director Allison Abbate hopes to take advantage of advancements in CGI characters, such as these wolves from 'The Jungle Book,' to make Two Toes side of the story come to life. (Photo: 'The Jungle Book')
With a screenplay in hand, Hale and Abbate are turning their attention to landing a veteran actor to take on the role of Willig. Once that piece of the puzzle is in place, they believe the rest of the picture will quickly come together.
“What we’re doing is starting at the top and working down,” said Hale. “We don’t want it to be a studio picture. We want it to be an independent film — to really have and retain that control. The people coming on board right now believe it’s a beautiful piece and that we need more movies like this.”
As coyotes across the continent continue to insist on sharing space with humans, Abbate agrees that the film could provide something of a “public relations” boost for our wild neighbors. For Hale, however, who grew up listening to her uncle reminisce about the lessons he learned from both Two Toes and life on the the range, the true message runs much deeper.
“He came to respect the coyote,” she said. “And this is why it’s so timely with ecology and the balance of the planet. I think the script ends up with the very deepest essence of life on Earth.”