“Hal” was the nickname given to a one-year-old coyote that mysteriously appeared in New York City in the spring of 2006. Workers in Manhattan’s Central Park first identified the animal near Hallett Nature Sanctuary— hence the name. In that small oasis steps away from the hustle of 57th street they found the den where Hal had been sleeping. After the animal’s discovery a spectacular chase ensued. A police Emergency Service Unit (including helicopter) was deployed in a hunt that lasted about 60 hours. The event inspired local and national news stories. Hal was eventually hit with a tranquilizer dart and taken away to be rehabilitated for re-introduction to the wild. Then, in an unexpected tragic-poetic twist, he fell over dead, literally at the moment of being released. Hal had eaten a poisoned rat in the city.
The incident stirred up a few controversies. There was a lack of precedent for which city agency had jurisdiction over the pursuit in Central Park (while the police were able to respond quickly, Animal Control or the Urban Park Rangers had more relevant knowledge about wildlife). There was concern that the animal was mishandled, in the stress of the chase and in its release. And finally the decision to let Hal go in Putnam county, north of NYC was legally questionable. While Hal had possibly come from outside the city, municipal code stated it unlawful to “catch and release” outside city limits. In this case exceptional permission had been obtained from a private landowner. Regardless of the end result, journalists, self proclaimed citizen scientists, real scientists, bloggers, and dog walkers emerged to debate whether Central Park might have the resources to sustainably host a coyote (or for that matter a breeding pair) long term, and what the implications would be for public safety. Several years later, when coyotes appeared in the city again, the capture effort was more evenly coordinated.
I grew up in the Southwest US (Santa Fe, NM— where coyotes are ever-present both as biological entities and as cultural signifiers). I witnessed this event in the media while living in New York City, and continued to think about it in the years following. I began to feel that a larger narrative was looming behind the topical debates. The incident threw the relationship of the city dweller and the natural world into relief. It wasnʼt an abstract suggestion of interconnection between the two; it was a (momentary) unmediated instance of collision– a moment of confusion for both. Hal disrupted a normal state of affairs by presenting himself as an embodiment of something external to our picture of daily life in an orderly civilization. In this he was as comedic as he was threatening. Was this a typical animal or an exceptional one? What was he thinking? And how, exactly, did he find his way into the city?
One way to try to understand this story was to guess about the geography of the journey. The most obvious geographic challenge is the channel of water that separates the island of Manhattan from the mainland of the Bronx– like a moat surrounding a castle. Adrian Benepe, the NYC Parks Commissioner at the time, publicly hypothesized that Hal crossed a small Amtrack trestle bridge over the Spuyten Duyvil Creek at the northern tip of the Manhattan. This became a prevailing theory, but not the only possible one. Other scenarios were equally possible. For example, if Hal had utilized the long Bronx River corridor as a path, he might have crossed over the Harlem River further south and east. Because there were few eyewitness accounts, no camera traps, and no DNA analysis done on Hal, the definite crossing location will remain unknown. This crossing is a big plot point of the story as presented in the media. It came to stand for the dramatic moment in which a cunning trickster privately transgressed from the natural world into the human world. Looking closely at possible routes however, it becomes clear that there were many such crossings.
The Coyote Walks are fueled by curiosity about what it would mean to cross over the line between “the city” and “nature” oneself, to literally connect the two places. The walks are guesses about how coyotes enter New York City that are made with reverse human journeys out of the city. The project began as a kind of memorial to the incident— walked around the anniversary of Hal’s death and initially called the “laH” journey, a backwards spelling of the name. The Coyote Walk is now a time to pose questions about urban life and nature, to learn from the experience of stepping away from the city, and to consider walking practices (human and animal) as imaginative acts.