“Critters, Varmints and Crazy People”
Mountain Gazette, #86
by Hal Herring
It’s been three years since I first saw Doug Hawes-Davis wildlife epic, Varmints, about the plight of the lowly prairie dog and those men and women among us who love nothing better than to shoot and poison them. The film is undeniably prescient: it argues, very creatively, that the prairie dog is in big trouble, and that maybe tax-payer funded poisoning programs and wholesale slaughter of the little beasts by long-range shooting enthusiasts should be, well, questioned.
As a result of reports and films like Varmints, the rusty wheels of bureaucracy turned with a shriek, and federal biologists took note that the prairie dog has now been shot, gassed, and poisoned, often at taxpayer expense, until it occupies less than two percent of its original range. Shortly thereafter, prairie dogs were declared a “non-game animal of special concern” here in Montana, and are being considered for listing as an Endangered Species, much to the horror of ammunition salesmen and outfitters in eastern Montana and other plains states. Readers of the Mountain Gazette might be flabbergasted (a word that merits more use these days) to learn that plinking away at the gregarious little rodents is a $3.2 million industry in South Dakota, and one that Dakotans are not eager to abandon.
I hear the incredulous gasps of the politically correct, “Who in the hell would blow those little fellows up for fun?” Doug Hawes-Davis has found those very people, and he let’s them take center stage in Varmints. Where else can you find a an apparently healthy young man who sits firing a heavy rifle into a prairie dog town from a specially designed shooter’s chair, complete with beverage holder and rifle rest, and says things like “I used to do big game, but it’s too heavy, too messy. Too much work.” His buddy, shooter Mark Mason, of a group called the Varmint Militia, loves the camera, using it as a soapbox to deliver his hatred of “animal cultists,” and wildlife in general. Mason’s contempt is monumental, a real and eerie force that gives great energy to the film. Another interview, with the publisher of a magazine dedicated to varmint shooting (“any animal can be a varmint at any given time,” she says; one magazine cover shown has a full color photo of a chipmunk) should be a wake-up to all those New Westerners discussing wildlife protection over a steaming latte and wondering how Judy Martz was ever elected Governor of Montana. Varmints makes no claim to be unbiased it is an eloquent argument that the prairie dog has been unfairly and murderously persecuted, and that its fate is representative of the whole Great Plains in the wake of a hundred year campaign to clear the earth of every living creature that could interfere with crops or livestock.
The success of Varmints is based upon a careful juxtaposition of interesting human characters, raw information, a weird and emotional soundtrack, and dramatic wildlife footage. This formula has carried Hawes-Davis through four more films, Wind River, Killing Coyote, El Caballo, and The Naturalist. All of these films mix skillful video journalism and artistic filmmaking, and all make at least one powerful argument Wind River is an expose of archaic water rights practices on the river of the same name, but manages to shed a kind of universal light on these same practices all over the West, while El Caballo presents, with spectacular footage and a series of interviews, the case that wild horses are native wildlife of the American West, in the same way that elk or mule deer are, but have received the very shortest end of the stick (that is, systematic destruction) because they are regarded as big destructive exotics that munch all the grass reserved for public lands cattle. For river worshippers who sometimes wonder what the hell happened to their favorite waters, the former film is a must-see, for horse lovers, and for those who want a brand new take on an old controversy, El Caballo is wonderful.
Killing Coyote may be my personal favorite of the films, because it is built around a kind of guaranteed shocker, at least for some kinds of folks the “Calcutta,” a betting contest held in Rawlins, Wyoming, to see which team of hunters can kill the most coyotes in a given time but ranges far and wide through the problems of dry land livestock production (on public lands, mostly), coyote biology, the nature of hunting, and the blandly demonic endeavors of the tax-payer funded Animal Damage Control (recently renamed “Wildlife Services”). Unlike Varmints, where the shooters are so undeniable repulsive, the Rawlins coyote hunters have a wind-burned, outdoorsman’s vitality that is easy to respect. The hunters have enthusiasm, writ large, and their Budweiser fueled hunting stories show a love of coyotes, open country, and the kill. In contrast, the soft-handed, egg headed histrionics of the animal rights people in the film seem rather pale and predictable.
The narrator of an Animal Damage Control film clip outlining the use of the M-44 cyanide cannon for Killing Coyotes gives us this nugget of hope, “Most ranchers wouldn’t mind if predators stuck to natural prey,” but neglects to mention what Killing Coyote makes abundantly clear there is almost no “natural prey” out there, since livestock has consumed every bit of the available forage on an already marginal land.
Everyone interviewed agrees that there has been no reduction in coyote numbers after 150 years of tax-payer funded slaughter. A biologist who explains why this is true tells a story that rivals any Native American trickster legend and is, by itself, worth the trouble of getting a copy of this film.
In The Naturalist, Hawes-Davis goes southeast, to the Missouri Ozarks, to follow the eccentric Kent Bonar, a disheveled wanderer of the Buffalo River hardwood country and a bodhisattva of the complex rhythms of the natural world. Bonar, living in a falling down house, accompanied by a pack of unruly hounds, seems to be a simple woods bum until the film turns to his fantastic notebooks, packed with exquisite quill pen drawings of every species of flora and fauna that inhabits the country he loves. The film unfolds like a long walk through the woods, to show the remarkable depth of this strange man’s knowledge, and his obsession with living things, from the birds that he calls up, to the tiny insects and the mosses beneath the log he sits on to rest at the end of the day. The Naturalist is the story of a man, but its larger story is that of that rare creature, the inhabitant, intimate with all that is around it, deeply entrenched, thoroughly dangerous to modern notions of carelessness and frenzied mobility. The Naturalist is subversive in the best possible way.
I guess that it’s pretty clear that I am a fan of these films, a wide-eyed student rather than a critic sitting back with skeptical eye, seeking for the flaw. That is so because Hawes-Davis is embarked on a documentary study of my favorite subject the slowly evolving relationship of humanity to the rest of Creation and he’s doing it better than anybody else that I know of right now.