Exurban cowboy

Governor Rick Perry and I have something in common. We both jog in wooded subdivisions with our useless dogs — dogs more likely to need protecting than to protect. We both encounter lots of critters, some harmless (bunnies, deer, weird black squirrels), and some theoretically dangerous (coyotes, snakes, feral hogs). The difference? Perry runs with a .380 Ruger in his holster while I run with an iShuffle clipped to my T-shirt. (I’m also guessing his hair looks good even in that last quarter mile whereas I resemble Rod Stewart battling humidity from the get-go.)

If you missed this story — and I’m not sure how that’s possible, since it fired the imaginations of right-wingers and left-wingers, animals lovers and gun activists, Texans and non-Texans, armed joggers and unarmed joggers — here’s the nutshell: A few weeks ago, Perry told a reporter that he’d killed a coyote back in February. He was jogging with his daughter’s Lab puppy in the gated community he’s called home since someone tried to burn down the Governor’s Mansion. When a lone coyote menaced the dog, Perry shot it with the gun he always carries in case he runs into any rattlesnakes. Apparently the highest-ranking public official in Texas — and arson victim to boot — doesn’t have to run with a security detail.

Not unexpectedly, hunters and gun advocates vociferously defended Perry’s action. So did folks of every political persuasion who’ve seen their lapdogs abducted by coyotes. Democrats accused Perry of just trying to burnish his rootin’-tootin’ cowboy reputation for the coming election. The interview did afford him the opportunity for a bit of tough-guy posturing, and the “Don’t attack my dog or you might get shot … if you’re a coyote” sound bite appeared in newspapers across the country. (A little unwieldy for a bumper sticker, but I’m sure it’ll be refined for the campaign against Bill White.) Animal activists questioned Perry’s manhood for shooting a shy “song dog”— a creature they insist will slink away if you glare at it meaningfully. Conspiracy theorists suspected the story was fabricated since Perry waited so long to tell it, and because he couldn’t produce a body (he pronounced it “mulch”). Gun-control supporters and safety-minded citizens simply expressed concern about the Governor discharging a weapon inside Austin city limits (totally legal, folks).

I admit that when I first heard the story, I had the knee-jerk reaction you’d expect of someone with my voting record: What has that trigger-happy buffoon — that stimulus-money-rejecting, secession-threatening, tea-party-pandering, oil-spill-rationalizing hairdo of a man — gone and done now?

But when I thought about it, I couldn’t sustain my self-righteous fury. I mean: I’m never going to shoot a coyote. As a runner, I’ve had way more problems with the Jack Russell up the street and the Cairn terrier around the corner. I do get chills when I hear the yip-yip coyote chorus at dusk (it’s 8 o’clock, do you know where your kitty is?). But I keep my cat indoors, and the times I’ve met a coyote face to face, the animal beat a hasty retreat, meanwhile providing me, the New York City transplant, with a little thrill at living among these … song dogs? Or vermin? I’m not sure.

This is what Perry and I really have in common: We are exurban cowboys. We live on the frontier — it’s just not the one romanticized in pop culture. Instead of riding the range on scrappy little cowponies, exurban cowboys jog with our inbred canines. And if we’re not jogging, we’re driving SUVs. Instead of herding cattle, mending fences, or killing indigenous peoples, we work in offices while other people mend our fences and mow our lawns. As in the storied Wild West, we have our own ghost towns: the older shopping centers abandoned for the newer, glitzier shopping centers, and the lavish gated communities built in a frenzy a few years back that no one can afford to live in.

Instead of displacing Native Americans, we displace the local fauna, like coyotes. And how you deal with coyotes depends on what kind of exurban cowboy you are. If you’re Rick Perry, you drop it with a single hollow-point bullet. If you’re one of my neighbors, you don’t bring in your trashcan at dusk without a shotgun slung over your shoulder. If you’re me, you back away slowly or bike away quickly — but not before savoring the moment for as long as you can. The thing is, we don’t need guns to kill the displaced critters. The exotic roadkill around my neighborhood — the ringtail cats, porcupines, and, yes, coyotes — suggests we’re doing a fine job without them. Ride ’em, cowboy. •

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