By Steve Hathcock
Special to the PARADE
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the May 2021 edition of the South Padre Parade.
The time was 1931: Al Capone controlled Chicago and Will Rogers had yet to “meet a man (he) didn’t like.”
Padre Island was a lonely, desolated place in the early 1930s, with only a few head of cattle grazing upon the sparse grass that grew there. With no natural enemies, coyotes multiplied to the extent of overcrowding. As food became scarce, the younger “coy dogs” would swim across the shallow Laguna Madre to the mainland where they made enemies of farmers and stockmen alike, devouring chickens and calves with impunity. Something had to be done.
The idea of the Great Coyote Drive and Round-up really belongs to one man, the late Dr. James A. Hockaday, of Port Isabel. The plan called for teams of men from different communities of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Advertisements were placed in the local newspapers and letters were sent to the five major news organizations.
Twenty- four hours before the hunt, about sixty men braved the rains that had been pouring down on the area for the past several days and proceeded up the Island about 25 miles where they built a camp. It was a rough night with heavy rains threatening to swamp their tents. Would the hunt take place, Hockaday wondered, as he looked out his window at dawn the following morning.
His worries were banished when he saw hundreds of armed men milling about near the ferries and over where the fishing boats were tied. Travel to the Island was at a premium with over 800 people using the ferries. News people were quick to make arrangements with local fishermen to transport camera crews and their bulky gear across the Laguna Madre. Oftentimes a pile of netting was the only place to sit. Another 200 traveled across in swanky private boats courtesy of members of the Shary Yacht Club.
The southern forty miles of the Island was marked off into 10 sections. Groups of men armed with shotguns gathered around the bases of raised platforms placed three to five miles apart. Only a #2 shot size, which spreads out and is non-effective over 60 yards, was allowed. A good choice when you consider the close quarters the shooters would be operating in.
At a prearranged time two teams, one from the camp farthest to the north and one group from the main camp on the southern tip of the Island, began moving along the first leg, or station, of the hunt.
The drive was designed so that the coyotes would be driven into a low area surrounded on three sides by thirty-foot ridges of sand which formed a perfect amphitheater from which all could observe the slaughter. If all went as planned by the time the teams met, they would form a solid circle of armed men about a half mile in diameter. An additional group of forty men had been placed along the shore of the Laguna Madre to prevent the possibility of any of the coyotes escaping by swimming into the waters of the bay.
Fox Movietone, Universal and Kinogram NewsReel companies set up cameras and sound equipment filmed the whole proceedings from the tops of the hills surrounding the “dead” zone. There was no escape for the gypsy dogs the camera men all agreed, or so they thought, as they focused their lenses in anticipation of the coming slaughter.
By the time the first station had been completed five coyotes were seen ahead of the line, the number increasing station to station as the animals were driven down the Island. Groups of six to twelve were seen dashing through the dunes ahead of the dogs and men. Eighteen were seen in one group as they passed through a narrow draw.
Realizing a trap was being set for them, some of the wiser coyotes made mad dashes through the lines. Some were shot outright while many fell under the snarling teeth of specially trained greyhounds but many more escaped.
The organizers had not counted on the lack of discipline among the volunteer sharpshooters. In order to avoid walking in soft sands, across marshy swales or over towering dunes, many of the hunters walked along the easiest routes which allowed great holes to form in their lines. The wily coyotes were quick to exploit these errors and many more escaped the guns. Though the official count was 26, Hockaday estimated about 100 coyotes were actually shot or mauled by the dogs and the hunt was declared a success.
As soon as the slaughter ended fast cars carried the canisters of film to the Brownsville Airport. By week’s end, the finished newsreels were shown in theatres all across the country.
In an article that he penned for the August 1931 issue of Outdoor Life Magazine, Hockaday wrote, “Soon the public can watch our roundup from the plush cushions of the theater; hear us yell until our throats are raw and see some five hundred leading sportsmen of the Rio Grande Valley’s dressed in real hunting garb, (not like studio makeup) tired and worn from walking in heavy sand and mud. They can also watch some of the best dogs in the whole United States “do their stuff”, where the object of the chase is a real live coyote putting forth all there is in him to escape and in the end of which is a battle to the death where in spite of the odds against him, the coyote is always able to make a credible showing. Quite a contrast to the racetrack greyhound, whose target is an artificial rabbit which he is not even allowed to catch but is halted by a stopping carpet!”
Today, descendants of both species continue to inhabit Padre Island.