by Merritt Clifton
To fully appreciate coyotes may require getting to know them––not taming them, not trying to interact with them as wild cousins of domestic dogs, just watching and listening.
Long before humans devised Twitter to let all their friends and family know where they are and what they are doing at every moment, coyotes learned to bark briefly each evening as they emerge from their dens, which they change almost every night, to tell every other coyote within earshot where they will be hunting and scavenging.
Later, if a coyote has the good fortune to come across a food source big enough to share, the coyote will bark and whirl to summon others to dinner. A large rabbit may feed mate and family. A roadkilled deer carcass may bring an amplified call to distant cousins.
Soon other coyotes will converge like gray ghosts stealing through the trees. They will exuberantly greet each other, but will only howl again if they feel unobserved. They will eat until the food is gone. Unlike foxes, coyotes do not attempt to store food, especially not something large enough to attract wolves or pumas, who also eat coyotes. Instead, they quickly strip a carcass down to bones, then play for a time before dispersing to find their daytime sleeping places.
Mated coyotes will usually stay together, with their dependent pups. Young adults may pair off at such feasts.
Typically the males slip away from a coyote gathering first. If they sense that any human may be watching, they make themselves conspicuous, then lead the observer as far as possible from the females and young. Sometimes male coyotes will deliberately cross each other’s paths to help confuse pursuit.
Unlike wolves, coyote families seldom fight over territory. Instead, they work out ways to share–and at times relieve tension with a prank, or a contest, such as taking turns daring a chained dog to try to chase them.
Testing the ability of a chained dog to break loose has some practical survival value for a coyote, but when coyotes who have just had a big meal tease a dog in relays, it is difficult to avoid concluding that what they are doing is mostly a game, done chiefly to impress each other with their bravado.
Despite the occasional ruckus coyotes raise with dogs, humans should appreciate coyotes as extraordinarily quiet and peaceful neighbors. The U.S. coyote population is approximately equal to the domestic dog population. Most Americans, urban as well as rural, live in coyote habitat. Yet except for the brief evening bark and the dinner time barking whirl, usually heard only by people who happen to be outdoors after dark, most Americans seldom have any idea how close coyotes are. Few human neighbors, and for that matter, few animal neighbors, are as good as coyotes about not disturbing humans–even when they raise a litter in the crawl space beneath an occupied house.
Enforcing laws of nature
Hardly anyone, unfortunately for coyotes, appreciates their increasingly significant role as nature’s animal control officers, or understands that the “laws of nature” they enforce tend to parallel the evolving community expectations of tax-funded animal care and control agencies.
Indeed, coyotes do far more animal control than the public agencies could even begin to, mostly because there are about 250 times more coyotes on the job than there are human animal control officers. Partly because coyotes are on the beat, human animal control officers are able to spend less and less time catching and killing nuisance animals, and more time educating the public to avoid conflict with animals.
Coyotes vs. cats
But the coyote role as nature’s animal control officers goes well beyond predation on other species, such as feral cats, that may be considered problematic and come under animal control jurisdiction. Indeed, the effects of coyote predation on feral cats are often overstated. Though coyotes are the leading natural predator of feral cats, a variety of studies have found that animal control agency activity still accounts for about half of all verifiable adult feral cat mortality. Roadkills account for up to 25%. Predation, by all wild predators combined, accounts for 10%-20%, depending on the habitat.
Most of the coyote contribution to controlling feral cats, like most of the work of human animal control officers these days, is not lethal to the cats. But coyote “cat control” is lethal to upward of a quarter billion small rodents per year who might otherwise become cat prey, and might thereby feed a growing cat population.
Understanding how much coyotes do to protect human interests begins with understanding what animal control agencies do, on what size budget.
Law enforcement, at all levels combined, annually costs U.S. taxpayers approximately $220 billion. Barely 1% goes into enforcing animal care and control laws. There are approximately 74 million pet cats and 70 million pet dogs in the U.S., approximately a cat and a dog for two households out of three. Yet cats, dogs, and all other animals under animal care and control jurisdiction together account for less law enforcement expenditure than the sum of human crime in any one of the biggest 49 U.S. cities.
Animal care and control are woefully underfunded relative to animals’ needs, and always have been. But animal care and control agencies, unlike donation-supported humane societies, exist to serve human needs. U.S. taxpayers tend to perceive that animal care and control agencies at their present levels of funding are mostly keeping animal-related health and safety problems to a tolerable minimum, addressing nuisance issues effectively enough to keep cities livable, and are otherwise remaining acceptably unobtrusive.
The importance of not being seen
This, for animal control officers, requires learning considerable discretion–not unlike the discretion coyotes use in not being seen.
Nationally, almost every community has dog licensing, enforced by animal care and control agencies, yet surveys continue to indicate that not more than 20% of all dogs are licensed. Almost every community has ordinances against allowing dogs and sometimes cats to run at large, has limits on how many pets may be kept, and has some basic care standards, but enforcement tends to be entirely complaint-driven.
If neighbors or other law enforcement agencies do not complain, animal care and control agencies tend to tolerate routine violations. The emphasis is upon enforcing the intent of the ordinances, to prevent specific problems, not upon enforcing every ordinance to the letter–which would be well beyond what any animal control agency has the personnel to do.
Efforts to enforce compliance to the letter of ordinances typically encounter stiff resistance. Aggressive efforts have at times resulted in entire animal control agencies being dismantled, or in animal control service contracts being turned over to other contractors. The U.S. public likes the idea of dog licensing, especially if noncompliance is used to punish people whose dogs become problematic, but does not like the idea of animal control officers going door to door to check the licensing status of every dog who barks at a stranger.
The public likes the idea of potentially dangerous dogs being removed from communities, but not the idea of benign dogs being impounded and perhaps being killed, if they go unclaimed.
The cartoon stereotype of the dogcatcher long ago became obsolete, as animal control duties expanded, but back when the “Sylvester and Tweety” animated short films and the Walt Disney classic Lady & The Tramp (1955) lastingly established the image of dogcatching, animal control officers were mostly still just dogcatchers, whose chief duty was preventing bites and the risk of rabies by picking up strays.
As the norms of animal keeping evolved so that fewer people allowed dogs to run at large, free-roaming cats proliferated. By 1980, most U.S. animal control agencies had expanded into capturing cats, as necessity required–but then the norms of cat-keeping shifted too. Between free-roaming pet cats and feral cats, the total number of cats at large is now about the same as it was 60 years ago, just over 30 million, while about two-thirds of all pet cats now live almost entirely indoors.
With the free-roaming dog population reduced to about a tenth of what it was circa 1950, and the outdoor cat population stabilized at well below the peak of about 40 million reached circa 1990, the duties of animal control agencies are shifting again. More and more, animal control agencies are expected to address quality of life as well as public health and safety concerns.
“Barking dog” calls, for example, have climbed from a low priority for most animal control agencies to a priority level that usually results in some response, if only to try to warn the dog’s people against fomenting neighborhood conflict. Effectively responding to a barking dog complaint typically involves becoming involved in issues formerly left almost entirely to nonprofit humane societies, and addressed almost exclusively–if at all–through humane education. The chronic barking dog is most often a dog who is left chained outdoors in miserable conditions. Stopping the barking requires taking better care of the dog.
Because animal control officers are a branch of law enforcement, the public expects them to be able to invoke laws to reinforce whatever they recommend. Some animal control officers are reluctant to take on the added responsibility of enforcing extensions of authority into new areas, such as anti-chaining ordinances, largely to avoid the risk of being seen as obtrusive–but more and more are putting their influence behind the passage of ordinances prohibiting prolonged chaining, and adding reinforced language about housing animals properly, with adequate food and water.
Meanwhile, with far fewer dogs and cats at large to hunt wildlife and compete for food and cover, wild animals–including coyotes–have established themselves in urban and suburban habitats. Walt Disney in A Country Coyote Goes Hollywood (1967) presciently documented the arrival of coyote prey species, followed by coyotes, but what Disney observed was really just the beginning.
An ACO testifies for coyotes
Animal care and control agencies today are increasingly involved in responding to nuisance wildlife complaints–like Los Angeles Animal Services, whose wildlife specialist, Greg Randall, stipulates on the agency web site that “We encourage residents to employ deterrents, property alterations and the reduction of wildlife temptations like food, water and shelter, rather than use a pest control company or other methods of trapping, which ultimately is an ineffective way of dealing with the issue.”
Randall explicitly decries “the vilification and persecution of coyotes.” Unfortunately, many less progressive animal care and control agencies still refer wildlife calls to private exterminators.
Horace & Jasper
Wildlife exterminators are today’s counterparts of the for-profit private contractors who did most of the dogcatching back before public animal control agencies were formed. The modus operandi of the dog thieves Horace and Jasper in the 1959 Disney animated feature 101 Dalmatians was unfortunately all too typical of the for-profit dogcatchers then operating in much of the U.S. and Europe.
Back then, dogcatchers were typically paid by the head for the dogs they nabbed, and made additional money by selling dogs to laboratories, or by selling dog and cat pelts to the fur trade. Many for-profit dogcatchers maximized their revenue by focusing on easily captured pets–and did not do much, at least of a deliberate nature, to encourage people to keep pets at home, or to promote sterilizing pets.
Eliminating for-profit dogcatching proved to be an essential first step toward encouraging more responsible pet-keeping and reducing the numbers of animals who were impounded. Along the way, hundreds of nonprofit humane societies took animal control contracts away from for-profit dogcatchers through competitive bidding.
Unfortunately, some humane societies became little more than extermination agencies themselves, leading to the trend within recent decades of humane societies turning animal care and control duties over to public agencies, most of them specifically created to do animal care and control as a branch of community law enforcement.
Struggle still underway
Altogether, replacing for-profit dogcatching with the concept of promoting animal care and control as a civic duty took most of the 20th century in the U.S., and is a struggle still underway in most of the world. Dogcatchers in eastern Europe historically made most of their money selling pelts. In India, as recently as 2000, many sold dog leather. For-profit dogcatchers in other parts of Asia still sell dogs for meat.
Despite about 25 years of intensive reform, for-profit dogcatchers worldwide continue to obstruct dog and cat sterilization, vaccination, and the passage of humane laws wherever they can.
A similar problem is increasingly evident in addressing urban wildlife issues. In this regard, the U.S. and global situations are much the same.
Private exterminators, and USDA Wildlife Services, the U.S. government-funded extermination agency, often make some superficial effort to teach the public to avoid behavior that invites conflict with wild animals, but at the end of the day they are paid primarily to kill animals. USDA Wildlife Services alone kills more than 2.4 million animals per year, including more than a million birds and–on average–more than 100,000 coyotes. Private exterminators probably kill at least as many more, but no agency formally tracks the numbers.
Most of the coyotes killed by USDA Wildlife Services are killed in rural areas, where they allegedly prey on sheep and calves. Sometimes they do. But often coyotes merely scavenge or dispatch livestock felled by adverse weather or disease, and are mistakenly blamed for causing the deaths of animals who would not have survived long in any event.
The case for tolerating rural coyotes, however, is chiefly ethical and ecological. The case for tolerating urban and suburban coyotes includes undoing human mistakes.
Non-migratory Canada geese
For example, coyotes and raccoons are the two major predators of nonmigratory Canada geese, chiefly through stealing eggs. Hybrids of wild Canada geese and flightless domestic geese, nonmigratory Canada geese were originally bred as hunting decoys.
After hunting migratory waterfowl with live decoys was federally banned in 1936, the decoy birds were impounded, bred, and released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies in hopes of rebuilding depleted Canada goose populations to be hunted–but instead the nonmigratory geese demonstrated a distinct preference for habitats with short-cropped grass, such as parks, yards, airports, and ballfields, where hunting is seldom allowed. Among the few species capable of routinely raiding goose nests, coyotes help to keep the grass clean by both limiting the goose population and restricting the areas in which they can nest successfully.
Deer proliferation is an increasing problem throughout the U.S., a legacy of decades of hunter licensing policy that encouraged hunters to shoot mostly bucks, just after the breeding season. Whether a doe bears twins or a single fawn depends on how much food she finds in early pregnancy. Eliminating male competition for food in early winter brought an exponential increase in twin births, plus a skewed gender balance that would have exponentially increased the deer population even without twinning.
Meanwhile, the number of human hunters in the U.S. fell by half in 20 years. Deer discovered congenial habitat in suburbs where they cannot be safely hunted. Deer/car collisions more than doubled. In some parts of the country deer-eating pumas followed the deer into town. Though pumas attack humans little more often than coyotes, they are the North American mammal species most likely to consume human prey.
Coyotes seldom attack a grown deer, but hunt fawns and scavenge the remains of road-killed deer. Where coyotes are on patrol, even if focused on rabbits, deer tend to keep a discreet distance–at least until the coyotes move on.
(See also Controlling deer the natural way, by Lee Hall.)
Beavers, hunted to the verge of extinction in the 19th century, became a frequent nuisance because humans so often built in flood plains before the beaver population rebounded in the late 20th century–and continue to do so. Few species are more beneficial to other wildlife than beavers, whose dam-building creates habitat for hundreds of other species, especially birds. Beaver dams also contribute significantly to replenishing groundwater, by impounding rain and snow runoff to soak into the soil. But USDA Wildlife Services has killed between 25,000 and 32,000 “nuisance” beavers annually in recent years, and would undoubtedly kill far more if not for coyote predation and the deterrent effect of a coyote presence.
Skeptics may consult the findings of Oregon State University ecologists William Ripple and Robert Beschta, who found that within three years of the Yellowstone National Park wolf reintroduction in 1995, the Yellowstone coyote population plummeted by half, as wolves reclaimed habitat from coyotes, while the beaver population soared by 900%.
Wolves rarely hunt beaver because beaver are too small to feed more than one wolf, but beaver are just the right size to satisfy a coyote family.
Animal control “service dogs”
Beyond the coyote role in controlling other urban wildlife, coyotes are also in effect animal control agencies’ service dogs in helping to enforce responsible and considerate pet-keeping behavior.
Coyotes do not help to sell pet licences, but much as the mere presence of coyotes helps to keep problematic wildlife from becoming even more abundant in human suburbs, hearing or seeing the occasional coyote helps to encourage pet keepers to avoid allowing cats to wander, chaining dogs outdoors overnight, and leaving pet food outside where it might attract species whose activities bring far more complaints–such as raccoons, skunks, feral pigs, gulls, and crows.
Coyotes, like other wildlife and perhaps most dog-keepers, ignore poop-scooper laws. Yet coyotes consume far more poop than they leave behind, voraciously devouring the nutrient-rich turds left in accessible places by well-fed domestic dogs. Even if coyotes recycle only 1% of the estimated 46 million tons per year left at large by domestic dogs and cats, that would still be 46,000 tons, enough to fill 4,000 dump trucks.
Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo on January 27, 2009 profiled the work of wildlife exterminator Jimmie Rizzo, 45, who kills coyotes for several southern California cities, beyond the jurisdiction of Los Angeles Animal Services and Los Angeles County Animal Control.
Much and perhaps most of Rizzo’s work appears to be occasioned by complaints from pet keepers about perceived coyote threats to their animals. But the pet keepers are often doing things that animal control and humane officers try to prevent. In one instance, Rizzo came upon “a sobbing man who had let his Doberman out to fight off a coyote who had jumped into the backyard–only to see his pet killed within seconds.”
Basically this man was promoting a dogfight. For the Doberman, the encounter might have been sport. For the much smaller coyote, it was life and death, so the coyote took the first opportunity to finish it.
The coyote complaints that most scare people tend to involve misunderstood or misrepresented behavior. For example, Mozingo reported that Rizzo “has seen coyotes stalking along the 6-foot block walls between homes in Orange County, hunting for pets below.”
Actually, such edge habitat is where natural coyote prey such as rabbits, rats, and ground squirrels are most likely to be found in suburbs, in much greater abundance than outdoor pets, and stalking along the top of a wall keeps coyotes out of reach of large dogs–like the Doberman–who might attack them.
A coyote may kill and eat a vulnerable dog or cat of prey size, if able to catch the animal unawares, but like any other predator will not risk injury trying to kill animals who might fight back, such as a cornered cat, hissing and spitting with her fur up. A cat who runs from the coyote might be killed with the same scissors bite that dispatches a rabbit, but if the cat turns on the coyote, the coyote absconds as quickly as possible.
Predators directly confront other species, including humans, either in self-defense, defense of a mate or litter, or in territorial dominance disputes. Because coyotes hunt by stealth, range over large areas, and usually do not maintain territorial exclusivity except in the immediate vicinity of a den with pups, the likelihood of a coyote either seeking or participating in a dominance confrontation is relatively low. A tomcat is much more likely to pick a dominance fight.
Mozingo also described a woman who keeps “a French bulldog named Phoebe.” Phoebe “yips, snorts and wheezes in her rhinestone collar,” Mozingo said.
“We had a cat,” the woman told Mozingo. “He became coyote sushi.”
“She said a pack of coyotes once even chased her when she went out to get the mail one night,” wrote Mozingo.
The missing part of this allegation is a motive. There is no case on record of coyotes making a predatory attack on an adult, and are only a few verified cases of coyotes scavenging the remains of people who were already dead. Why the coyotes took an interest in her is anyone’s guess, but one possibility is that they smelled the woman’s pets’ fur or food on her clothing.
Misread defensive behavior
Mozingo went on to describe the motivation of a man who lobbied his city council for Rizzo to be hired to kill coyotes. “His family’s dachshunds had already survived two attacks,” Mozingo wrote, “when his mother spotted a coyote in the backyard. She managed to chase it away, but the coyote was intent on the dogs. In the next two days, the family had to run it off three more times. The next afternoon,” the man “looked out an upstairs window to see the same coyote pop up on the wall.
He ran downstairs to the patio door. The coyote loped across the yard and leaped over a wall into the neighbor’s property–and, within seconds, was back on the wall. The dachshunds raced at it, barking as it paced along, almost playfully, drawing them to the back of the yard.” The man “dashed to get there, but the coyote pounced. Both dogs sustained deep wounds in their necks and chests…They would survive, but the vet bill would be more than $3,000.”
This sounds like “aggressive” behavior on the part of the coyote, but again the missing element is the motive. Predators from guppies to great white sharks tend to avoid frontal attacks on prey, which would put themselves at risk, and rarely attack multiple prey animals at once.
A coyote who repeatedly attacks two dogs at once, taking the risk of being seen while doing it, is not demonstrating predatory behavior. The coyote might have been rabid, but while rabid coyotes have been found in other parts of the U.S., none have ever been found in California. The series of incidents occurred well outside the usual coyote breeding season, but coyotes sometimes breed out-of-season in warm climates, and one possible explanation is that the coyote was trying to protect a crawl space den containing an out-of-season litter or an injured family member from discovery by the dachshunds.
Jaimee Lynn Fletcher of the Orange County Register recently described a superficially similar incident in which a woman let her beagle and an eight-month-old, 13-pound puppy out into her yard one morning. A coyote grabbed the puppy, but left the pup behind and fled over the fence when the beagle intervened. From Fletcher’s description, the coyote appears to have been hunting in the woman’s yard when the dogs went outside–but a coyote who flees from a beagle, a dog breed usually smaller than an adult coyote, was scarcely there to ambush either dog. Seizing the puppy instead of a rabbit was a “crime of opportunity,” not the result of a wily plot.
Pets lost to coyotes are, for the most part, not adequately supervised–like Thomas the cat, whose demise Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Kery Murakami described in August 2008. Thomas’ people left him outdoors when they went on vacation. When they returned, Murakami wrote, “Thomas was missing…Black and white fur, a 4-inch piece of intestine, and two piles of coyote feces later were found in her yard.”
Thomas’ people complained to Murakami that they had not been warned about coyotes, but coyotes are only one of many reasons why no pet should be left outside to fend for himself or herself while caretakers are away. The most basic may be that there is no way to leave a secure and adequate food supply for the pet, accessible to the pet but not to other animals.
This is a lesson that people practicing neuter/return of feral cats have also struggled with. Feeding feral cat colonies is necessary in order to trap them for sterilization and vaccination, and also in order to count and keep track of them later, to identify any non-sterilized and unvaccinated newcomers.
However, encouraging feral cats to rely on human feeding is in effect turning them into outdoor pets. They may never become tame enough to touch, but as they become more accustomed to human feeders, they will become more visible as well, and therefore more likely to attract the notice of people who do not want them to be wherever they are–especially people who worry about cat predation on birds.
Consequences of feeding Sylvester
This is not unreasonable. Cats who hunt for a living tend to hunt mice, at night, not birds, who are mostly not out at night. Studies of feral cat hunting habits tend to show that birds are barely on the menu in mainland habitats, where mice are accessible. Outdoor pet cats, however, hunt for sport, not food. About 10% hunt birds successfully, and among those cats, birds may account for about 15% of their total prey.
Meanwhile, leaving food out at night for feral cats who will not eat by day may attract raccoons, skunks, opossums, and foxes, as well as coyotes, who also raid birds’ nests–but where cats are seen, they usually take the blame.
Live as wildlife, die as wildlife
Coyotes in July 2008 took a key role in brokering a truce between birders and feral cat colony caretakers at California State University Long Beach, simply by being seen near the cat food. Explained Long Beach Press-Telegram staff writer Kevin Butler, “A report by the California Department of Fish and Game found that the primary attraction for coyotes on the CSULB campus was the food and water at the cat feeding stations. The cats themselves are a secondary food source for the coyotes, according to agency officials.”
Initially CSULB sought to evict the coyotes by evicting the cats. Upon realizing that leaving food out overnight for cats was drawing coyotes who also ate cats, the cat colony caretakers accepted a new feeding regimen designed to minimize conflict with wildlife.
Though often dismayed to lose cats to coyotes, after investing in sterilization surgery for the cats and developing emotional bonds to them, neuter/return practitioners tend to accept that cats who live as wildlife usually die as wildlife.
As obligate carnivores, cats are close kin to apex predators such as lions and tigers, but due to their size, have also evolved the fecundity and large litters of a prey species. Dispatch by a larger predator is a normal and natural fate for a feral cat at about the point in life when an indoor pet might begin to need dental care; the fearsome armament of a young, healthy cat was not designed by nature to last half as long as many indoor cats survive.
Hue & cry
People who allow their pet cats to roam outdoors often take a less accepting view of nature–especially coyotes. Coyote predation on roaming pet cats has produced demands that coyotes be killed in at least fifty U.S. and Canadian cities during the past ten years, according to the ANIMALS 24-7 archives.
The hue and cry appears to have escalated since a coyote on July 1, 2005 killed one of three “outdoor cats” kept by Judith Webster, of Vancouver, British Columbia. Her 42-page screed Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective appeared in the Proceedings of the 12th Wildlife Damage Management Conference, hosted by the Wildlife Damage Management Working Group of The Wildlife Society.
Much of the Webster paper refuted exaggerated estimates of cat predation on birds. Her context, however, is alleging that the “Co-Existing With Coyotes” program in effect in Vancouver since 1994 is part of a defacto plot against cats by cat-hating birders and conservation biologists–omitting the reality that some of the leading advocates of “Co-Existing With Coyotes” are also advocates of feral cats and neuter/return.
“Cities are not for the Third Worldness of the Wild Kingdom,” Webster concluded, equating appreciation of urban coyotes with “an extinction-of-humans death-wish religion where one accepts, even welcomes, wildlife attacks on people and pets.”
“Hide behind the children”
Webster’s argument for extirpating coyotes from urban and suburban habitat might be summarized as, “Hide behind the children.” Humans, like most other animals, have a primal fear of predation, and respond especially quickly and intensely to a perceived threat of predation against offspring. Discussing how fear tends to trump knowledge in a crisis, in any species, livestock handling expert Temple Grandin cites brain scan studies showing that the fight-or-flight response, when activated, may literally switch off neurons that might be engaged in a more rational analysis, and might cause the animal, or human, to hesitate instead of taking action. This is apparently most likely to happen in encounters with predators, both actual and imagined, and happens more-or-less the same way in every species that has been tested.
Thus Robert M. Timm, Rex O. Baker, and USDA Wildlife Services employees Joe R. Bennett and Craig C. Coolahan have since 2004 alarmed much of the public with a paper entitled Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem. Timm, Baker, et al allege in the paper that coyotes are losing their fear of humans, and are increasingly dangerous toward humans and pets. According to their findings, the first reported coyote attack on a human in California that was not attributed to rabies occurred in 1978.
During the next 25 years, coyotes allegedly attacked people or pets in the presence of people 89 times. More than 75% of the incidents came after 1994. In 35 incidents, coyotes allegedly stalked or attacked young children. In 1981 a coyote killed a three-year-old Glendale girl.
That incident remains the only human fatality caused by a wild coyote in U.S. history.
A Canadian victim, Taylor Josephine Stephanie Luciow, 19, a Toronto folksinger/songwriter known professionally as Taylor Mitchell, died on October 28, 2009 in Halifax, after an emergency airlift from Chetikamp, Nova Scotia.
Hiking alone on the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park on October 27, Mitchell was mauled by as many as six coyotes.
Hearing Mitchell scream, other hikers chased away the coyotes and called for help, but she was already in critical condition when Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers–already in the area–arrived minutes later.
Two coyotes were shot at the scene. One died and was sent for necropsy. The other escaped.
Also on the Skyline Trail, a teenaged girl was bitten on the arm by a coyote in 2003, and another teenaged girl was attacked by a coyote in the trail parking lot in 1988.
Wild canid researchers suspect the coyotes in the Cape Breton region–who are unusually large and hunt moose, unlike any other coyotes––might actually be coyote/wolf or coyote/dog hybrids.
“Data collected by Michael W. Fox–Camilla’s father and my mentor–showed that captive first generation coyote/dog hybrids often showed aberrant behavior, and I saw some of this first hand,” commented Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff.
Sequence of observed changes?
According to Timm, Baker, et al, “There is a predictable sequence of observed changes in coyote behavior that indicates an increasing risk to human safety. We define these changes, in order of their usual pattern of occurrence, as follows: 1) An increase in observing coyotes on streets and in yards at night; 2) An increase in coyotes approaching adults and/or taking pets at night; 3) Early morning and late afternoon daylight observance of coyotes on streets and in parks and yards; 4) Daylight observance of coyotes chasing or taking pets; 5) Coyotes attacking and taking pets on leash or in close proximity to their owners; coyotes chasing joggers, bicyclists, and other adults; 6) Coyotes seen in and around children’s play areas, school grounds, and parks in mid-day; 7) Coyotes acting aggressively toward adults during mid-day.”
As Timm, Baker, et al continue, “A number of cities and states have adopted this sequence of behaviors…for determining an appropriate action threshold to implement coyote control measures. In many localities that use such a system, removal of problem coyotes is initiated when coyote behavior progresses to steps 4 or 5.”
But coyotes, like other predators who hunt by stealth, are seldom seen when they don’t want to be seen, or don’t imagine themselves to be unobserved. Seeing coyotes more often may only mean more cases of male coyotes trying to decoy humans or animals, usually dogs, who may be close to female coyotes and young.
Coyotes “approaching adults and/or taking pets at night,” “Daylight observance of coyotes chasing or taking pets,” “Coyotes attacking and taking pets on leash or in close proximity to their owners,” and “Coyotes acting aggressively toward adults during mid-day” all may likewise be defensive behavior, especially if the confrontation is frontal and results from a surprise encounter. Frontal confrontations are neither stalking prey, nor picking a fight, if the encounter was unanticipated. Many species in such situations may growl and make threatening gestures, trying to avoid being attacked. Coyotes –and foxes–are also well known for their efforts to bluff and decoy to buy time for mates and pups to escape.
Safer than domestic dogs
Neither are sightings of coyotes “in and around children’s play areas, school grounds, and parks in mid-day” inherently of concern, since many playgrounds, schools, and parks are places where a coyote might reasonably go to hunt rabbits. Toddlers might be at risk from an especially hungry coyote, but the sum of cases in which coyotes appear to have tried to prey upon human children––ever––is far fewer than the annual sum of cases in which domestic dogs kill children.
In the 34 years since the one fatal coyote attack on a child in the U.S. occurred, 5,920 pet dogs have made life-threatening attacks on 2,561 children and 2,129 adults, killing 610 people. Pit bulls alone attacked 1,634 children and 1,671 adults, killing 331 of their victims. Rottweilers attacked 326 children, 158 adults, and killed 91 victims.
Coyotes misread humans, too
But if coyotes really are “nature’s animal control officers,” shouldn’t they be no threat at all to people and pets who are trying to mind their own business?
Compare the coyote record to the record of human law enforcement officers. During the past decade, vehicular accidents resulting from police pursuits of suspects have reportedly killed an average of about 400 people per year, injuring about 2,000. Of the fatalities, about half are the suspects, a third are uninvolved people who happen to be in the way, and the remainder are police officers themselves.
Every year, in other words, police pursuits kill as many innocent people as pit bulls have killed in 34 years, and kill as many police officers as the toll from Rottweilers. A police officer chasing a suspect is at least 50 times more likely to kill or injure a child as a coyote is to even nip a finger.
That police make mistakes, at times catastrophic, is generally understood and accepted. For coyotes, any mistake tends to be fatal to themselves–and fatal, as well, to every other coyote in the vicinity where someone decides coyotes are “losing the fear of humans” and therefore must be killed.
Misreading human intent
Sometimes coyotes do misread human intent, as appears to have occurred in two recent alleged coyote attacks on adults.
In the first, on November 15, 2008, patrolman Gene Bettencourt of Beverly, Massachusetts, “gunned his cruiser between a woman and a rapidly charging coyote to prevent the animal from attacking her in St. Mary’s Cemetery,” reported Salem News staff writer Paul Leighton.
“Bettencourt said he was on routine patrol in St. Mary’s Cemetery,” wrote Leighton, “when a man walking his dog told him he saw a ‘huge animal’…As Bettencourt called the police station to report the coyote sighting, a woman got out of a green van and walked toward a gravestone. The coyote then took off and started running toward the woman.”
The missing point of information is that coyotes (and foxes) often hunt and den for the night in cemeteries, which tend to be among the quietest locations in urban and suburban neighborhoods. The coyote may have been inadvertently flushed from cover by the man with the dog–and then the woman’s arrival compounded the coyote’s sense of threat.
Concluded Leighton, “Bettencourt said the coyote stopped about 40 to 50 feet away when he pulled his cruiser in front of the woman.”
A coyote, fox, wolf, or even a feral cat will typically take a perceived opportunity to better assess a pursuer, and see what is becoming of companions or family members, if any are also at risk from a surprise encounter.
In the second case, on January 15, 2009, a three-year-old yellow Labrador named Rufus was lauded as a hero for rousting two coyotes who allegedly attacked Amanda Denison, 26, as she tossed a Frisbee to the dog in a greenbelt around Broomfield, Colorado, at about 7:00 a.m.–barely past dawn. One of the coyotes was later shot by a Colorado Division of Wildlife employee.
“The whole story didn’t make the news,” said University of Colorado animal behavior scientist Marc Bekoff. “When Denison noticed the coyotes, she called to them to join in the game, thinking they were dogs. The two coyotes approached and the larger one put her wrist in his mouth. She jerked it out of his mouth, tearing her coat. “I’ve studied coyotes for more than 35 years,” Bekoff continued, “and I know them well. I think it’s highly likely that the coyote who nipped her was merely trying to join the game to which he’d been invited. It’s also possible the coyotes were looking for a handout. Golfers in Erie, less than a half mile north, had been inviting coyotes to share their sandwiches with them.”
Not “angel doggies”
Most “attacks” have been by individuals who have been fed or otherwise welcomed into the local community or as in this case, invited to play a game with a dog.
“We just can’t invite animals into our homes after we’ve invaded their homes,” Bekoff said, “and then kill them when we no longer want them around.”
Coyotes are not “angel doggies,” blessed with supernatural insight into how to handle every situation. Yet coyotes’ mistakes harming humans are astonishingly few, considering their numbers and proximity to us, while human mistakes harming coyotes occur by the dozens every day.