Nature’s animal control officers

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2009:
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 Tweeters 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

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

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
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 is 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
Understanding how much coyotes do to
protect human interests begins with understanding
what animal control agencies do, on what size
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
90 million pet cats and 70 million pet dogs in
the U.S., almost a cat per household 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.
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.
This, for animal control officers,
requires learning considerable discretion–not
unlike the discretion coyotes use in not being
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
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, between 50
and 60 years ago, 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 30 years ago, 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
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.
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 of the past 20
years 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.
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
10 years ago, many sold dog leather. For-profit
dogcatchers in other parts of Asia still sell
dogs for meat.
Despite about 20 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.
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-crapped 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.
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
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
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, as the people of
ANIMAL PEOPLE have witnessed, 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 chestsŠThey 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 n 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

Inappropriate feeding

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 missingŠ 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.
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.
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
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.
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 two dozen U.S. and
Canadian cities during the past four years,
according to the ANIMAL PEOPLE 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 recently appeared in the Proceedings
of the 12th Wildlife Damage Management
Conference, hosted by the Wildlife Damage
Management Working Group of The Wildlife
Society–even though Webster did not present the
paper at the conference, and some Wildlife
Society members who did present papers are
apparently flabbergasted that it was published.
Much of the Webster paper refutes
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 concludes,
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.
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 pray, 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.
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
In the 28 years since the one fatal
coyote attack on a child occurred, pet dogs have
made life-threatening attacks on 1,275 children
and 753 adults, killing 318 people. Pit bull
terriers alone attacked 568 children and 457
adults, killing 132 of their victims.
Rottweilers attacked 251 children, 113 adults,
and killed 66 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 bull
terriers have killed in 28 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
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.
Sometimes coyotes do misread human
intent, as appears to have occurred in two of
the most 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
“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’ŠAs 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 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,”
University of Colorado animal behavior scientist
Marc Bekoff told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “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.
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.

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