Coyotes: the Media’s Modern Bogeyman

(Previously published in the Eco Report and
San Diego Loves Green, updated here.)

By Renee Owens          December 4, 2018









At this very moment scientists are growing algae for biofuel, making contact lenses that change color to alert diabetics of low blood sugar, while doctors are fighting cancer using sound instead of radiation. When such amazing advances are becoming the norm, why is it we are continuously befuddled and alarmed by something that has lived in our midst, unchanging, for centuries? Not only has it lived quietly among us, it shares more than 99% of its DNA with our beloved canine children.
 
I am speaking of course of the coyote, Canis latrans, a species native to all states in our nation except Hawaii. We have crossed each other’s paths for ages, and yet Homo sapiens remain resistant to the idea that coyotes are an integral and permanent part of our shared wild landscape.

Southern California county is a recent casualty of this conundrum. Just last week the City Council of Torrence voted to spend almost $100,000 of taxpyaer dollars to kill coyotes in what will be one more in long line of futile attempts by a community to solve their coyote "problem".  It's hardly a suprise such poor decicion-making still occurs when news outlets keep lowering the journalism bar with stories like a recent one in San Diego, remarking on a coyote that nabbed a terrier from its yard while the owner was at work. The reporter gave no further information, except to exclaim “the coyote lives in this canyon behind me, the very same one that kids ride through on their way to school!” The inference that coyotes are waiting in the bushes ready to snatch the nearest unsuspecting child is science fiction, and does a disservice to naive people wondering if their children are next on the meu.

Throughout history coyote attacks on humans have been exceedingly rare and almost never cause injury, statistically you are more likely to be attacked by an indignant chicken than a coyote. But sadly such fear-mongering continues to outpace reality. In a televised news story an NBC reporter quoted a homeowner speculating about an observed coyote’s next victim, “[it] could be a baby crawling on a blanket in the backyard, while mom’s in the kitchen watching him. This coyote would size up just about anything”, and “there’s one extra-large one [bigger than a wolf].” As a biologist who has studied truly dangerous predators like crocodiles, one thing I have learned is that the perceived size of an animal is directly proportionate to the fear held by the person relating the story. Those who are phobic see animals of truly monstrous proportions. Devoid of facts, this so-called news story leaves the viewer with no actual insight on coyotes or their behavior in the real world.


The bigger problem here is that sensational reporting about carnivores results in much worse than lazy, reality-show-esque journalism. In a typical "killing contest" in New Mexico residents are encouraged to shoot as many coyotes as they can, the prize being a new shotgun. This is particularly alarming when you consider that the endangered Mexican gray wolf, numbering fewer than 100 and hanging on by a thread in New Mexico, could easily be – and have been – mistaken for a coyote. Such hunts not only result in a high illegal take of non-target animals, they promote an attitude that denies the reality that coyotes are integral, sentient cogs in the wheels of our ecosystems. In a few choice, oft-repeated words a beloved icon of American heritage is turned into an ogre in the public psyche. Meanwhile these barbaric contests are often followed by a significant rise in rodent populations and a drop in biodiversity as the loss of key carnivores disrupts the delicate balance of predator-prey relationships.

Homeowner complaints about coyotes often result in government employees called in to kill the problem. The preferred method of killing continues to be the cheapest:  trapping. This is despite the fact that steel leg-hold traps and snares are not only indiscriminate to species, but have been declared inhumane by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, and the National Animal Control Association. Even the Sierra Club, a group demonstrably supportive of hunters, has adopted a national policy opposing the use of body gripping traps.

Their motivation isn’t rocket science:
whether it’s a coyote or your house cat,
a trapped animal does not die a quick
death; it is a slow, agonizing process of
strangulation, blood loss, or exposure.
Even in California where it is illegal to
trap for sport, the feds are permitted
to set body gripping traps on public lands
and within feet of your private property.


For over a century taxpayers have paid tens of millions of dollars for coyote eradication programs; including to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services branch. Such management strategies
have repeatedly failed to resolve any
conflicts, nor have they reduced coyote
populations over time. They have
however, resulted in countless protected
species, and pets, being brutally injured
and killed as a part of the archaic
practices of the USDA’s animal killing agents.

 
The reason coyote elimination strategies fail is because Mother Nature has a way of adapting where she can. When coyotes are removed from an area, the neighboring coyotes will move into the newly unoccupied niche to take advantage of available resources. If resident coyotes remain they will produce more pups per litter, and possibly more litters per year. This reality comes on the heels of other myths, such as the idea more coyotes observed means their population is ‘exploding’, or that coyotes watching us during the day means they have lost their fear of us. No. In actuality coyotes are shy animals who shun close contact with humans. What they have learned, however, is that human residences offer a smorgasbord of food: garbage, bird seed, smelly compost, lawn-loving rabbits, rats, and yes, small pets. Without even exiting our cars we can purchase a day’s worth of calories for two bucks at a burger joint; we easily forget that for wild animals, successfully procuring enough food to survive is a daily and lifelong struggle. Hunger trumps fear when it comes to survival.

If you find the presence of coyotes
in your neighborhood alarming, be
aware they have been quietly foraging
around suburban areas for decades.
As we develop and fragment more
of their native habitat at an
exponential rate, they are forced
to look for food wherever they can,
fear of deadly roads and humans
notwithstanding. Yet there is more to the coyote than just its drive for food. For example, a study by Ohio State University researchers discovered that all of their "urban" coyotes observed were monogamous and mate for life. And they eat much more than clueless house cats; it is widely known coyotes play an integral role in controlling rodent populations, and can reduce the prey-borne diseases contagious to humans.

So how do you keep coyotes from invading your personal space? Most importantly remove food lures, reinforce exclusion devices like fences, and urge your neighbors to do the same. Keep your cats indoors (the birds will thank you for it), and don’t leave small dogs unattended in a yard with a fence that can easily be hurdled or dug under. For more on how to keep your pets safe from coyote predation, see the Humane Society’s latest updates.

On a personal note, the irony of my own coyote "problem" is not lost on me. Snoozing in the bathroom is our latest ICU patient: a Rhode Island Red named Moneypenny. She was rescued from the jaws of an intrepid coyote by our young Pharoah Hound who suprised the coyote into literally spitting her out. Moneypenny is recuperating quickly, enjoying not having to compete with 15 other hens for her fresh corn and kale breakfast.
 
I am keenly aware that our coyote
neighbors are trying to
survive, and that we moved into
territory they occupied long before
we arrived. Obviously I don’t appreciate
the coyote's penchant for my otherwise
happy, free-range chickens. But we
have accepted that like it or not, the
coyotes are here to stay, and we must
learn to coexist. And although
Moneypenny undoubtedly disagrees, I
would find the evenings emptier without the coyote’s boisterous, staccato howls echoing across the canyon, reminding us what the call of the wild sounds like. It is a simple thing that hasn’t changed for centuries depsite our increasingly mechanized, technophilic world, and I hope it never does.

To ask about our Coyote Coexistence Presentation, contact us at
info@wildzoneconservation.org

All photo credits Renee Owens except animals in traps USDA and FreeShot

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Coyote in USDA leg hold trap