Animal Emotions

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Coyotes: Fascinating Animals Who Should Be Appreciated

We must change our ways and make room for coyotes

Coyotes are amazing beings. Loved or hated and feared by many, coyotes have defied virtually all attempts to control their cunning ways. William Bright, in his superb collection of stories titled A Coyote Reader notes, "Coyote is the trickster par excellence for the largest number of American Indian cultures." Native peoples have portrayed coyotes as a sly tricksters, thieves, gluttons, outlaws, and spoilers, because of their uncanny ability to survive and reproduce successfully in a wide variety of habitats, including major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City and under harsh conditions. Coyotes not only survive their encounters with other nonhuman predators (although many lost their lives to wolves in Yellowstone National Park after wolves were reintroduced) but also with humans who attempt to control them using incredibly brutal methods, and who also hold well-organized community hunts in which the person who kills the most coyotes wins a prize. Often these mass killings are considered to be wholesome family outings, quality family time. What a perverted sense of family values.

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I've studied coyotes for more than 35 years and along with research performed by my colleagues we've discovered that talking about "the" coyote is misleading. The moment one begins making rampant generalizations they're proven wrong. For example, in some areas coyotes live alone, in other locations they live with their mate, while in others they live in groups that resemble wolf packs -- extended families of different generations. In these packs there are "aunts" and "uncles" who help to raise youngsters. And, coyotes are sometimes territorial and sometimes not. In a nutshell, coyotes are quintessential opportunists who defy profiling as individuals who predictably behave this way or that. And, this is one reason why they are so difficult to control.

Wildlife Services (formerly called Animal Damage Control) ruthlessly slaughters around 90,000 coyotes each year as part of federally subsidized lethal predator control. More than $1.6 billion (USA) has been spent on coyote management over the past 60 years. Wanton killing doesn't work because little or no attention is paid to the versatile behavior of these adaptable predators. And, disease and unsanitary conditions frequently cause more livestock death than do coyotes or other predators. Only rarely is "the problem" coyote caught or killed and when coyotes are killed others take their place. There's evidence that in areas where coyotes are killed birth rates and litter size increase, the result of which is the maintenance or increase in coyote numbers. Concerning predation on sheep, biologist Kim Murray Berger discovered "the biggest culprit by far to explain the missing sheep is the high price of hay. Wages and lamb prices are important players, too. Even the rancher’s age has more to do with his predicament than do predators. At the statistical bottom of Berger’s list of prime suspects sits the coyote." (For details see Berger, K.M. 2006. Carnivore-livestock conflicts: Effects of subsidized predator control and economic correlates on the sheep industry. Conservation Biology 20, 751-761.)

Now, government and other shooters are killing urban coyotes because of reported attacks on humans and their companion animals. Recently, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, shot a coyote who stared at his dog and left the coyote to become mulch, but he might have broken the law. Coyote "attacks" are truly few and far between, but coyotes can and have killed human beings on very rare occasions. Many know of the tragic death of Canadian singer Taylor Mitchell who was killed by two coyotes in October 2009 in a national park in Nova Scotia, but prior to that no other attacks had ever occurred in the park. (To read Taylor's mother's thanks for the support her family received and her remarks about how Taylor would not have wanted the coyotes to be killed see this article.)

Lynsey White and Stanley Gehrt working out of Ohio State University (Gehrt has also been conducting long-term studies of coyotes in Chicago) analyzed coyote attacks on humans that occurred in the United States and Canada between 1960 and 2006. There were only 142 attacks on 159 victims. Among the important points made in this highly researched paper is that it's very difficult to identify a coyote attack. People often conflate the words "aggressive", "assertive", "bold", "curious", and "investigating" for example, and we need consistency so that we can come to a better understanding of how coyotes actually interact with humans. Furthermore, even if there are more reported "attacks", because of increasing human populations and perhaps because more people are getting out into nature, there are likely many more opportunities for coyotes to confront human beings so we need to know if rates of attacks are actually increasing. Frequency accounts are insufficient. White and Gehrt also caution people against using the work of Robert Timm and his colleagues to make decisions on how to control - really, kill - urban coyotes. These reports surely attract attention because they are sensationalistic and fear mongering but actually "have provided few analyses of victim demographics, seasonality of attacks, and none concerning the behavior of both the victims and coyotes prior to, during, and after the attack. Identifying patterns in the details of coyote attacks is essential for developing effective methods to reduce human–coyote conflicts."

Consider another coyote "attack". In January 2009 coyotes supposedly "attacked" a Broomfield woman but the whole story didn't make the news. The woman was playing Frisbee with her dog at dawn in an area adjacent to wildlife habitat. When she noticed the two animals, 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. Her dog chased the coyotes away. She also said she'd go back there to play in the future. This sort of arrogance is intolerable and animals shouldn't die because of it. Nonetheless, a few days later, citizens were informed that the smaller coyote, not the one who "attacked" the woman, was shot and killed. This was totally unnecessary. It's also important to note that the coyotes had previously enjoyed sandwiches provided by golfers at a nearby course.

All in all we need more consistency in reporting human and companion animal encounters with coyotes. Killing does not and never has worked. When a space opens where a coyote had lived another individual simply moves in. Usually the offending coyote is not identified. And it is ethically indefensible to wantonly go out and kill coyotes because they try to live among us, arrogant big-brained invasive mammals who have redecorated the homes of coyotes and other animals and then conveniently decide that they have become "pests" when we don't want them around any longer. The Texas governor's utterly unacceptable actions come as more cities in the Denver and other metropolitan areas are realizing that the best way to address conflicts with coyotes is to examine our own behavior. Confrontations with coyotes can almost always be traced to irresponsible human actions including allowing dogs to run free off leash and feeding the coyotes, either intentionally or unintentionally. And, it's pretty easy to clean up all of these problems and coexist peacefully with coyotes.

Coyotes are adaptable, intelligent, socially complex, and sentient beings who deserve respect. An extraordinary amount of time, energy, and money has gone into coyote control. Nonetheless, it hasn't worked, lest coyotes would be controlled and the controllers could move on to other programs, hopefully less pernicious and more successful and economically worthwhile activities. I expect that if any of us were as unsuccessful and wasteful in our jobs as Wildlife Services and animal "controllers" have been in theirs we'd be looking elsewhere for employment.

Let's appreciate coyotes for the amazing beings they are. They offer valuable lessons in survival. Though coyotes try our patience they're a model animal for learning about adaptability and success by nonhuman individuals striving to make it in a human dominated world.  Coyotes, like Proteus the Greek who could change his form at will and avoid capture, are truly "protean predators." They're a success story, hapless victims of their own success.

Coyotes - love them and leave them be.

To learn more about the amazing lives of coyotes and how we can easily coeixst with them, visit the website of Project Coyote a national non-profit organization that is dedicated to fostering coexistence between humans and coyotes and advocating on behalf of America's wild "song dog."

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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