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Coyotes: Victims of their own success and sensationalist media

Coyote attacks on humans are incredibly rare, so why the media hype?

Coyotes are once again in the news, portrayed as vicious predators. A forthcoming National Geographic Special titled "Killed by coyotes?" will air February 18. As a researcher who has studied coyotes for decades and a board member of Project Coyote I feel it essential to set the record straight about these amazing survivors so that media hype doesn't taint the picture of who these wonderful carnivores truly are. 

In an earlier essay I wrote about the incredible adaptability of coyotes despite a century or more of extreme and reprehensible persecution by government agencies and others because of their supposed rampant predation on livestock. However, scientific research shows over and over again that coyotes actually do very little damage to livestock. 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.

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Let's briefly consider coyote attacks on humans. The National Geographic special gives close attention to the tragic killing of Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell. Needless to say, I and many others were stunned and deeply saddened by what happened to Ms. Mitchell.  (To read about 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 please see this article.)

The attack on Taylor Mitchell was the first fatal coyote attack ever recorded. One researcher claims that the coyotes were motivated to kill and eat Ms. Mitchell but this simply cannot be known based on the reconstruction of the incident, and would be difficult to know even if someone saw it happen. Based on other reports of human-coyote encounters this is highly speculative. This researcher also said that we shouldn't live in fear of coyotes and that they're constantly testing us. I agree we shouldn't live in fear of coyotes, but my own experience and that of others questions whether they're constantly testing us. I'm sure that because of the increasing amount of time that people are spending outdoors in areas where coyotes live there are numerous and increasing opportunities for coyotes to harass and attack but as we know this rarely occurs despite increasing opportunities. Between 1960 and 2006 there were only 142 attacks on 159 victims in the U.S. and Canada. It's estimated that 3-5 people are attacked in the United States each year. To be sure, this is regrettable but hardly something worth media hysterics. Compare coyote attacks with attacks by domestic dogs. In the U. S. it's estimated that about 1000 people a day are treated in emergency rooms for dog bites and in 2010 alone there were 34 fatal dog attacks. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. 

We should appreciate the presence of coyotes and educate ourselves on how to coexist with them. Killing them doesn't work for they are here to stay because they are true survivors in incredibly unfriendly situations. Let's encourage media to provide a more balanced view of coyotes (and other animals) based on what we know about them and their encounters with us rather than irresponsible sensationalism. This will go a long way toward fostering more harmonious relationships for all. 

For a detailed account of coyote attacks on humans in the United States and Canada please see

Possible contacts for National Geographic:  pressroom@ngs.orgestanley@ngs.org

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

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