COYOTES – LOVE ‘EM OR HATE ‘EM?

Once upon a time, just a couple of weeks ago, we had three beautiful cats.  Two of them, Oreo and Cody, we had for over ten years.  The other was a stray we found on the side of the road a couple of years ago that we named Maxine.  Then one morning I left the house to go to work and was confronted by a coyote trotting down the road right in front of my house.  The animal paused at the end of my driveway and stared at me with a “waddya you lookin’ at?” expression.  I threw a stone at the coyote and together with my dog we chased it away.  A day or two after that I spotted another coyote just down the road from my home.  Within a week all three of our beautiful cats were gone. 

Were the coyotes to blame in the first place?  After speaking with neighbors and doing a little research I have to say yes.  My first reaction was, naturally, outrage.  My wife and I adored those cats.  They added color, liveliness, and personality to our home; they were affectionate pets who truly loved our company as well.  For the first time in my life I was deeply angry at a wild animal (except for the time a zoo chimp spit on me), and I understood the anger ranchers and farmers harbor about wolves, coyotes, and other predators. 

Traveling in pairs, in a pack, or alone – the coyote is a threat to your pets.  And as their population grows they pose a threat to you, too.  Love them or hate them, though, they are beautiful animals with an unmatched talent for survival; the only large predator able to comfortably live alongside us.

But nature is nature is nature.  Animals do not have conscience and morality connected to their actions.  The coyote does what it needs to do in order to get food just as my cats kill mice for food or play.  Anger toward an animal might be understandable but  it’s ultimately irrational.  Most of the blame was on me anyway.  I should not have let the cats out at night, but we’ve lived here for over five years without incident and I’ve never experienced anything like this before.  Curiosity took over and I started thinking about coyotes in general and the threat they pose to domestic animals and humans in particular. 

The coyote (Canis latrans) is one of those animals people hear about so much and are so familiar with it seems like there is nothing new to learn.  Who hasn’t heard about how clever and adaptable they are, seen them on some nature show or followed the misadventures of Wily E Coyote?  They seem to be everywhere.  I’ve observed them in New York, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Washington state. 

In fact, they are just about everywhere in North America.  But that was not always the case.  Before we turned huge tracts of land into farms and thinned out the wolf population coyote territory was fairly restricted.  Forests belonged to the wolf so that was off limits to them.  But anywhere the wolf lived it dominated the habitat, and coyotes were not tolerated.  Prior to 1900 coyotes were not even reported in Alaska.  Those days are over.  The coyote now maintains a presence from Alaska to Central America.  They followed us, north to south and east to west.  And despite the fact that thousands upon thousands are killed every year the coyote stays right by our side.

So it is pretty common animal.  But just because it has a widespread habitat does not mean there aren’t are a few surprises in store.  Although the coyote is mainly associated with the west, and where it is most visible, the largest ones are actually found in the Northeast US.  They’ll eat nearly anything, but most of their wild game prey consists of rabbits and rodents.  Coyotes are not afraid to take on deer if the opportunity is right, however.  They are also one of the fastest animals in North America, hitting speeds of forty miles per hour.  That puts it in the pronghorn antelope range.  Coyotes may live alone, in pairs, or in larger packs. 

Coyote Close Up by John M. Regan Gray Wolf by John M. Regan

 Although they are often mistaken for wolves, coyotes are much smaller and tend to have a burnished appearance; they are often described as German Sheppard like in color.  The Gray Wolf pictured on the far right is a much bigger canine with a notably broader face.

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One of the more interesting facts about coyotes is their well documented association with badgers.  The speed and superb sense of smell possessed by the coyote coupled with the immense digging ability of the badger has spelled doom for many a rodent. 

But does this coyote danger extend to humans and domestic animals as well?  The simple answer is yes.  Do a web search for “coyote attacks” and you are rewarded with dozens of reports from New York to California.  The majority of these accounts are killings of small dogs and cats, but pet poodles are not the only animal the coyotes are going after.  In 1983 a three year old girl was attacked and killed – in Los Angeles.  A more recent attack took place in July of this year  in Long Beach, California while a family was visiting a gravesite.  According to news reports a two year old girl was bitten on the back and then the coyote attempted to drag the child away by holding on to her leg.  The little girl’s mother managed to ward off the animal and save her daughter.

So the question is not do these attacks occur; the question is how severe is the threat, and what can be done?  As with most alarming media reports, perspective is lacking.  Yes there have been numerous attacks on humans by coyotes in recent years but there has been thousands more attacks on humans from domestic dogs.  You are far, far more likely to be bitten by a neighborhood dog than a coyote.   

A detailed and thorough report on coyote attacks in the US and Canada was conducted by Lynsey A. White and Stanley D. Gehrt of the School of Environmental and Natural Resources, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.  It can be found at this link:http://urbancoyoteresearch.com/WhiteandGehrt_CoyoteAttacks.pdf

The team studied 142 reported coyote attacks that occurred between 1960 and 2004.  Some of the highlights of their findings:

  • Adults and children were attacked in almost equal numbers, but true “predatory” attacks occurred most on small children.  Adults were usually bitten for other reasons.
  • 70% of the attack occurred in the immediate vicinity of the victim’s home; the majority of others happened in “parks.”
  • Most attacks on adults occurred during outdoor recreational activities; children were attacked while outside in their yard or driveway.
  • 30% of the attacks occurred due to the coyote being fed by people (deliberately or unintentionally).
  • Only 10 cases of rabid animals could be confirmed

What about the family dog or cat?  The slightest bit of internet research reveals an enormous number of attacks every year.  In March of this year there were 11 recorded attacks on small pets in Broomfield, Colorado alone.  Add to this the three attacks on my cats, hundreds of other reported attacks, plus an untold number that go unreported and the number of attacks by coyotes on domestic animals probably reaches into the thousands every year.  Cats are easily the most vulnerable, but small dog breeds are in danger as well.  Attacks on larger dogs are rare but do occur.  Big breeds of dogs are generally not in danger.  Coyotes sometimes form packs, however, and they can take down any single dog if they feel threatened.  So the threat to pets is real and it is prevalent.  Be especially aware during the early morning hours.  Coyotes that have been around suburban or rural neighborhoods have learned something that armies have known for many years – the pre-dawn hours are the best time to attack.  Most humans are still in slumber at this time, all is quiet, and the decreased visibility is ideal for their concealment.

So what to do?  Coyote eradication is not an option even if we wanted.  At one time there were 125,000 killed every year – and that did not seem to put a dent in their numbers.  Studies have shown that the number of pups in a coyote litter increase as the numbers of coyotes in an area decrease.  Add in the omnivorous diet of the animal plus its proven adaptability and eradication does not seem viable as a long term solution.

The obvious answer is prevention.  If you feed your cats and dogs outside – stop immediately.  If this is not possible than be sure to clean up afterward.  Never leave food outside at night.  There are more than just coyotes out there, too.  Bears love an unexpected snack as well.  NEVER feed wild animals.  You are courting danger for yourself and others.  Keep cats and small dogs inside as much as possible, especially at night.  Always keep young children under close observation in an area where coyotes have been sighted.  Your number one ally against coyote attacks is a good fence.  It should be at least six feet high and impermeable.  An ideal design can be found at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html.  But for most any kind of a chain link or solid wood fence will do.

What to do if you see a coyote?  Hold still and do not approach the animal.  Coyotes are naturally curious; they will often stop and stare at you.  This may appear like a friendly, almost tame, gesture but don’t be fooled.  If you get too close you may be attacked or at least bitten.  If the animal approaches you, however, immediately go into an aggressive mode.  Get children or pets out of danger; throw rocks, yell, scream, flap your jacket in the air.  Make yourself look as big and dangerous as possible.  

The bottom line is that coyotes are dangerous, but they are here to stay.  They’ve learned to live with us.  Now we have to learn to live with them.

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