Every morning at dawn I walk down the driveway with my dog, Zoey, to get the newspaper. When we stepped outside one day a couple of years ago, a coyote stood in the front yard. Lean with a dirty gray coat, spindly legs, long snout, and pointy triangular ears, it lowered its head, and stared at us with piercing close-set eyes.
I keep Zoey’s leash in a peach basket just outside the door. She gave out a guttural cry and sprang forward before I had a chance to reach for it.
The coyote ran down my driveway and took off up the street. The hair on Zoey’s back spiking into a mohawk, every muscle in her body bulging, her teeth bared, she gave chase.
Zoey is an American Bulldog, two feet tall at the shoulders, weighing 70 pounds. The average coyote is her height but less than half her weight. When Zoey was young, she would have been more than a match for any coyote, but she was eleven years old that day with arthritis in her front shoulders and an artificial back knee, so I wasn’t sure she could survive a fight with this one.
Zoey paid me no heed when I yelled at her to stop. I ran after her. Seventy-three years old with double knee replacements, I lost ground on her quickly. By the time I got to the bottom of the driveway, she was fifty yards up the street with the coyote another twenty yards ahead of her. I’d almost lost sight of them when Zoey’s adrenaline surge wore off, and she slowed to a stiff-legged trot. The coyote could have pulled away from her easily, but instead it looked back and stopped. This revived Zoey’s flagging energy, and she charged ahead. The coyote waited until Zoey was almost on it, then hopped off the street, and loped up a steep hill.
Zoey followed in hot pursuit. About half-way up, her arthritis finally got the best of her. She stumbled and fell, then scrambled to her feet, barking hysterically, but she was too weak to climb higher.
I clumped along the street, staggered up the hill, and grabbed her collar. Breathing hard, I looked up at the summit. A second coyote stood beside the one Zoey had chased. Neither seemed tired or the least bit fearful. While I caught my breath, they watched us closely. When I pulled Zoey back down to the street, they trotted over the hill out of sight.
Back inside the house, Zoey collapsed on the rug in my home-office, and I plopped down in my desk chair. As Zoey lay at my feet, panting furiously, spent, and exhausted, a grudging respect for the fleeing coyote came over me. It had set a trap for a dog too big to take down alone. It stopped on the street to lure Zoey to the top of the hill where its partner was waiting. We were lucky Zoey’s arthritis broke her down. If she’d been able to scale that hill, she’d have been an easy kill in a two-on-one fight.
Many of my neighbors’ pets have not been so fortunate.
My neighborhood is an equestrian community with large lots and miles of trails winding in between and around the properties, all nestled up against a fifty-six-hundred-acre nature preserve. Coyotes migrate from the preserve, set up dens in the brush, and hunt the trails, open fields, and backyards.
Walking my dogs and horseback riding daily, I’ve seen countless coyotes since I moved here, but recently there’s been a change in their behavior. The frequency of sightings has increased. I see coyotes at all times of the day, anywhere and everywhere, in streets, neighbors’ yards, and home construction sites. They shied away from me before. Now, they rarely retreat, even when Zoey and P.D., an 80-pound Pit Bull, are with me. They’re no longer afraid of people.
This absence of fear, referred to as habituation, is a dangerous phenomenon. Naturalists Rex Baker and Robert Timm, who studied coyotes in suburban and urban environments, observed seven stages of escalating aggressive behavior among habituated coyotes. Coyotes in my neighborhood have reached stage 5 – attacking pets on a leash or standing near an owner. If Baker and Timm’s study is an accurate predictor of coyote aggression, we need to reverse the progress of habituation before it reaches Stages 6 and 7, threatening actions toward children and adults.
The problem of habituation is not unique to my neighborhood. No one knows how many coyotes there are nationwide, but estimates reach into the millions. In California alone, naturalists think there could be as many as 750,000, and the population is growing. Coyotes are fiercely territorial. As their numbers increase, they spread out to establish new hunting grounds. As a result, they are ubiquitous. They live in virtually every rural, suburban, and urban area from the Arctic Circle to Panama, from New York City to downtown Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Habituation has reached Stage 5 in countless neighborhoods and reports of attacks on pets are commonplace, but thankfully, attacks on people are rare. Baker and Timm’s study found 367 reported coyote attacks on humans over the four decades from 1977 through 2015. About half occurred in California. Children comprised 40% of the victims, adults 60%. Many of the attacks on small children appeared to be predatory and occurred during the mating and pup-raising season from March through August when coyote mates, who are monogamous for life, are sometimes desperate for prey to feed their young. Attacks on adults often involved people trying to defend their pets from a coyote mauling.
In another study of coyote attacks by Lynsey White and Stanley Gehrt, about half resulted in minor bite wounds. Predatory attacks and rabid coyotes accounted for most of the serious injuries.
There have only been two reported fatal coyote attacks in North America. A lone coyote killed a three-year-old girl in front of her house in Glendale, California, in 1985, and a pack of coyotes attacked a young woman on a hiking trail in Canada in 2002.
Coyote studies show that there are no easy ways to reform aggressive behavior once coyotes become habituated. Extermination doesn’t work. About 400,000 coyotes are killed annually, 80,000 by the federal government alone, but coyote populations continue to explode, largely because coyote biology is primed to combat extermination. When the rate of killing increases, females produce larger litters, and newborn coyotes mature faster and quickly fill the habitat vacuum created by the killings.
Relocating them is also ineffective. They usually return to their original territory, and when they don’t, other coyotes move in and take over.
The most effective alternative to protect pets and people seems to be “hazing,” reviving a coyote’s natural fear of humans. The simplest way to haze is to wave your arms and yell at a coyote, but that alone is often ineffective where habituation has taken hold in the coyote population. Coyote experts recommend blasting airhorns, shaking plastic containers filled with rocks, banging pots and pans together, throwing rocks, turning water hoses on them, and pepper spray.
Baker and Timm believe that hazing may not work once a coyote has reached Stage 5, attacking pets in the presence of their owners. They recommend more drastic measures along with hazing to deter aggression at that stage, such as removal of members of the local coyote population through extermination or relocation, to send a message to the remaining pack.
Other studies conclude that hazing can cure a severe coyote habituation problem if all the people in a neighborhood consistently haze every coyote they confront. They recommend community outreach and education to achieve an effective hazing program.
I’m against killing coyotes and in favor of hazing. Coyotes are not evil. They are wild predators, trying to make a living, and important members of the eco system, helping to control the rodent, small mammal, and reptile populations. In my neighborhood’s case, they were here first. We moved into their natural habitat. I feel strongly we should try to coexist with them.
I realize, though, that I might not hold that view if the fleeing coyote’s trap had worked a couple of years ago. If the coyote and its partner had killed Zoey. If I’d heard her death wails. If she’d died in my arms. Some of my neighbors have lost their pets that way. They disagree with me, and I can’t blame them.
Meanwhile, I moved that peach basket inside my door. I snap on the leash before we go outside. And I haze every coyote we meet on the trails.
Post Script: All the photographs of coyotes displayed here I took in my neighborhood over the last couple of years before I started hazing them. As you can see, they were almost indifferent to my presence.