Are Urban Coyotes Becoming More of a Threat?

Photo courtesy of Will Byington.

They've been spotted in Central Park. They live in downtown Chicago and suburban Atlanta, and they stroll through cities and throughout the country like they own the place.

Like it or not, coyotes are everywhere. Their numbers are increasing throughout their range, and they have invaded regions where they have never been seen before. And they are devouring cats and dogs, killing livestock, and biting people more than ever.

According to data compiled by Dr. Bob Timm, a retired extension wildlife specialist with the University of California, coyote attacks are increasing. At least 200 incidents involving people have been reported since 1985, but that's likely just a fraction of the actual occurrences, particularly newer incidents.

"Based on news reports, you might think attacks are actually decreasing in places like California, but I think that's only because they are so common, they don't make the newspapers anymore," says Timm, who spent a good part of his career examining urban and suburban coyote behavior.

What's going on? It could be something as simple as an increase in numbers.

"Although we don't know for sure," he says, "there is circumstantial evidence that coyote populations are up in many urban areas. We've certainly created a perfect environment in the suburbs. They often have abundant food left out for pets and lots of dogs and cats to eat."

There's no question they've been chowing on dogs and cats by the hundreds in recent years. Attacks on domestic animals got so numerous in Seal Beach, California, town council members voted to hire a trapper to rid some parts of the city of coyotes.

Kent, Wash., resident Feron Scarberry spent several hours in the emergency room and received 24 rabies shots in late 2012 after being attacked by a pack of coyotes while walking his dog in his backyard.

At least 60 pets were killed or injured by coyotes through November 2014 alone. One coyote actually followed a woman into her home, snatched her dog, and ran outside with the pet in its mouth, according to a story posted on Reuters.

The new boldness of urban coyotes could also be a matter of conditioning. Timm says there seems to be some evidence that the longer coyotes live in close proximity to humans, the more emboldened each generation becomes.

Unlike rural coyotes, they have no reason to fear humans. That's why, based on Timm's research, lethal methods that include trapping and euthanization, along with selective hunting, are the best methods of reducing conflicts in many situations.

The difficult part is getting a trapping or hunting program past animal rights activists who wail at the mere mention of either method. A coalition of groups filed suit against Mendocino County, California, after it approved a coyote control program administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services branch.

The suit accused the country of failing to conduct an environmental impact statement. Anti-hunters also spoke out against a plan by residents of Tiverton, Rhode Island, that would allow a local gun shop owner to shoot coyotes on private property.

Outrage from animal rights activists was so strong in Seal Beach, the town council actually abandoned its plan to trap and euthanize coyotes. Critter Busters, the firm hired to remove coyotes, caught and killed four before the effort was halted.

Emeil Hawkins was attacked by a coyote while walking with his mother in late 2013 after he attempted to feed the it, mistaking it for a German shepherd.

Apparently, at least one council member had no idea what it means to euthanize an animal, nor what a coyote does to a pet or a child when it gets a hold of one.

"When Critter Busters told us that it used gas to dispatch coyotes, I assumed it meant the animals were put to sleep. So I voted to approve the contract," said city councilman Mike Levitt in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I found out [afterward] that the animal does not go to sleep. There are spasms. They choke."

Instead of lethal methods, animal rights groups recommend such efforts as hazing, which include blowing whistles, yelling, and shining a bright light on the animals. Timm says that can work, but only as a preemptive measure.

"Once they realize they are safe, it can be just about impossible to change their behavior. That's when wildlife managers have to resort to trapping or hunting," he says. "Targeted trapping and even shooting are the most effective methods for reducing attacks. The offending coyotes can be relatively easy to identify and catch, but not always."

While those methods are often difficult to get past irrational animal rights groups, common sense sometimes prevails, but usually only after enough cats and dogs have been killed, or when a few people have been bitten. Trapping programs have recently been approved in the suburbs of New Orleans, Louisiana; Brampton, Ontario; and near Orlando, Florida.

Despite the upswing in attacks on humans, only two people have been killed by coyotes in modern history. A three-year-old was killed in Glendale, California, in 1981, and a 19-year old woman was killed by a pack of coyotes while hiking alone in Nova Scotia in 2009. It was one of just a few attacks that have taken place outside an urban or suburban area.

However, a New Jersey bowhunter was bitten on the face and arm by a rabid coyote in September. He managed to kill the animal by stabbing it with an arrow from his quiver. He was lucky. However, the next person that finds himself face-to-face with the fangs of a coyote might not be.

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