Ghost Dogs

Coy­otes are com­ing out from the shad­ows, mak­ing bolder moves into ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments. It’s time to put some of the myths about them be­hind us.

Canadian Wildlife - - FEATURES - By Kerry Banks

Coy­otes are com­ing out from the shad­ows, mak­ing bolder moves into ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments. It’s time to put some of the myths about them be­hind us.

It is 11:00 p.m. on a hot Au­gust night in Van­cou­ver, and I am sit­ting on the front porch when I spot them ap­proach­ing on my left — two coy­otes mov­ing up our street on op­po­site side­walks, glid­ing silently through the am­ber glow of the sodium-vapour lights. It is quite pos­si­ble that other peo­ple are still up and about, but th­ese two coy­otes show no con­cern. They go past me, mov­ing in lock­step, ears up and tails down. It does not ap­pear they are aware of my pres­ence, so I cough and the one clos­est to me non­cha­lantly turns its head and glances back with­out break­ing stride. At the cor­ner, this coy­ote stops as the other makes a sharp right turn and crosses the road to join him. They then re­sume their co­or­di­nated sweep of the neigh­bour­hood.

Coy­ote ex­perts I have spo­ken with say I likely wit­nessed an al­pha pair of coy­otes pa­trolling the perime­ter of their ter­ri­tory. Some may find it un­set­tling to hear that their house and fam­ily pets live within the home ter­ri­tory of a pack of coy­otes, but many ur­ban dwellers in Canada fall into this cat­e­gory today. Coy­otes have now col­o­nized vir­tu­ally every ma­jor ur­ban cen­tre in North Amer­ica. Once con­fined to the west­ern plains and the deserts of the south­west, their range now ex­tends as far north as Alaska and as far south as Cen­tral Amer­ica. They dwell on the West Coast and the East Coast and nearly ev­ery­where in be­tween. They have ac­com­plished this feat while fac­ing re­lent­less per­se­cu­tion, a testimony to their keen in­tel­li­gence and re­mark­able adapt­abil­ity.

When coy­otes move into an ur­ban set­ting, they usu­ally re­main wary of peo­ple and lead un­ob­tru­sive lives. Their rou­tine is to sleep in parks or patches of veg­e­ta­tion dur­ing the day, steal­ing out as twi­light falls to hunt small ro­dents and rab­bits. Some­times re­ferred to as “ghost dogs” be­cause of their noc­tur­nal habits and the stealthy man­ner in which they nav­i­gate through cities, flit­ting from shadow to shadow, coy­otes sur­vive by be­ing in­vis­i­ble while liv­ing among us.

But re­cently coy­otes in some parts of Canada have been shed­ding their cloak of in­vis­i­bil­ity, show­ing less fear of hu­mans and en­gag­ing in bel­liger­ent be­hav­iour, even going so far as to snatch up small dogs in broad day­light while the own­ers have them on leashes. Or, as was the case in 2016 in the sea­side town of Gib­sons, B.C., steal a poo­dle from inside a quilt store.

Ex­actly why this is oc­cur­ring and what is the best strat­egy to com­bat it has be­come a con­tentious issue. In the past, coy­otes that dis­played any sign of ag­gres­sion with hu­mans were rou­tinely killed. Today, the move to de­velop green spa­ces in cities and en­cour­age wildlife to prop­a­gate has changed that equa­tion. Now many ci­ti­zens want their cities to adopt non-lethal meth­ods of con­trol, which may not be wise.

The idea that we should have to ac­com­mo­date coy­otes is a re­cent de­vel­op­ment in North Amer­ica. Once wolves were re­moved from the scene, the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment turned its full at­ten­tion on elim­i­nat­ing coy­otes

It was thought, al­beit in­cor­rectly, that their diet was com­posed of big game species and live­stock from farms, such as sheep and calves. In a nine-year pe­riod be­tween 1947 and 1956, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service slaugh­tered mil­lions of coy­otes in the west­ern United States, us­ing blan­ket poi­son­ing. Even today, tens of thou­sands are killed an­nu­ally in the U.S. and Canada, many of them dis­patched by gov­ern­mentem­ployed aerial gun­ners.

In ad­di­tion to their nat­u­ral cun­ning, two unique ge­netic traits have helped coy­otes re­sist all ef­forts to erad­i­cate them. When un­der duress, they can boost their re­pro­duc­tive rate by breed­ing at an ear­lier age and giv­ing birth to larger lit­ters, from six to as many as 16 cubs. They will also frag­ment their pack sizes, split­ting off into sin­gles and pairs to en­hance their sur­vival rates.

Shel­ley Alexan­der, a pro­fes­sor of geography at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary and a vet­eran coy­ote re­searcher, says that killing coy­otes is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive as a con­trol mea­sure be­cause it re­moves adults from the pop­u­la­tion and the guid­ance they give young ones. “You can end up with a sit­u­a­tion where most of your coy­otes are un­e­d­u­cated, im­ma­ture teenagers.”

Al­though no longer de­mo­nized as they were in the past when Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can mag­a­zine re­ferred to coy­otes as the “Orig­i­nal Bol­she­vik” and Mark Twain called them “spir­it­less and cow­ardly,” coy­otes re­main a po­lar­iz­ing species. Peo­ple tend to ei­ther love them or hate them. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of folks fall in the sec­ond camp. In 2001, res­i­dents in the Chicago re­gion were asked to rank nui­sance wildlife ac­cord­ing to the level of threat to hu­man health and safety. The coy­ote ranked num­ber one even though no coy­ote at­tacks on hu­mans had been recorded in the area.

In fact, there have been only two in­ci­dents in recorded his­tory in which coy­otes have killed a hu­man: in 1981, a three-year-old girl was dragged from the drive­way of her house in Glendale, Calif. Her fa­ther gave chase and drove the coy­ote off, but the girl died from her wounds.

The other case took place in 1990, when a 19-year-old folk singer was fa­tally mauled by a pack of coy­otes on a pop­u­lar Cape Bre­ton hik­ing trail. In the sec­ond case, the at­tack­ing an­i­mals were coy­otes, but coy­wolves, hy­brids pro­duced by the in­ter­breed­ing of coy­otes and east­ern wolves. Coy­wolves are larger than their west­ern coun­ter­parts, with big­ger skulls, jaws and teeth.

De­spite the fact that coy­otes live in such close prox­im­ity to us, bi­ol­o­gists have only re­cently be­gun to closely in­ves­ti­gate th­ese mis­un­der­stood an­i­mals. In 2005, Alexan­der headed up a seven-year probe of Cal­gary’s coy­ote pop­u­la­tion, the first study of its kind in Canada. Among the ques­tions the re­searchers tried to an­swer was how much of the ur­ban coy­ote’s diet was com­posed of pet an­i­mals, whose vul­ner­a­bil­ity is of­ten blamed for boost­ing ur­ban coy­ote pop­u­la­tions. How­ever, af­ter ex­am­in­ing 500 scat sam­ples, Alexan­der says the research team found traces of what would be con­sid­ered pets in just six sam­ples. In Van­cou­ver, the first coy­ote sight­ings were re­ported in 1987. Today, some 200 to 300 an­i­mals in­habit the city and sub­urbs. The goal of Van­cou­ver’s Coex­ist­ing with Coy­otes pro­gram, run by the Stan­ley Park Ecol­ogy So­ci­ety, is to re­duce con­flict be­tween coy­otes, peo­ple and pets. Es­tab­lished in 2001, the so­ci­ety tries to raise coy­ote aware­ness through an in­for­ma­tion and re­port­ing hot­line, public sig­nage, a web­site and school pro­grams. Van­cou­verites seem to be more tol­er­ant of coy­otes than res­i­dents in many other cities. A sur­vey con­ducted in 2015 showed that 82 per cent of re­spon­dents cat­e­go­rized their at­ti­tude to­ward coy­otes as neu­tral or pos­i­tive. Only 13 per cent re­ported neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes.

Per­haps the coy­otes in Van­cou­ver are more laid-back, too. Writer and mag­a­zine edi­tor Roberta Sta­ley re­calls com­ing upon a young coy­ote one spring af­ter­noon while run­ning the wooded trails of Van­cou­ver’s Pa­cific Spirit Park. “He looked at me and started jog­ging. We ran to­gether for 15 min­utes,” Sta­ley says. “I stayed about 20 feet be­hind him and never felt threat­ened. We con­nected some­how — it felt nat­u­ral.”

Even so, the threat level posed by coy­otes is still of­ten widely ex­ag­ger­ated by Van­cou­verites, says Greg Hart, ur­ban wildlife co­or­di­na­tor for the Stan­ley Park Ecol­ogy So­ci­ety. “Peo­ple gen­er­ally es­ti­mate that they weigh about 45 kilo­grams, when in fact even the largest males never get much past 20 ki­los.” And then there are those who think they can help coy­otes by feed­ing them, a tac­tic that usu­ally only guar­an­tees death for the an­i­mal.

All pro­grams de­signed to re­duce con­flict with coy­otes stress the im­por­tance of not feed­ing them. Of­fer­ing food to coy­otes lessens their fear of peo­ple, as does run­ning away from them. Once this hap­pens, it is hard to re­in­still fear in the an­i­mals, which leads them to be­come bolder. That makes it all the more im­por­tant to re­port more brazen coy­ote ac­tiv­ity so that if some­one is feed­ing them, that per­son can be ap­proached by au­thor­i­ties and or­dered to stop.

Ac­cord­ing to Stan Gehrt, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist who has been study­ing coy­otes for the last 17 years as part of the Ur­ban Coy­ote Research Pro­gram in Cook County, Ill., all the cases in which coy­otes were in­volved in ag­gres­sive in­ci­dents in his group’s study are

a re­sult of be­ing fed by hu­mans. A sur­vey of 142 re­ported at­tacks on peo­ple be­tween 1960 and 2006 re­vealed that 70 per cent oc­curred on or next to the vic­tim’s res­i­dence and at least 30 per cent near a site of prior in­ten­tional or un­in­ten­tional hu­man feed­ing.

Gehrt’s work in the Chicago area (where he claims at least 2,000 coy­otes live), aided by high-def­i­ni­tion night video and ra­dio col­lars, is pro­vid­ing the most de­tailed look at ur­ban coy­ote be­hav­iour to date. Study­ing th­ese wily crea­tures, Gehrt says, is a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause they con­stantly chal­lenge your as­sump­tions.

“We un­der­es­ti­mate their abil­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, af­ter- the first night of study, I re­al­ized I had se­ri­ously un­der­es­ti­mated my bud­get.”

The first coy­ote that Gehrt tagged, tra­versed five Chicago mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in one night, cross­ing busy roads and slip­ping past peo­ple un­no­ticed. Gehrt now knows that ur­ban coy­otes may range as far as 130 square kilo­me­tres in one evening, cov­er­ing vast frag­mented ter­ri­to­ries.

Another as­sump­tion that he ini­tially held — that coy­otes would be found in only the re­mote ar­eas of the city — was also de­mol­ished by the facts. Some live in the most de­vel­oped sec­tions of down­town Chicago, in city parks, apart­ment build­ing com­plexes or in­dus­trial parks. One Gps-col­lared coy­ote raised a lit­ter of five cubs in a con­crete den in the park­ing lot of Soldier Field, home of the NFL’S Chicago Bears.

In­ter­est­ingly, none of the hun­dreds of Crit­ter­cam clips col­lected by Gehrt and his col­leagues have re­vealed any ev­i­dence that Chicago’s coy­otes are reg­u­larly hunting cats or dogs, a com­monly cited con­cern. Anal­y­sis of more than 1,400 scats found that “the most com­mon food items were small ro­dents (42 per cent), fruit (23 per cent), deer (22 per cent), and rab­bit (18 per cent).” Only about two per cent of the scats had hu­man garbage and just 1.3 per cent had ev­i­dence of cats, a sim­i­lar per­cent­age to Alexan­der’s Cal­gary study.

Colleen St. Clair, a bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Alberta and the or­ga­nizer of the Ed­mon­ton Ur­ban Coy­ote Project, says her group has fo­cused on learn­ing more about coy­ote diet, move­ment and habi­tat se­lec­tion, as well as the knowl­edge and per­cep­tions of res­i­dents about th­ese an­i­mals. Wildlife of­fi­cials in Ed­mon­ton re­ceive sev­eral thou­sand coy­otere­lated calls per year. St. Clair says trou­ble­some en­coun­ters are on the rise. Stud­ies by grad stu­dent Margaret Mur­ray in­di­cate the prob­lem may orig­i­nate with com­post. “Com­post — the gate­way drug to bad coy­otes,” St. Clair notes. Com­post heaps in Ed­mon­ton pro­vide an easy means for coy­otes to scav­enge for food, but the or­ganic ma­te­rial is full of mi­cro­tox­ins that have a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect on health, weak­en­ing im­mune sys­tems and mak­ing the an­i­mals sus­cep­ti­ble to mal­adies such as mange, a skin disease caused by par­a­sites. The ev­i­dence Mur­ray has gath­ered in­di­cates that th­ese dis­eased coy­otes are more ac­tive dur­ing the day, have a greater like­li­hood of spend­ing time in res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial ar­eas of the city and are con­sum­ing more hu­man food, three fac­tors that would in­crease the odds of be­ing in­volved in in­ci­dents with peo­ple.

One con­clu­sion gleaned from the stud­ies, St. Clair says, was that lethal man­age­ment should re­main in the tool kit be­cause “it in­creases the level of se­cu­rity.” How­ever, most ur­ban wildlife man­agers today are deal­ing with such con­flicts through public ed­u­ca­tion rather than by man­ag­ing in­di­vid­ual coy­otes. That ap­proach has con­trib­uted to mak­ing large ur­ban ar­eas into refuges for coy­otes, since they are less likely to be killed or re­moved in cities than in ru­ral ar­eas.

In Van­cou­ver, John Gray says of­fi­cials keep tabs on the be­hav­iour of prob­lem coy­otes and will take lethal mea­sures if things es­ca­late, as they did in 2015, when of­fi­cials shot and killed a coy­ote that had been threat­en­ing young chil­dren.

For non-lethal coy­ote mit­i­ga­tion, peo­ple are now try­ing ev­ery­thing from firing paint­balls and Su­per Soaker wa­ter guns at coy­otes, to clang­ing pots and pans and in­stalling mo­tion-sen­sor lights. Whether or not th­ese mea­sures prove ef­fec­tive, most ex­perts con­tend that ur­ban res­i­dents can safely co­ex­ist with coy­otes when knowl­edge and re­spect re­places ir­ra­tional fear.

In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, ur­ban­ites will have to come to some sort of un­der­stand­ing and find some equi­lib­rium with the knowl­edge that we now have an ac­tive preda­tor that lives among us, one that has never re­quired our ac­cep­tance to thrive. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween city res­i­dents and the ghost dogs is still young and evolv­ing, and no one knows for sure where it might lead.

What we do know, says Stan Gehrt, is that the coy­ote isn’t leav­ing. “Even if there is no green space, coy­otes will fig­ure out how to ex­ploit the ur­ban down­town," he says. "They are going to be suc­cess­ful in any city no mat­ter how the land­scape is con­fig­ured.”

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