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Are Coyotes or Humans the Perpetrators of Suburban Animal Attacks?

Research into both coyote and human behavior informs strategies to reduce urban-nature clashes and make peace with animal neighbors



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A coyote howls, its characteristically pointed muzzle aimed high toward the night sky. But the moon is not visible over this brightly lit Target store parking lot in Matamoras, Penn.—only a glowing globe atop a metal pole casting its electric illumination on the pavement.

Although similar scenes are becoming increasingly common in the U.S.—even New York's Central Park is currently accommodating a coyote—this one is a pretender. The animal is stuffed, and the scene is being staged by New York City–based photographer, Amy Stein. "I started out with the idea that the coyote has been dislocated from its natural environment," Stein says. "But it's more resourceful than I thought. The coyote is reclaiming a new environment: the human environment."

The recent expansion of the coyote (Canis latrans) into all of the lower 48 states, including large metropolitan areas, has touched both the hearts and nerves of people. Reports of coyotes threatening pets, livestock, even humans pervade the media. And as coyote hunting competitions grow in popularity, so do societies aimed at protecting the species. Meanwhile, scientists are busy studying coyote behavior to learn how altering human behavior might help us get along with these alleged usurpers.

"By understanding how this animal adapts to changes in the environment, we can determine what we really need to be concerned about and what we really should be doing," says Stephen DeStefano, a conservation biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of the new book, Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia (Harvard University Press, 2010). (DeStefano and Stein shared a stage January 23 for a discussion of urban wildlife at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass.)

Where the wily things are

At the forefront of this research into coyote behavior is Stanley Gehrt, a wildlife biologist at The Ohio State University, who has studied coyote populations in the Chicago area for more than a decade. "I thought there would be only 10 or 12 coyotes to work with," he recalls from his first days on the project. "Yet there were hundreds, and now thousands."

Chicago's initial response to the animal's arrival was simply to get rid of them through widespread deportation and killing. But that strategy turned out to be ineffective, Gehrt notes. Coyotes in urban settings have a far greater rate of survival than their rural counterparts: Between 60 and 70 percent of adults and pups survive each year in the city, whereas in the country—in the face of rampant hunting and trapping—they may have only a 15 to 30 percent chance of survival. So any vacancies that open in the safer habitat, he says, are usually filled within just three to four weeks.

But that's not to say coyotes prefer concrete to dirt. In a study published in October 2009 in the Journal of Mammalogy, Gehrt watched the movement of 181 radio-collared coyotes and noted their preference for natural lands within urban and suburban spaces, such as city parks and residential yards. And the coyotes consistently avoided areas of human activity. In fact, only seven of the coyotes ever harassed humans; nearly all of them either diseased or recently fed by residents.

On Tuesday, February 4, Gehrt was lucky enough to spot Big Mama, the first coyote he had radio-collared in Chicago, mousing around a golf course. "She's spent her whole life living in a downtown area," he notes. "And she hasn't caused any problems."

Urban unwilding
Of course, as more and more coyotes venture into cities, the number of aberrant troublemakers does grow—even if the majority is well behaved. So what separates the menaces from their mild-mannered mates?

Gehrt investigated the causes of the most troubling conflicts as a co-author of another paper published in November 2009 in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife. Of 142 reported attacks on humans between 1960 and 2006, 70 percent occurred on or adjacent to the victim's residence and at least 30 percent near a site of prior intentional or unintentional human feeding.

A correlation is emerging: the more a coyote's diet consists of human-derived food, the greater the likelihood that they will cause trouble. Research published in 2007 found that less than 2 percent of coyote scat analyzed from the Chicago metropolitan area, where no incidents of coyote attacks have been reported to date, contained food of anthropogenic origin. On the other hand, it constituted as much as 25 percent of coyote diets in densely population areas of southern California, home to the highest concentration of coyote attack incidents in the U.S.

The scat of New York State coyotes also appears to be low in human food. "It seems these coyotes may not be the 'dumpster divers' that some people make them out to be," says Daniel Bogan, a doctoral student at Cornell University who is currently finishing up a five-year study of New York State's suburban coyotes to inform a new state management plan. Conflicts are also rare in this region, although there have been sporadic attacks on humans: one woman was bitten in Westchester County just last week.

"We can't let our guard down," Bogan says. "We do need to take precautions."

Recommendations for rewilding
To prevent the habituation that puts both coyotes and humans at risk, wildlife managers offer some recommendations: Do not leave garbage cans outside, and keep pet food—and pets—indoors at night. They also advise residents to clean their cooking grills and keep an eye on birdfeeders. (Seeds on the ground attract coyote's prey.)

Since human sources of food don't explain all the conflicts, a strong offense is also needed. "Coyotes have that instinctive fear of humans, which is a good thing. We need to take advantage of it," says Bill Hebner, enforcement captain of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Last month, Hebner ordered the elimination of a habituated coyote in Seattle, after it had showed repeated aggression toward humans. Even though his office gets a dozen or more calls a day from citizens concerned about coyote sightings, notes Hebner, very rarely does coyote behavior deteriorate to the point that it risks human safety. This recent case was only the third time he's had to take lethal action since taking his post in the mid-1980s—all three since 2006.

While indiscriminate trapping and killing of coyotes has been shown to be ineffective in reducing populations, targeting risky individuals is often necessary. "Educating residents helps to prevent habituation from occurring in the future, but doesn't take care of animal that's already become habituated," says Ohio State's Gehrt.

For non-lethal coyote-mitigation, people are trying everything now from firing paintballs and Super Soaker water guns at coyotes, to clanging pots and pans and installing motion-sensor lights. A study published in January 2009 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science suggests light may be more effective than noise in deterring coyotes, but a combination is best.

By re-instilling fear in coyotes, humans may be relieved of their own, according to Heather Wieczorek Hudenko, a graduate student in resource ecology at Cornell. In a recently completed study, Wieczorek Hudenko and her colleagues surveyed more than 1,400 people in suburban Saratoga County, N.Y., and found that the more neutral experiences a person had with coyotes, or simply the longer they lived in their presence, the more positively they viewed the animal. "We may be able to promote tolerance through neutral experience," she says. "So we need to encourage behaviors that keep these interactions neutral."

The Matamoras Target's management might want to take note: Late-shift employees have been afraid to come out at night, Stein learned before shooting her picture, because coyotes had been spotted roaming the parking lot—and howling at the false moons above.

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