Interview by Courtney Quirin

From the Field

Connecting with: Janet Kessler, “Coyote Lady”
Interview by Courtney Quirin
 

“Long-time San Francisco resident, Janet Kessler has become a pioneer in the photo documentation of the lives of urban coyotes, capturing the intimate lives of that city’s coyotes for six years”.

If you would like to read more about what I do, read Courtney’s interview in the October 25th issue of  Bay Nature Connections. Thank you Courtney for a really nice interview!

Monkeys, by Courtney Quirin

Courtney recently moved to San Francisco where she is pursuing her talents as an artist and writer.

She comes to the city after studying and traveling in Ireland, New Zealand and Ethiopia — this last where she studied the impact of baboons on local farmers.

She is also an All American runner!

Please visit her website at: Courtney Illustrates.

 

My Position In Relation To Coyotes

Dear  Blog:

People continue to ask me if they could “come along” on my observations, to “study” or “photograph”  or  “just observe”.  Apparently everybody has a worthy project that would benefit from this “hands on” involvement.

I need everyone to know where I am coming from regarding all coyotes, but especially regarding the coyotes I have been able to follow. I am extremely protective of them and their space. I do not advertise their locations, and I make a blanket policy of not taking anyone with me on my outings. This is important in order to be fair to the coyotes. I’m sure everyone can understand this and I’m sure everyone wants this for the coyotes — to keep their lives as even as possible. We need to think about the coyotes first.

Coyotes do not need more and more people intruding on them. When anyone approaches a coyote, or even when people are around, a coyote’s alertness intensifies and its behaviors change. It may flee. This heightened alertness and behavior change are indications of stress. All interventions and intrusions that I have seen disrupt the normal behavior I’m trying to document — this is why I work alone.

I’ve spent thousands of hours in various parks where I seem to have “earned” an “ignored place”, at a safe distance, from a number of coyotes. Even bringing my husband a couple of times to several of the parks changed that whole dynamic: coyotes are much too aware not to be affected by everyone’s presence.  My project is not conducive to group activity — I hope everyone can respect that. I want to continue doing my part in taking photos and writing my observations, as a means of advocating for the coyotes in the Bay Area, but I need to do this alone. Nevertheless, everybody who wants can help. We ALL can spread respect for coyotes and all wildlife, and we all can preserve habitat that is already in place, by leaving it alone, and not by re-creating it in the image of just the “native plant” advocates.

I began this blog to share information with those who might feel apprehensive about coyotes generally, and about urban coyotes specifically. My purpose is to show, through my photos and observations, that coyotes have character and personality. They have a tight-knit family life which is very worthy of our respect.  They display the qualities which we value in ourselves.  I’m trying to help people relate to them in ways which they may not have been able to before. At the same time, I need to remind everyone that these are not cuddly stuffed animals. They are WILD. They are VERY wild. We need to respect this about them: give them space and keep our dogs off of them — co-existence requires just this little from us.

Two incidents recently have distressed me. One was a high school teacher who, before leaving his students to explore in one of the parks, admonished them to “please don’t pet the coyotes.” Do people really think that these are cuddly little animals that can be approached in this manner? They cannot. They could bite if they have to protect themselves.

The second incident involved a father with four pre-teens. I was so pleased to point out a coyote for them — but I should not have. I advised the father that the coyotes were not aggressive, but that we need to give them space. Immediately, this man walked straight up to where the coyote was. The coyote, relaxing on a hill, saw him coming and bolted up to a tense sitting position. The man got closer and closer until the coyote fled. Although most people seem to respect the needs of our coyotes, there are the aggressive few who think it is their right to intrude on the coyotes — you have intruded upon a coyote if you have caused it to alter its normal flow of behavior. We need to remember that the coyotes are not tame farm animals and they do not want to be approached.

Coyotes dislike most dogs: dogs are threats to them and put the coyotes on heightened alert. Even so, I have seen coyotes “hand pick” a couple of dogs as friends — it is always the dogs who show little interest in them!! A lot of my observations involve coyote and dog reactions to each other: in all except a couple of instances this has been antagonistic. Regarding people, coyotes are not interested in people except to stay away from them. Dogs are a different story: because they are a threat to coyotes, dogs are more interesting to them. Coyotes treat dogs the same as they do “outsider” coyotes who would be competing for the territory and its resources. If we keep our dogs leashed in coyote areas, these threats can be kept to a minimum.

One last point I would like to make regarding animal habitats. My policy would be to leave nature alone, the way it is — nature is smarter than humans, who, I have found, feel they need to control and manage everything. My problem with human intervention is that they try too often hide behind the guise of “science”, when science does not have all the answers — science is a human phenomenon and humans do not have all the answers. The plans they come up with often do more harm than good. The Gulf oil spill is a disaster we could have avoided — but we listened to the “sound science” behind the technology involved in deep water drilling. Another is the “native” plant programs which purport to be “scientific” when in fact they are extreme, arbitrary and one-dimensional. Animals live in our thick wooded areas where the balances have been achieved over a long period of time. Mount Sutro Forest, for example, needs to be preserved, not ripped out and re-created. Please see the blog dedicated to preserving this cloud forest. Please do what you can to preserve it. Thanks for listening.  Janet

In the news!!

Taking Walks On The Wild Side, in The New York Times on Sunday, March 14, 2010. Click on the article title to be taken to it.

About myself, with animals, observing

I thought I should let people know where I am coming from, and why I am interested in coyotes.

This particular activity opened for me two years ago when I met my first coyote on a walk here in San Francisco. At the time, my habit was to get up before dawn and take an hour-and-a-half hike up to the center of our city — always with my dog. Dawn is a great time of day. The world is quiet, it is peaceful. The world belongs to you and to the wildlife which is beginning to stir again after a night’s rest. There is a magic about it, especially as you climb the hills, with all the bright lights below looking something like Christmas, Diwali or Hanukkah, or looking like the approach to a city from an airplane.

Two years ago, during my morning walk, as I was rounding the bend of a path, what should I see on the trail in front of me but a coyote, a young coyote. Right in the middle of a city. In a large, hilly park-like area. Coyotes were just returning to the city after many years of absence  -– we had heard of only a couple of them in the newspapers, so the surprise was overwhelming. This coyote was so excited to see us, me and my dog. It did not run off. It did keep its distance. It bounced up and down, up and down, like a ball. It ran down the path and back, and down again where it lay, sphinx-like, watching us until its excitement made it get up and repeat the bouncing. I sat on a rock, mesmerized, with my dog next to me. For 20 minutes we watched the coyote, and the coyote watched us. I didn’t have my camera that day, but that would never happen again. Exactly a month later, we ran into the same coyote. This is when I started taking photos. The photos were less of the coyote, at least in my eyes, than of the coyote’s behavior. I actually started photography as a record-keeping device: I was interested in character, personality, behavior, motives, etc. The first coyote I met had offered a little of itself to us — I needed to find out more.

So, this is what I do now for a few hours each day, most days: during my walks, I observe and photograph urban wildlife, mostly coyotes. But I have always been around animals, both my own pets and wild animals that were injured which I took care of and released as soon as possible so as not to rob them of their wildness. The exciting thing about animals for me has been not only their wildness: their ability to do everything necessary to survive on their own, but also their rich emotional lives: they feel with all the intensity we humans feel. All species, I have found, have a culture in common, and a culture apart from us humans. We share a lot with them, and we are different. If we observe them, and if we are interested enough, we can understand them — the same way cultural anthropologists do, the same way Jane Goodall did: understanding individual animals through empathy.

My special interest has always been coyotes, though I watch all animals. After lots of observing, nuances take shape and you begin to be able to read a few things that you could not read before.

I have probably spent hundreds of hours in the parks, watching them — using my camera to focus my attention, and then reviewing at home. My camera is like a notebook for me. What I have learned regarding the coyotes is that these are individuals, that generalizations might not necessarily hold. Watching coyotes is like watching the same dogs in a park for a while: you get to know certain things about them — they each have their personality quirks. Does one dog have more in common with the other dogs or less? For each individual animal it is different.

For the most part I know what a coyote is doing, if it is busy or not, that they are communicating. I was aware when one tested me. I know they can “read” most dogs and can assess each individual dog from a distance. They keep a safe distance from people who they also assess — either cautiously trusting them at a distance, or avoiding them.  I know how important the coyote family unit is — I’ve seen them greet one another, I’ve seen them work as a team,  I know that a mother will protect her young, I’ve seen a yearling act as a sentry and warn a mother if an intruder is coming her way. I know food is marked as foul by urinating on it. I know what dog activity upsets certain coyotes, which coyotes are shy, which ones are more curious or daring. I can tell them apart by their facial features — mostly — at least at certain times. I have seen a barking coyote look out of the corner of its eye, to see how it is affecting an onlooker — I could see that part of this is bluff.  I have been allowed to be on the same side as a coyote when a it was chased by a dog. And there is so much more to become aware of — I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. I am getting to know the behavior of individual coyotes, and I am making sense of it all.

Other things about myself: I grew up in South America. My husband and I live with our 15 year-old dog in the center of San Francisco where we have been for over 30 years. We have a front yard garden where we grow corn (200 ears a season) and have an apple tree which gives us over 300 apples a season. We have grown wheat which we made into sprouted wheatberry bread — nine full loaves, we succeeded with one cotton plant — it produced one boll — we were able to make one Q-tip!, we have tomatoes sometimes. We have two grown sons who live in the Bay Area. We both love the urban environment and our walks. I took up the harp when my kids went off to college.

Please see article in The New York Times which appeared on March 14, 2010: Taking Walks on the Wild Side.

Photography aids observation: some thoughts

I get requests from people and groups asking me to take them with me while I photograph. I am truly honored at these requests — highly honored that they like the photos I have taken well enough to want to come along. However, I have to tell them that this “led safari” type of situation is not what I do. I take walks by myself or with my husband, and I have a camera. What I have come across I find by being outside and exploring. You have to love to be out in nature and be part of it, and you have to spend many hours in the settings where animals live. Ultimately, it is the wildlife that is so thrilling — the camera is a tool which enhances my participation in nature. Photography enhances my ability to see wildlife. It focuses my concentration and awareness. I bring it home where I study the details. It serves as my notebook. When I’m done, I post some of my “stuff” so others might enjoy what I have been able to observe. Right now I’m engaged in a study of coyote behavior, less for its usefulness than for my own curiosity and understanding. Practically, though, I might find something that could ease the coexistence issue. There are aspects of this issue, including dog and human issues, that have not been looked at thoroughly enough to reveal much understanding.

I do my photographing alone, because I try to become part of the space I am working with, actually studying situations and behavior, and I can’t do so with others next to me. Also, with fewer people around you become less intrusive for the animal. It is very important not to intrude on an animal you decide to photograph — you have intruded if you have caused it to change its behavior, flinch or flee. Also, to protect the animals, I never give the locations of any of the animals I photograph.  My ultimate goal is to try to photograph beyond what could become a “pretty picture” and grab the behavior, personality or character of what I find — it takes plenty of time and lots of awareness. I try to capture what the animals reveal to me about themselves, and I’m not always successful. This is not something one can teach someone else. One learns by being interested.

My suggestion to everyone who wants to photograph wildlife is to simply take walks and find your own mode that works for you. This way you will be growing into something that is exclusively yours. Start with any wild animal you see — even common starlings. Work with one animal, never interfering with its behavior, and try to learn its ways and capture this on film. I never took any photography courses — I just plunged into doing what I wanted to do and saved what I liked. Except for a good zoom lens, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, you just need to love what you do.

I like to crop my photos considerably — because I like framing them as “portraits”. The photos have to be really sharply focused if you want to crop. However, sharp focus can only be achieved when you have plenty of light. The left-hand images are versions of the same photo taken in fairly low light — notice that there is not a lot of detail. The photo on the right was taken in very good light, and the cropped version shows lots of detail and is sharp. Photography is about light. A lot of animal activity occurs during twilight hours, when the light is not good. When there is a distance involved, a flash does not work, and anyway it would be intrusive to the animals. Anything that interferes with the light, such as fog and haze and twilight, makes it harder to achieve a sharp photo.

Field Notes on Photography

I was just thinking about how different it is to take photos of coyotes and, say, woodpeckers. One is not harder or easier than the other. They are just so very different.

Finding these animals in the first place could prove to be difficult in the Bay Area — these are rare animals to encounter in this area.  I’ve come across coyotes in some parks. Those that are less shy become the focus for my camera. I’ve seen a woodpecker only a few times in the last two years –  twice in the apple tree right in my front yard!

Both coyotes and woodpeckers involve a focus problem because of the long closeup lens which I use. Although the lens appears to bring the animal closer, the lens in itself cuts down on the amount of available light. Photography is about light — the more light, the better.

Coyotes are up at dawn when the light isn’t so good and they normally are on the move. Woodpeckers are hidden behind leaves and branches. These same leaves and branches obscure a lot of the light and create shade and shadows.

The secret to capturing these animals on film is to get in close enough without disrupting the animal’s activity: not so far away so as to loose all the detail, and never so close so as to interrupt their activity level. If the animal ignores you, you are at a safe distance. If you cause them to flinch, or flee, you have entered their “critical distance” — obviously at this point your presence has interrupted their life: you have interfered with wildlife which cannot be your aim if you are a wildlife photographer.

Once the photos are taken, how do you choose what to keep? For a coyote, I tolerate more blur, in favor of retaining photos with as many poses showing movement and expressiveness. A coyote is probably one of the most expressive critters you will ever find, with more choreography to its movements than any other animal. A coyote is so many things: nimble, delicate, rough, lithe, quick.  Facial expressions can be read: boredom, tension, alertness, inquisitiveness, anger, fear, compliance, curiosity, annoyance, etc. The features to capture are long: ears, snout, legs, neck.

Which photos do you keep of the woodpecker? A woodpecker can be found in all sorts of positions and orientations on a tree. Its extensions, unless you can get it landing or taking off, are of less interest than that of a coyote. However, first and foremost come  focus and clarity in the details — its eyes, feathers, and markings. The setting in which you find the bird counts for a lot when photographing them.