Observing, Responding, and Rest — Hinge On The Human Factor

This story hinges on human conduct, which is always the cause behind coyote “incidents”, and also the route through which misinformation is turned into nasty rumors.  The only way we can control coyote behavior is through our own behavior. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone.

So, the day began peacefully, as usual. Very often, when coyotes are out early resting on a hillside, a group of unleashed dogs will aggressively run up to their remote location and chase them. It is always the same group of dogs with the same set of owners who have never taken responsibility for keeping their dogs away from the coyotes — this group is one of the few who are not fond of having coyotes around. Ninety-nine percent of dog owners, however, are respectful and want to do what they can for the urban coyotes. They are totally responsible, keeping their dogs leashed or under voice control when coyotes are out. Repeated “incidents” always occur with the same few dogs. Fortunately, today the coyotes were not out when these dogs went by.

However, not long after they passed, a coyote did appear up on a hilltop, observing her surroundings. We know it was the mother coyote because of the behavior which followed. Several groups of walkers stopped to admire her presence in the park as she sat so calmly looking around: this was magical urban wildness. It was all so peaceful. Then the coyote jolted to a sitting up high position: her attention became riveted into the distance. She ignored the walkers below her. And then, as suddenly as she had sat up, she darted off like a bullet at full speed with hackles raised.

I’ve seen her do this before, so I knew what it was about. She sped to the spot which she had been so keenly observing. On the way she encountered one of her full-grown pups — but this is not the one she was worried about. She had the aim of heading-off a dog which was pursuing her other year-old pup. I didn’t even have to be there to know this. We then began hearing this mother coyote’s distressed and upset barking — barking she only engages in if she or one of her pups have been pursued by a dog. The barking is an indication of her distress, but also imparts a message: “Keep your distance.”

A few of us who just a few moments earlier had been watching her peacefulness, headed off to where the distressed barking sound was coming from. On the way we passed the angry owner of the dog which had chased the coyote — she now had her dog leashed. This huge dog continually chases the coyotes — it is a game for the dog who is about four times larger than any coyote. The owner wouldn’t even look at us: for her, the incident was the coyote’s fault for being there — not hers for not having leashed her dog.

We walked a little further until we spotted the mother coyote: she was rearing up on her hind legs and barking. The young coyote which had been pursued had taken cover in the bushes, but the second young coyote sat on the hillside nearby watching as its mother continued her barking for about 20 minutes.

The reactions to this incident were various: these are the reactions which get reported to our Animal Control Department.  Some people were furious that a dog walker had allowed her dog to chase a coyote again — and that dogs are not kept leashed in this “leash-law” area. Some were just fascinated by the barking, and fascinated that a mother coyote would run such a long distance to defend one of her year-old pups from a dog. Some twisted the information to fit their own image of coyotes, saying the coyote had not been chased at all, that she was aggressive and bold and a danger to humanity. And finally there was the individual who points to observers or photographers so as not to have to address his own reasons for not leashing his dog.

It was nice having the witnesses who saw the young coyote chased by the German Shepherd. More and more people are willing to give their names to defend the coyotes and I want to thank them all. When a coyote defends itself or its pack members, it is not an act of aggression or an attack. In fact everyone needs to become more aware of  nuances in terminology so that they may be able to describe what they see more accurately. Lynsey White and Stanley Gehrt of Ohio State University point out that the phrase “coyote attack” is sensationalistic and fear-mongering. We need a better choice of words and consistency to better understand how coyotes actually interact with humans. People often conflate words like “aggressive”, “assertive”, “bold”, “curious”, “defensive” and “investigating”. Details of the behavior of people, dogs and coyotes prior to and during any coyote incident are needed to really understand what is going on.

Our mother coyote finally calmed down. I watched her slowly head down a hill and into the bushes and finally up to one of her remote lookout posts, where she gave one last glance around to make sure the German Shepherd was gone. Then she lay down and napped. A couple of hours later I returned to the park to find her still in that same spot resting. Coyotes just want to be left alone. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. Please keep your dogs leashed around coyotes.

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