Abused

What comes to mind when you are told that an animal has been “abused”? “Roughed up” or “deprived” or even “killed” are what most of us might think. But the term also means corrupted and compromised. This might be an extreme way of looking at the situation, but I’m hoping to drive the point home — and to increase awareness. This coyote, pictured above, listlessly wanders around or hangs around on park pathways, waiting for handouts: he’s been dulled by the humans around him who allow or encourage this behavior. He has lost his desire to hunt for himself and he has lost his wariness of humans: You might say these have been stolen from him by misguided feeders, and compounded by everyone who approaches or tries to befriend him — he thinks of all of these people as potential feeders. Folks who treat coyotes familiarly as tame Walt Disney cutouts may not be aware of the harm they are doing.

As he lounges around, his pace is slow, almost lethargic and his look is mournful, his ears are air-planed down and out to the sides. He’s not sick, though he might look so to many of us. My wildlife behaviorist contact suggests that this behavior is a “conditioned response”: he’s learned that it gets him what he wants: food, and maybe sympathy which will lead to food. He’s exceptionally good at his ploy. However, he’s also exceptionally good at hunting for himself — I’ve seen it. But, being the opportunist that coyotes are, he’s taking advantage of a situation and of a gullible and needy public which is falling into line for him. To them, the coyote looks scrawny (all coyotes are scrawny) and needs food. Or they want to “connect” with nature — “that’s my coyote” “that’s my friend“, I’ve heard. 

I understand people feeding and even trying to befriend wild coyotes have good intentions. Good intentions however do not always lead to good practices. Hand feeding and approaching coyotes can lead to negative outcomes for the coyotes, and sometimes humans.

*Coyotes are wild animals with instincts that tell them to stay away from humans and dogs. These instincts, paired with the opportunity to get easy food from humans — a learned behavior — creates a conflict within the animals.

*This conflict may 1) cause animals at times to move quickly and fearfully which can lead to accidental defensive bites. Or, as the animals become desensitized to people and are fed, they 2) may slow down as their fear dissipates. They come to expect food and when it does not come they may become frustrated. The frustration then may lead to aggressive demand behavior.  This is another scenario that can lead to a bite.

These push-pull conflicts are stressful for the animals. Studies show that cortisol, a stress hormone, is high in wild animals taking chances by getting closer to humans. Stress, in turn, may cause an animal to become reactive (bite): we know that most bites to humans are the result of approaching and feeding. A couple of weeks ago a little girl in an East Bay regional park was bitten<https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Coyote-attacks-6-year-old-girl-in-Dublin-park-15173092.php> by a coyote. 

Although I don’t know yet what provoked the attack, I’m sure there was a trigger.  The first possible explanation (not excuse) for the attack is people feeding the coyotes there — this is what’s behind most bites.  Also, pupping season is going on right now, and the sudden surge of people into the parks (due to the coronavirus) along with human encroachment close to a den area may have been involved. It is stress and fear that cause a coyote to become reactive — not aggression or that they’re hunting us — humans aren’t on their menu.

CA Fish & Game has killed one coyote as a solution to prevent further bites. It was the wrong coyote, so they will kill more: coyote’s don’t get their first bite free as dogs do. A ranger from CA Fish & Game told me that the department would be merciless towards any coyotes who bite, or scratch, or . . . brush up against a human. CAF&G could even start going after “potential biters” who are getting too close to people. EDUCATION and changing OUR behaviors is the long-term solution. Coyotes don’t learn a thing by being killed, but they can learn from our behaviors that we aren’t here for their convenience — we just have to learn how to act.

You can help this coyote, or any like him, to be the wary animal he is supposed to be instead of the dulled and enervated, and deceptively “tamed” animal he has now become. Please do not feed. Please do not befriend or act friendly towards him. Please do not approach or let him approach you. These human behaviors are not only compromising his wily wildness, they are setting him up for a possible sorry end. . . and setting up you or another walker for a possible nip. We need to scare him off if he’s sitting right on or close to the path waiting for handouts — he should be keeping at least 50 feet away from anyone. Please do this for the healthy stewardship of our coyotes as well as for your own safety.

The worst part of this story is that now two of his family members are echoing his behavior — coyotes learn by imitating their elders. They, too are now turning into replica deadbeat coyotes [DEADBEAT: one who makes a soft living by sponging it] who hang around lazily and almost languidly hoping for human handouts. We all need to scare them away or walk away from them always. Please let’s reverse his/their developing stray-dog behavior: even stray dogs bite. And please be an ambassador for them by helping others know what needs to be done. By doing so, you could be saving his life.

The two youngsters taking on the fed coyote’s behaviors.

*Including edits from a Wildlife Behaviorist who prefers remaining anonymous.

More: Food: the Behavior Shaper, and  Human Kindness Could Kill Our Coyote — wherein the detriment of feeding from cars is discussed.

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