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.

Feeding Hurts Coyotes Physically, In Addition to Altering Their Behavior

Several people voiced their concern that a particular coyote was “fat”, making me aware that it wasn’t just my imagination. And neither were her looks due simply to a thickening of her winter coat, which indeed can change a coyote’s size appearance drastically. I’ve watched coats grow and thicken beautifully in the fall on lots of coyotes over the last 12 years, and then fall out and thin out in the late spring. This case here involved more than this seasonal change. 

Size and Build

Coyotes have thick, three-inch fluffy fur in the winter. This is shed in the late spring so that by July a coyote has only his/her undercoat, revealing the true smaller animal that the coyote is. In July, hip bones may protrude, back leg bones can be seen through their skin, jaw bones protrude: the visible bones aren’t caused by coyotes losing weight in the springtime, this is just how coyotes are built, and these skimpy builds show after they’ve shed their winter coats. Now, in October, winter coats have grown back in. See the difference this fur change can make in their appearance: normal fur changes.

Function

Coyotes are light and lithe underneath their fur because they need to be to function properly. Being lean and light allows them to run swiftly at 43 miles per hour during pursuit. Because they are so light and lithe, they can run up and down very steep inclines quickly and easily, wearing out a heftier pursuer such as a wolf, or even a dog whose weight includes a meatier/muscular build. I’ve seen dogs collapse in exhaustion, unable to keep up with a coyote as he ran up and down a 50% grade. Their lightness allows them to leap high and far for prey, and to jump over high fences. Coyotes are built a little like whippets, but with much more spring to their bodies, including to their trot: these animals, especially the Western coyotes, are composed mostly of thin and light bones, sinews, tendons and minimal muscle mass.

Activity Level

Coyotes weigh more or less 30 pounds in San Francisco. They can go days without eating anything: their bodies are made for that. At all times, whether food is or isn’t so readily available, they are using their bodies searching and hunting for food, and keeping both their minds and bodies in prime shape by doing so. It takes constant activity to stay fit: just look at yourself, or anyone who wants to stay fit, including any athlete or runner: they work to stay in shape and keep their skills honed because that’s what it takes. The same is true for animals.

Food Requirements

Coyotes are superb hunters. This is a gopher.

What coyotes are fed in captivity (those who are being rehabilitated or because of an injury cannot survive in the wild) amounts to a several rats and miscellaneous insects and vegetables a day. The amount of food recommended for a dog that size, again a much meatier animal usually, is two cups of kibble a day at most. Coyotes may need more than this, but they don’t need huge amounts of food. They are fabulous hunters: unless there are extreme weather conditions such as a long drought or where fires have devastated the land entirely of its resources, coyotes can hunt what they need. Here in San Francisco, prey consists of gophers, voles, squirrels, rats, mice, birds, skunks, raccoons, insects, reptiles which I see coyotes catch constantly in addition to fruit and roots. When they catch prey, they eat the whole thing: bones, skin, fur, organs, muscle and all — they don’t waste any of it because their nutritional needs require it all. They’ll even pick through garbage sometimes, which is always available in urban areas. What coyotes do NOT need is to be purposefully fed by more and more people who don’t think the coyote can make it on its own, or they want to make life easier for the animal. These people may be well intentioned but they are absolutely misguided.

Feeding

Food left DAILY for one coyote by one feeder — other people were also feeding this coyote. The sheer quantity of food is mind boggling.

What I’ve seen:  More than several people are feeding a number of our coyotes copious amounts of food every day, leaving it out along the street or hidden among the bushes behind a pedestrian guardrail in little buckets or just on the ground. I’ve seen pounds of meat being tossed right at these coyotes from across the street or in parking lots: places where people drive to regularly after they have found a coyote begging there. I’ve seen whole chickens, feathers still intact, and all types of meat, both cooked and raw, much of it highly processed or salty, including whole packages of bacon tossed off to the side of the road for them.  If this stuff is bad for us, and even our dogs, you know it is bad for them also. And this is in addition to leftover pizzas, burgers, McNuggets, partial sandwiches left on trails in the early mornings, or five pounds of dog kibble — I know because I took it home and weighed it. If you have a dog, you know how harmful cooked chicken bones are for them, yet whole roasted chickens from Safeway have been put out where coyotes have been seen.

One feeder confessed to me that she whistles for the coyotes who have learned to come at her beck and call. She told me, “They are so, so cute. I LOVE them. I go to several parks to feed them. There’s nothing for them to eat so I HAVE to feed them.” No matter how often I repeated to her that there IS food, and I named all the foods they might find, she always returned to original statement, “there is no food for them.” These people think they are “helping”, they think they are being “kind”. In the cases I have seen, it is not “kindness”: it is whittling away — robbing them — not only of their coyote “essence”, but also of what they need to survive which includes continual practiced hunting skills. Lithe abilities require practice, and a quick and lean body.

Detrimental Effects

There are no caloric expenditures for food being tossed to or left out for the wild animal. The result is added weight on the animal which hampers quickness and response times.  If you have trouble relating to this, think of your dog. A heavy dog — an overweight dog — is unable to turn on a dime, leap, or run swiftly: they “waddle”. A fat coyote will lose their quick edge and that could spell disaster for them on the road where only a few days ago we witnessed a car slam on its breaks in order to miss one who has gained a lot of weight from being fed.  This coyote is being fed from a number of cars — people tossing food out the window as they drive by — which is what is drawing her into the street in the first place.

I’ve never seen a coyote gain weight precipitously — or otherwise — until this coyote depicted below. The weight gain occurred in less than six weeks: it was actually shocking to compare before and after photos. Some people were asking me if she was pregnant. This could not be the case because estrus occurs only once a year for coyotes, in January/February, and anyway, there is no male around for her. By comparing photos, the change became obvious, even accounting for winter fur growth over those few weeks

Here are photos taken six weeks apart. A little bit of hunger is what spurs the activity to hunt. Sitting around close to human activity and begging, and chasing cars, is not going to end well for her. Please know that it is illegal to feed wildlife in California.

In addition to possible body damage caused by feeding, which is what this posting is intended to shed light on, there are behavior changes caused by feeding: See Food: The Behavior Shaper.