Attacker or Attacked?

Attacks by coyotes on humans indeed have occurred, so I don’t want to belittle these, but it should be noted that they are rare — exceedingly rare — and when they have occurred, they seem to all be related to feeding coyotes. This week a story about an ultramarathoner attacked by a coyote went viral nationally. The response to that story was splashed all over the internet, and on social exchange sites, where, by the way, because of how the story changed, the NextDoor posting was eventually removed by the author. I’ve jotted down some of my thoughts and observations about it.

One of the responses to the ultramarathoner “attack” report by many who fear coyotes was that, “it’s time to cull the coyotes here in SF.” I wish people understood that the number of coyotes has nothing to do with the marathoner’s situation. The “encounter” occurred on the Marin side of the bridge, for one thing. If there was only this one coyote in all the world, an encounter with some of the reported elements could have happened. The little truth we’ve found in the story is likely due to feeding coyotes. What apparently could have attracted a coyote is the crackling of the power bar wrapper. The reported event occurred in an area where feeding of coyotes is rampant. Before people feed coyotes they take the food out of it’s mostly crackling wrapper — imagine a potato chip bag or even a McDonald’s burger bag — and then feed the coyote. Think of Pavlov. Everytime the coyote with this training hears that noise, he’s been getting food from willing feeders. Now, possibly, the coyote hears that sound and approaches. I know a NatGeo photographer who learned this: he could instantly get an animal’s attention by crackling a potato chip bag — something I adamantly discouraged. This is a scenario that could have occurred. Lesley Sampson of CoyoteWatchCanada reminds me that even without the wrapper noise, “food becomes the “reward” for advancing closer to humans”: repeatedly fed coyotes have been taught to approach.

Coyotes who are fed regularly by someone also often display “demand” behavior: they become demanding when the food isn’t forthcoming quickly — it’s a very unusual behavior displayed by a very few coyotes who have been hand fed.

By the way, this man was running, he was not on a bike as reported by some folks, the bleeding on his face was from a fall, not a bite as originally posted — he was not bitten. As far as I have read, he wasn’t attacked at all, but possibly bumped — and I even question this — as the coyote went for the food he had been trained to expect. Three AM is when coyotes are normally out and active.

This is a screenshot from Twitter via SFGate

It’s important to note that Karnazes’ extreme initial report, as seen in this Twitter photo to the left, and his revised report — he revised his story when he was questioned by people who know coyote behavior — depict coyote behavior that is totally out of the ordinary, extraordinarily so. This deceptive photo was posted by him on Twitter with the words, “Animal Attack Beware” and “I’ve been attacked by a shark and now a coyote”. Coyotes do approach challenging dogs, but seldom do they approach people unless they’ve been trained to do so through feeding, and even then they remain hugely wary. I doubt if the coyote ever even touched him. He tripped and fell and bloodied himself doing so, then he posted this bloodied picture of himself saying he was attacked. Might he have been scared? Scared people often fill in details to justify and explain their fears.

I’ve personally seen instance after instance of what has been later reported as an “attack” which in fact was a dog allowed to get too close to a coyote, often while lunging and barking ferociously at the coyote, and then the coyote reacting with a snarl, bared teeth, and hackles up without running off and possibly even following the dog and owner afterwards. The owner thinks their dog’s activity should scare the coyote off, but in fact it causes a defensive reaction in the coyote which is reported as an “attack”. Such an encounter can be kept from escalating and curtailed by quieting and calming the dog while by immediately walking away from the coyote, but often the scared owner enhances their story calling the incident a direct attack, which it was not.

It occurred to me that he even might have posted the story facetiously, just to add some spice to his running, not knowing how seriously everyone would take him. I say this because he himself, apparently, was surprised at the coverage and then changed the story. When all was said and done, had this actually been an “attack” on a human? Or might the whole report and sensationalism thereby engendered, be construed as an attack on coyotes? Food for thought.

More of the same today: I followed a coyote from far behind for about 1/4 mile. Way down the street was a woman walking her labradoodle. As the coyote got closer to her, I was about to call out for her to be aware, but she noticed the coyote just then and hurried across the street. This was the best thing to do. But she should have walked on. Instead she created a huge commotion and started yelling “scat, scat”, which had the sole effect of attracting the coyote’s attention, so the coyote stopped and watched from across the street before continuing her trot on down the street. The woman turned to me and told me that the coyote had been “stalking” her from way up the street. I said this wasn’t true — that I had been watching the coyote who was minding her own business and just happened to be walking down the same street as the woman and her dog. The woman screamed at me that I wasn’t there so how would I know. The fact is that I WAS there and saw what went on. This kind of altered reporting goes on all the time.

“Demand” Behavior

I have written about how feeding coyotes robs them of their “essence”, causing them to become meek, docile and listless beggars. Coyotes are superb opportunists and extremely intuitive about getting what they need in the easiest and most efficient way possible. Given the opportunity for an easy and free meal, they’ll seize that opportunity and go for it.

I spoke with Lesley Sampson, founder and director of Coyote Watch Canada, about another facet of feeding coyotes: she told me about a coyote who had been labeled “aggressive” because it had, under no provocation, approached a man and punched his hip. This was a man on a substitute job for the day. He of course found the behavior very alarming, as anyone would have.

But coyotes aren’t naturally outright aggressive to people, so what was going on? Lesley was called in to help with the case. With a little bit of investigation, she discovered that the regular job-holder routinely put his hands in his pockets to withdraw the food he would toss to this coyote.  Ahhhh. The coyote was displaying “demand behavior”, having been taught, by the regular job-holder, through repetition, that food was coming, and it was coming from a pocket.

This can happen. A coyote is fed out of the bigness of someone’s heart — “Oh, the coyote looks so thin and hungry” (which, BTW, happens to be their natural state) — setting the stage for a problem. After a very short time, the coyote comes to EXPECT the food, and when the food doesn’t come quickly enough, or when it doesn’t come at all, the coyote becomes impatient and may actually DEMAND the food, as in the case above. Lesley spoke of her dogs doing the same thing: it’s a common trait in canines. This is not an “aggressive” coyote, though humans will see it as such. It’s a “trained” coyote: humans set the expectation by repetitive feeding and then the coyote acts on this: “where’s my food!” It’s really important not to feed coyotes in the first place. Authorities, not knowing the background, will eliminate such an animal for his/her apparent “aggressiveness”.

Coyote pups are born with the instinct to seek/demand food from their parents by inserting their muzzles into the mouth of a parent which triggers a regurgitation response in the parent. The result: food. They learn that this is where food comes from, at least to begin with. Habit and reinforcement keep them doing this until parents start teaching them to hunt — parents teach the pups that, in fact, food comes in many forms and from many places and they can find it, but they have to go looking for it. The easiest sources of food will be the most attractive, and they’ll return to these.

Below is a photo sequence of a five-month-old youngster seeking food from where he’s been taught it comes from — a parent. His mother has just arrived home after an evening of hunting. Pup approaches her, but she doesn’t have anything for him. He persists, and even punches her angrily on the back. She runs away with her defensive hackles up. This is demand behavior: when the food isn’t forthcoming as expected, the pup who is expecting food “as usual” demands it. This is no different from Lesley’s example of the friendly man offering food from his pocket.

Youngster punches mom, DEMANDING the food

And here’s a further possible complication. Parents eventually, normally, teach their youngsters to hunt. BUT what if the parents are being fed by humans so much so that they don’t need to hunt, and therefore don’t, and consequently they don’t teach their youngsters how to do so? Remember that coyotes learn by imitation and example. The youngster may even be taken to where the food is left or even worse, to the feeder him/herself. Hmmm. What works best and easiest for the coyote parents will be passed on to the pups.

And another speculative complication: Could the population grow beyond the natural carrying capacity of the area with this extra food being handed out regularly? It’s food for thought.

Please don’t feed coyotes, for their sake.

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