Understanding An Incident of Urban Coyote Predation on Livestock, with Experienced Insights from Walkaboutlou

Goat grazing is used in the city of San Francisco to rid areas of overgrowth which might become fire hazards. A week ago an extremely rare incident occurred: two coyotes appeared to have taken down a goat. But the story is more complicated than it might appear at first glance and very educational. It offers a lesson for us all to know about coyote behavior.

A couple of witnesses said they heard the goat vocalizing at night. They shone a light on the spot where the noise came from and saw two coyotes going at the goat who was down on the ground. Within 20 minutes the witnesses called the goatherds on call to let them know that the goat was dead. The goatherd came out and examined the situation.

On location, the goatherd noticed right off that the coyotes, unusually, were not afraid of them: this is a situation which arises when coyotes are being fed by humans. One of the coyotes looked straight at them with that look of, “Aren’t you going to toss me some food?” What feeders don’t know, or maybe don’t care about, is that not only is coyote behavior altered by this human feeding contact, but when stressed, coyotes can revert to their wild-animal behavior and end up biting the hand that fed them as they demand more food. They also observed that the coyotes ran from a single goat approaching them — something they would not be doing if they had gone into the herd specifically to kill one of them. The coyotes were more afraid of goats than humans, when it should have been the other way around. So why might they have gone after this goat?

I’ve spoken to two goatherds from two different organizations about this. They both have observed the same thing: that coyotes leave healthy goats alone.  So when a coyote has gone after a goat — which is a rare occurrence for these urban goat grazers — it has always been the fragile/weak ones: either newborns or those who are wearing down due to old age. Coyotes are able to both sniff out and visually read very subtle cues about any animal’s condition: they have an amazing ability to smell pheromones and other body chemicals, letting them know many things that we are not even aware of, including if an animal is sick or weak, it’s experience and age.

The goat, Merlin, was beyond old, well beyond the age when most goats would have passed away. These grazing organizations keep most older goats and the very young ones at home rather than allowing them to work as grazers, but this particular goat wanted to be out with her buddies in the herd. Their happiness matters to the people who look after them. The old goat was now living with a benign growth in her udder which may have been weakening her but was apparently not painful given the goat’s usual energy level and posture. The tumor hadn’t stopped any of her normal activity, but it had been growing and was under observation.

Merlin was at the bottom of a hill when she was first discovered with the two coyotes. Was she pursued down there? If the herd had been pursued, they would likely have stampeded, but there was no sign at all from the other goats that there had been chasing gong on. When they have been chased, they pant and breathe hard for a considerable time after the event: but there was no sign of this from the rest of the goats. The carcass showed that the goat had not been grabbed by the esophagus and strangled, which is how most coyotes would have killed her. Had she fallen down that hill and been unable to get up? Had her tumor burst open and bled, which might have attracted the coyotes? Had she gone off from the herd to die? Was she lying down before the coyotes got to her? The herders considered all these questions. Whatever precipitated this encounter, it was the coyotes’ keen perception and intuition about weaker animals which drew them into this situation.

Based on the situation, it seemed most likely that this goat was dying before the coyotes got to her. The coyotes simply finished her off, and in the end, maybe this was the most humane ending for her. The goat was on a short list of goats who were experiencing health problems in their old age.

Note that herds of livestock are uncommon in San Francisco and are only brought in for short periods of grazing in any particular area, so I have had little experience in observing them. To understand coyote predation behavior on livestock better,  I contacted the rural/ranch expert I know and trust. He has been keenly observing coyote behavior on ranches for the last 40 years. I’m sharing his amazing insights below. What he says below is both a confirmation of what the herders discussed with me, and a clear and well put expansion on the subject as it happens on ranches. Thank you, Lou!


Experienced Insights on Ranch Coyote Predation, by Walkaboutlou

Hi Janet,
I’m humbled you would ask me for input. I feel you know as much as anyone about coyote, especially urban coyote. And it sounds like the herd owner is knowledgeable and wise as well. Her observations and conclusions are very likely spot on.

Something to consider in dealing with coyote is they are so variable. Literally every coyote is different. And will behave differently at various stages of life and in changing circumstances. One coyote may discreetly live in the shadow of humans a long time. Then suddenly become bold and change in behavior. But there are always facts and reasons. We must be a sort of Detective to sort out coyote. And even then…sometimes it’s generalities and guesswork.

My experiences with coyote from east to west coast is in general, small livestock and/or pets will ALWAYS be checked out by coyote. It doesn’t mean automatic predation. But as Coyotes move through territory they literally scan every animal they see, sense or smell. They will study especially new situations or neighbors. An old cat who goes in fields. A dog allowed to roam alone. An area burned. Etc…They will hone in on new developments. A herd of sheep or goats is in some ways, a magnet to coyote. Again, it doesn’t mean automatic predation. But they will zero in especially in a new herd. Here is where the variables become complex. What is the fencing like? Are people or LGD present? What kind of coyote hold the territory? Is the herd healthy and calm? Cohesive? Are there young, pregnant, old or ill among them?

These variables and situations are what I call “the conversation”. Some herds and situations tell coyote “Don’t even try it”. And the coyote moves on. Other herds, or situations, are not as clear. The coyote sense hesitation or weakness. Or inexperience. Either way, the “conversation” triggers the Coyotes incredible senses on possibilities. Coyote literally can read and KNOW animals. They can sense an inexperienced doe and run her fawn into a fence. They will smell and detect injury, illness, and age. They smell arthritic bones and bad teeth. And finally, the herd itself can determine outcomes. Flight and panic are disasters for sheep and goats. If a coyote can cause chaos, he will inevitably catch/kill someone. How much space is there for goats? The land itself can aid the herd or help coyote.

Sheep and especially goats can bond with each other. This helps. A bonded herd is calmer. But I have seen many times where a herd very quietly, subtly, “gives up” a member. The coyote or predator arrives, and the herd literally gathers and walks/calmly trots away while the coyote hones in on 1 particular animal. It looks almost like it’s been planned. But the herd doesn’t fight for or stand by the chosen animal. It becomes exposed, alone, and is taken. (I’ve seen sheep in troubled labor picked this way by coyote and eagle).

If coyote kill a herd member, even if it was “natural” (old or sick) beware. Because coyote are predators. They aren’t bad. But they will kill and eat and adapt. So if a herd “fed them” with an old goat, they will return to see if another herd member is weakening or simply makes mistakes. (I’ve seen old doe goats easily run coyote off, but then a young kid copies their elders and immediately got snatched away) Illness, Aged, Youth, Mistakes, are coyote magnets. They may ignore a protected or strong herd for years. But then instantly jump on opportunities. The key is to not give them the opportunity that triggers them.

I would review everything about this situation and try to not repeat my conclusion. Is the land a natural trap? Does it provide goats places to defend themselves? Are these coyote unusual? Will they teach other pack members to hunt goat? How long are goats alone? What are their sizes and ages? Its canine chess dealing with coyote. Urban settings especially are challenging.

But I feel all involved are more then capable of dealing with this predation and moving on. I would inject considering a compatible protector to bond with goats. A LGD is likely not a choice in urban settings. But depending on the land, Llamas/Mini Donkeys etc..have also done well coping with coyote.

It’s just a matter of creating that seed of doubt and lack of opportunities that will cause the coyote to just look and think…”Nope”…. What those are, is up to us.
All the best..
Lou 🐾