Paradigm Shift . . . or change our behavior?

On her way to a park, like everyone else.

Are we witnessing a paradigm shift for coexistence with our urban coyotes — a sort of growing “desegregation” and an increased co-mingling at closer range??

I’ve been observing a scenario that seems to be increasing here in San Francisco: an actual mixing of people and coyotes comfortably and amicably in the same close spaces. Interestingly, according to Malcolm Margolin, the author of, “The Ohlone Way”, coyotes mingled comfortably among the Ohlone people in this area when the Spaniards first arrived in the mid-1700s. In a couple of parks here in San Francisco, I’m seeing various instances of this these days. The difference today being — because we are not all that used to it — that no one here actually *ignores* the coyotes as the Ohlone did, but rather, the coyotes remain a sensation for everyone who sees them, and some people actively encourage interactions. Interactions of any kind never lead to any good as far as I have heard, especially for the coyote.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a coyote emerge from a fenced-off area — fenced off to humans and dogs — where she had safely tucked-in her 6-month-old pups for the day. She exited from that enclosure by squeezing agilely under the ragged fence and crossing the street to the grassy lawn of a parklet. So far, so good. But that’s when a man who had seen her cross the street whistled for her from his parked red car as he held up his iPhone camera, and she came running back into the street where she circled his car and remained in the street looking into his driver’s seat window from 3 feet away, waiting for the food she has learned to expect, particularly coming from cars. This has happened often to this coyote — the dead-giveaway clue being the coyote’s behavior. I’ve witnessed it many times.

She comes running to a car for food when she’s whistled for.

I quickly approached and asked the man to please not interact or call the coyote — that we were trying to keep them wild and out-of-trouble and didn’t want them approaching people or cars. He didn’t want to hear it and rolled-up the car window so he would not have to hear me. Feeding didn’t happen this time with me standing right there — most people know not to feed, even if they engage in it. However, and unfortunately, there continue to be many people who apparently don’t know this, or defy it in order to “help” the animals. This type of human interaction — and our being oblivious to the consequences — has shaped our coyotes’ behavior towards humans.

Seeing her opportunity for food cut off when the car window closed, the coyote I was watching headed off along the street adjacent to the parklet — cars passed her and so did walkers and runners along the way. 

Stopping at a grassy rise where she hung out long enough to meet walkers eye-to-eye.

She soon stopped again at another grassy rise alongside the curb of the road and started foraging and ever so craftily looking at people straight in the eye for the subtle hints which convey food is forthcoming. After a few minutes here, and no donors stepping forward, the coyote continued her trot, mostly in the middle of the street but also along the sidewalks through a handful of blocks and intersections that would take her a half-mile to the next park over. At intersections she paused and looked both ways before crossing.

Everyone who saw her was excited and enchanted: “Look, our coyote right here!” Over the last few years here, the widespread culture of fear towards coyotes has been waning considerably. Two cars tailed her closely as they took photos. Others, on foot, approached to get photos as she continued trotting along, minding her own business probably less than she was letting on — she was keenly aware of people and slowed her pace around them — it appeared that she wanted to be seen.  She had purpose in her trot: she knew what she was doing and where she was heading.

She knows how to cross the street: you wait, look both ways, and if it’s clear, you cross, and you keep looking.

These across-the-neighborhood jaunts by coyotes have been occurring here in San Francisco ever since coyotes reappeared in the city in 2002, but they usually occur during the darker hours. When they’ve occurred during the day, it has usually been with the coyote slithering quickly by and away, and keeping its distance. But lately I’ve been seeing a quality change in comfort level for a number of coyotes in several parks. On this day, for instance, there were a dozen people and dogs whose presence didn’t perturb or influence the coyote’s pace or cause her to alter her route. Opposingly, in the parks where this type of feeding is not going on, coyotes still keep themselves very separate: close encounters with people and dogs — scary for the dog-owner more than anything — are occasional and mostly just inopportune events. These are parks where coyotes, humans and dogs often see each other, but from a distance.

No one fed the coyote on this particular walk despite her soliciting it, though she licked some crumbs off the sidewalk.

Nibbling sidewalk food and marching right along seemed normal and not out of place.

Most people she passed seemed to LIKE that she was among them. She was a sensation. People told me they liked that she was part of the city, part of the community. The small park where she so purposefully headed is where we have found hand-feeding and where piles of food have been intentionally left for her — including piles of dog food, ribs, whole still-feathered chickens and pizzas — in addition to the garbage and leftovers thoughtlessly strewn hither and thither. I’ve seen people flicking cupcake crumbs and hotdogs in a nearby coyote’s direction to draw her closer for a photo shoot, and even heaving several pounds of steak — “$17 worth”, I was told by one bold feeder: “only the good stuff” — at her because they “wanted to help her”: “the poor skinny critter must be starving since there is no food around for her”,  usually from cars. My listing the abundance of natural and easy foods didn’t sway that feeder. This has happened so often that, in an ironic sort of way, when small stones have been tossed towards this coyote to scare her away, she actually runs for them hoping they are food.

Passing people at close quarters or eyeing people in their cars for possible handouts — this wasn’t a problem for her or anyone else.

Is this closer mingling becoming a new standard? Are our coyotes going to be accepted as sort of stray dogs who interweave their lives with ours — more “citizen” than “wild”? Whatever the comfort level — “proximity tolerance” — of the coyote, please remember the guidelines for safety: keep your distance, leash and walk away, don’t befriend, never feed. I’m wondering if we can even stop the feeding. I’ve tried with this particular coyote for over four years with solid results that then always reversed themselves. The city has no enforcement laws, so the feeding will probably keep on, and that in turn will continue to propel coyotes in the direction of proximity and co-mingling, hence, the paradigm shift.

Although the co-mingling seemed entirely benign with this particular coyote, it’s really important to remember that coyotes are as different from each other as are humans from each other. A mellow reaction from one coyote in close proximity does not guarantee the same from another coyote, or from the same coyote over time. During certain times of the year, mostly during the 9-month long pupping season, coyotes become more reactive towards dogs than usual. In other words, the mellow coyote you had been passing on the street for the last several months will suddenly be snarly and pushy and nippy to message your dog to keep away. Towards people, a coyote could become demanding. A dozen people recently voiced concern to me about such a change towards them and their dogs, and they wanted to know what was going on. My advice as always: walk away from them. You could be impelling a not-so-positive outcome by not doing so rather than averting one. Approaching or encouraging proximity and any kind of interaction (including feeding, whistling for, talking to, or allowing your dog to react to them at close range) are not in everyone’s best interest, especially the coyote’s, who could pay the ultimate price in the end.

Rounding the last bend and making for the finish line — she’s just about where she wanted to go!



A concomitant aside: IMPROVING SIGNAGE IN SAN FRANCISCO (and elsewhere).

Keeping coyotes distant from people and dogs, and on the wary and wild side, where they mind their business and we mind ours is the ideal urban coyote situation we’ve all been aiming for. It’s an ideal which is easy to achieve with a simple set of guidelines. The ultimate goal has been to prevent incidents between dogs and coyotes which can happen at close visual encounters, and to ward off the possibility of human/coyote negative interactions. HOWEVER, many people don’t know or understand the goal, and don’t know how best to handle sightings or even encounters. They don’t know that they, as we all, are responsible for the proper stewardship of the coyotes: everything anyone does influences the outcome of coexistence. It takes a village.

I’m digressing here for a moment about inadequate signage in our parks. Over the summer there had been an uptick in scares in one of our parks due to pupping season. I’ve witnessed, and been told about, a handful of incidents where a dog owner indeed “leashed” their dog, as suggested by the park signs, but the coyote STILL behaved threateningly — which is how a coyote *messages* a dog to move away.

These run-ins with the coyotes, when they occurred, were inevitably due to people simply not knowing what to do. The current park signage didn’t offer anything beyond a mellow, tiny texted, “don’t feed” and “leash”. Leashing of course is never sufficient — you must also walk away from the coyotes.

I looked at WHAT could be done to improve the situation. Immediately my eyes fell on the park signage. Signage is a good way to get information across to people who walk their dogs to parks — that’s where it can be seen and where it is needed the most. I looked at the existing signs and I asked people about them: they were unattractive, the small text wasn’t being read by anyone, and people thought of them as clutter — just so many brown signs staked-into-the-ground, I was told. The signs were inadequate as far as giving people guidelines for what to do: the guidelines needed to be clearly stated, straight forward, simple to grasp and remember, and presented in a non-cluttered way. The signs needed to be more eye-catching and entitled in such a way that they weren’t “warnings” (i.e. “danger”) but rather “invitations” to participate in proper stewardship to keep the coyotes wild, safe, and trouble-free. Fewer and fewer people nowadays felt “threatened” by a coyote’s presence, so “warnings” were the wrong approach — these people felt those signs were for other people, not them. 

I tried making myself heard by Animal Care and Control (ACC) over a five month period but my emails were not answered. The issue was urgent — these scary encounter incidents were mounting and folks were calling these particular coyotes “aggressive”, when I knew they were not. The coyotes were just becoming more protective of their surrounding space because dogs were getting too close to them, especially during this pupping season which was in full swing — and particularly dogs with *attitude*. So I took it upon myself to design and fabricate, at no little cost to myself, some well-made, metallic signs and put them up. Within days they were removed by the Park and Rec Department (RPD). When I asked, “why?”, it turns out the park’s need for hegemony was more important to them than fixing the situation: I was basically told to bug off — “they” were in charge and didn’t want my input, thank you very much. 

Signs should be eye-catching. The guidelines need to be concise, retainable, readable. The signs need a title which will help it attract, inclusively, people who have made their peace with the critters, and might be going too far in the direction of friendliness towards them, which is as bad as the culture of fear we’re surmounting.

This was an important and urgent matter. I persisted, and finally I got a response from RPD: they will indeed create new signs incorporating my input. Thank you, RPD! But WHEN, I wonder? It will take months and months for those in charge to design signs and have them made, when they could so easily and at no cost to themselves have used what I’ve already fabricated. So, in the meantime, you’ll see these signs that I’ve made on lamp posts and utility poles surrounding the parks, rather than within the parks, where the problems have been occurring. Also, I’ve been distributing 3″ business cards with the same information.



© All information and photos in my postings come from my own original and first-hand documentation work which I am happy to share, with permission and with properly displayed credit: ©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

San Francisco’s Coyotes are Back, and They are Thriving, by Bianca Taylor [PODCAST]

Page & Podcast: https://www.kqed.org/news/11799871/bay-curious-coyotes

[Clarification to the audio: Coyote numbers ‘on the family claimed territories I have been observing’ have remained stable over the past 13 years. This qualification was cut from the audio (at about 6:17), but it’s in the text version. Please know that since 2007, there indeed has been a gradual increase (an incremental increase, not a recent sudden explosion) in their numbers as they repopulated the area they had been purged from, beginning in 2002.]