The Social Amplification of Risk and Fear

There are many coyote discussions happening on social media platforms such as Nextdoor and Facebook which are engendering and heightening fears of our urban coyotes, and which, for the most part, stem from fear based on misinformation and lack of information about coyotes.

My observations about the effect of social media were confirmed last year at an annual neighborhood association meeting in San Francisco by a police officer who was updating folks on the most recent crime reports. He made a huge point of saying that crime, in fact, had remained the same in the area over the last year or so, but that the perception of the extent of crime had changed tremendously, for the worse, due to social media such as Facebook and Nextdoor. Specifically, there were two crime incidents which social media discussions had so blown out of proportion and altered that they were no longer recognizable from what had really happened. And all of this, of course, increased fear to a crescendo which was simply uncalled for, according to the officer. Sounds exactly like what I’m seeing in discussions about coyotes.

These social media comments appear to be no different from the coyote rumors, passed along by word of mouth, which preceded social media. I became fascinated with how these rumors and myths about coyotes got started, survived, and then became amplified along the way. I happen to be in our parks for many hours every day, so I’ve actually watched and heard tales spin themselves from an inconsequential situation or comment into monster terrors.  My favorite was: “Seven coyotes surrounded my car and wouldn’t let me get out”. The story of fear spread far and wide, the fear level mounting, with folks afraid that the coyotes were coming to get them, until it actually reached one of the City’s governing Supervisors. The Supervisor was promptly educated by coyote experts and the rumor was put to rest. By the way, the single coyote family in the area consisted of just three coyotes, a mom and two pups, and they were a particularly flighty bunch when it came to people and cars.

What actually are the risks of injury by a coyote? Folks need to know that there have been only TWO recorded human deaths IN ALL HISTORY from coyotes and one of those involved the feeding of a coyote. Bites or scratches to people from coyotes for all of North America amount to fewer than 20 a year — and most of these are caused by feeding coyotes or from interfering in a coyote/dog altercation. For comparison, there have been about 20-30 deaths PER YEAR caused by dogs, and over 1000 people A DAY go to emergency rooms for dog bites. There are more interesting statistics which should help folks understand how minimal the risks are of being hurt by a coyote, for instance, did you know that champaign corks kill 24 people a year?

WP-ChampaignCork

One thing I have observed recently is that there are many, many more dogs than ever before visiting parks, and many more people who walk their dogs are glued to their iPhones and don’t have their dogs leashed in areas where they know there are coyotes. Meanwhile their dogs are running wild and out-of-control all over the place. The situation is ripe for the possibility of more dog/coyote encounters, and for these, indeed, precautions must be taken to keep coyotes and pets apart.

Every single dog/coyote incident I’ve seen and heard about could have been prevented by following very simple guidelines, which can be found at the top of the home page for this blog. These include:

  • don’t leave out food attractants
  • don’t let pets roam free — always closely supervise your pet out of doors
  • be vigilant when walking your pet
  • keep your distance from coyotes in the first place
  • if you see a coyote, leash and walk away from the coyote
  • don’t let your dog chase coyotes
  • know how to shoo away a coyote who is approaching your pet and WALK away without running.

To avoid car accidents, we learn and abide by traffic rules and guidelines. Guidelines for coexisting with coyotes are far fewer and simpler than those for the road, but there is a huge resistance to using them for some folks. Their response often is: Wouldn’t it just be easier to kill them?

The knee-jerk solution to many fears has often been to remove its source. Several years ago a tree limb fell on a visitor in a park and killed that person in San Francisco. It was an extremely unfortunate freak accident. But what was interesting was the way some people wanted to deal with their new-found fear: they wanted to cut down all the trees!

I’m now hearing that swing sets will be removed from our parks because they’re too risky. Swings of course are no more dangerous than they ever have been, but as a society we have changed how we interpret risk and fear and how we deal with it. Might our fears have less to do with the object of fear itself than with ourselves, the media and the tenor of the times?

I went to the internet to find out more about fear and risk. What I found is a fascinating exposition on precisely this subject. It’s long, but very, very interesting. I’m including the link in case anyone cares to explore it: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/3053#.VQnN0mTF-94

Getting back to coyotes, you can learn some of the behavior patterns to expect between dogs and coyotes, along with how to shoo off a coyote, and why killing does not work as a solution from the YouTube video “Coyotes As Neighbors”, also found at the top of the home page of this website. If you need or want help beyond this, contact the folks at Coyotexistence@gmail.com for one-on-one help.