Sacramento Bee Writes A Profile About Me

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The Coyote Whisperer, by Shelby Carpenter with Photos by Helena Price


click on photo to be taken to magazine article

I’m honored to be the subject of an article by Shelby Carpenter with photos by Helena Price!

“It’s a cool, breezy evening at a seaside park in San Francisco, and Janet Kessler is on the lookout. We sit quietly among pinecones and dead leaves, staring out over the green space before us. With a thin frame and a mass of brown-gray hair pulled back in a scrunchie, Kessler cuts an almost leonine profile. She’s ready to spring into action at any moment. We wait patiently for one of the more unlikely residents of San Francisco to pay a visit: the coyote.

As we wait and watch, Kessler and I talk about how she has made a name for herself doing just this—tracking urban coyotes in the wilds of San Francisco’s parks. With ample urban green space, the city, it turns out, is the perfect habitat for coyotes. There’s prey, space to build dens, and, most important, a much lower chance of getting shot here than on ranchland. In 2014 alone, the Department of Agriculture killed more than 60,000 coyotes; no such effort to remove coyotes by lethal force exists in San Francisco.

So seven days a week, usually at dawn and dusk, Kessler goes out to watch them. She first became fascinated with the creatures after having a chance encounter . . .” Click here to read on in the March/April issue of Pacific Standard Magazine!

photo by Helena Price

photo by Helena Price


Leath Tonino Captures My Joy and Viewpoint In Watching Urban Coyotes, in High Country News


Click on the photo for a readable version of the article. Also notice that although only one photo displays at any one time at the top of the linked page, you can scroll through all seven of them by pressing the numbers below the photo. Leath Tonino, you’ll all note and agree, is a fantastic writer and has captured the spirit of my adventure perfectly!

I spent the twilight hours in a park with Leath where he interviewed me for this article as we watched a coyote, and I thoroughly enjoyed his company. He sent me another very creative article of his which is about adventure in exploring the urban wild right at your doorstep without driving hundreds of miles. Kudos to Leath!

And, the really good photo of me was taken by Terray Sylvester, with whom I spent another thoroughly enjoyable park outing.

Interview by Courtney Quirin

From the Field

Connecting with: Janet Kessler, “Coyote Lady”
Interview by Courtney Quirin

“Long-time San Francisco resident, Janet Kessler has become a pioneer in the photo documentation of the lives of urban coyotes, capturing the intimate lives of that city’s coyotes for six years”.

If you would like to read more about what I do, read Courtney’s interview in the October 25th issue of  Bay Nature Connections. Thank you Courtney for a really nice interview!

Monkeys, by Courtney Quirin

Courtney recently moved to San Francisco where she is pursuing her talents as an artist and writer.

She comes to the city after studying and traveling in Ireland, New Zealand and Ethiopia — this last where she studied the impact of baboons on local farmers.

She is also an All American runner!

Please visit her website at: Courtney Illustrates.


My Position In Relation To Coyotes

Dear  Blog:

People continue to ask me if they could “come along” on my observations, to “study” or “photograph”  or  “just observe”.  Apparently everybody has a worthy project that would benefit from this “hands on” involvement.

I need everyone to know where I am coming from regarding all coyotes, but especially regarding the coyotes I have been able to follow. I am extremely protective of them and their space. I do not advertise their locations, and I make a blanket policy of not taking anyone with me on my outings. This is important in order to be fair to the coyotes. I’m sure everyone can understand this and I’m sure everyone wants this for the coyotes — to keep their lives as even as possible. We need to think about the coyotes first.

Coyotes do not need more and more people intruding on them. When anyone approaches a coyote, or even when people are around, a coyote’s alertness intensifies and its behaviors change. It may flee. This heightened alertness and behavior change are indications of stress. All interventions and intrusions that I have seen disrupt the normal behavior I’m trying to document — this is why I work alone.

I’ve spent thousands of hours in various parks where I seem to have “earned” an “ignored place”, at a safe distance, from a number of coyotes. Even bringing my husband a couple of times to several of the parks changed that whole dynamic: coyotes are much too aware not to be affected by everyone’s presence.  My project is not conducive to group activity — I hope everyone can respect that. I want to continue doing my part in taking photos and writing my observations, as a means of advocating for the coyotes in the Bay Area, but I need to do this alone. Nevertheless, everybody who wants can help. We ALL can spread respect for coyotes and all wildlife, and we all can preserve habitat that is already in place, by leaving it alone, and not by re-creating it in the image of just the “native plant” advocates.

I began this blog to share information with those who might feel apprehensive about coyotes generally, and about urban coyotes specifically. My purpose is to show, through my photos and observations, that coyotes have character and personality. They have a tight-knit family life which is very worthy of our respect.  They display the qualities which we value in ourselves.  I’m trying to help people relate to them in ways which they may not have been able to before. At the same time, I need to remind everyone that these are not cuddly stuffed animals. They are WILD. They are VERY wild. We need to respect this about them: give them space and keep our dogs off of them — co-existence requires just this little from us.

Two incidents recently have distressed me. One was a high school teacher who, before leaving his students to explore in one of the parks, admonished them to “please don’t pet the coyotes.” Do people really think that these are cuddly little animals that can be approached in this manner? They cannot. They could bite if they have to protect themselves.

The second incident involved a father with four pre-teens. I was so pleased to point out a coyote for them — but I should not have. I advised the father that the coyotes were not aggressive, but that we need to give them space. Immediately, this man walked straight up to where the coyote was. The coyote, relaxing on a hill, saw him coming and bolted up to a tense sitting position. The man got closer and closer until the coyote fled. Although most people seem to respect the needs of our coyotes, there are the aggressive few who think it is their right to intrude on the coyotes — you have intruded upon a coyote if you have caused it to alter its normal flow of behavior. We need to remember that the coyotes are not tame farm animals and they do not want to be approached.

Coyotes dislike most dogs: dogs are threats to them and put the coyotes on heightened alert. Even so, I have seen coyotes “hand pick” a couple of dogs as friends — it is always the dogs who show little interest in them!! A lot of my observations involve coyote and dog reactions to each other: in all except a couple of instances this has been antagonistic. Regarding people, coyotes are not interested in people except to stay away from them. Dogs are a different story: because they are a threat to coyotes, dogs are more interesting to them. Coyotes treat dogs the same as they do “outsider” coyotes who would be competing for the territory and its resources. If we keep our dogs leashed in coyote areas, these threats can be kept to a minimum.

One last point I would like to make regarding animal habitats. My policy would be to leave nature alone, the way it is — nature is smarter than humans, who, I have found, feel they need to control and manage everything. My problem with human intervention is that they try too often hide behind the guise of “science”, when science does not have all the answers — science is a human phenomenon and humans do not have all the answers. The plans they come up with often do more harm than good. The Gulf oil spill is a disaster we could have avoided — but we listened to the “sound science” behind the technology involved in deep water drilling. Another is the “native” plant programs which purport to be “scientific” when in fact they are extreme, arbitrary and one-dimensional. Animals live in our thick wooded areas where the balances have been achieved over a long period of time. Mount Sutro Forest, for example, needs to be preserved, not ripped out and re-created. Please see the blog dedicated to preserving this cloud forest. Please do what you can to preserve it. Thanks for listening.  Janet

In the news!!

Janet Kessler, looking for wildlife on the slopes of Twin Peaks, keeps herself grounded in nature. Credit Laura Morton for The New York Times

Janet Kessler, looking for wildlife on the slopes of Twin Peaks, keeps herself grounded in nature. Credit Laura Morton for The New York Times

Taking Walks On The Wild Side, in The New York Times on Sunday, March 14, 2010. Click on the article title to be taken to it, or press here for the PDF version.

About myself, with animals, observing

I thought I should let people know where I am coming from, and why I am interested in coyotes.

This particular activity opened for me two years ago when I met my first coyote on a walk here in San Francisco. At the time, my habit was to get up before dawn and take an hour-and-a-half hike up to the center of our city — always with my dog. Dawn is a great time of day. The world is quiet, it is peaceful. The world belongs to you and to the wildlife which is beginning to stir again after a night’s rest. There is a magic about it, especially as you climb the hills, with all the bright lights below looking something like Christmas, Diwali or Hanukkah, or looking like the approach to a city from an airplane.

Two years ago, during my morning walk, as I was rounding the bend of a path, what should I see on the trail in front of me but a coyote, a young coyote. Right in the middle of a city. In a large, hilly park-like area. Coyotes were just returning to the city after many years of absence  -– we had heard of only a couple of them in the newspapers, so the surprise was overwhelming. This coyote was so excited to see us, me and my dog. It did not run off. It did keep its distance. It bounced up and down, up and down, like a ball. It ran down the path and back, and down again where it lay, sphinx-like, watching us until its excitement made it get up and repeat the bouncing. I sat on a rock, mesmerized, with my dog next to me. For 20 minutes we watched the coyote, and the coyote watched us. I didn’t have my camera that day, but that would never happen again. Exactly a month later, we ran into the same coyote. This is when I started taking photos. The photos were less of the coyote, at least in my eyes, than of the coyote’s behavior. I actually started photography as a record-keeping device: I was interested in character, personality, behavior, motives, etc. The first coyote I met had offered a little of itself to us — I needed to find out more.

So, this is what I do now for a few hours each day, most days: during my walks, I observe and photograph urban wildlife, mostly coyotes. But I have always been around animals, both my own pets and wild animals that were injured which I took care of and released as soon as possible so as not to rob them of their wildness. The exciting thing about animals for me has been not only their wildness: their ability to do everything necessary to survive on their own, but also their rich emotional lives: they feel with all the intensity we humans feel. All species, I have found, have a culture in common, and a culture apart from us humans. We share a lot with them, and we are different. If we observe them, and if we are interested enough, we can understand them — the same way cultural anthropologists do, the same way Jane Goodall did: understanding individual animals through empathy.

My special interest has always been coyotes, though I watch all animals. After lots of observing, nuances take shape and you begin to be able to read a few things that you could not read before.

I have probably spent hundreds of hours in the parks, watching them — using my camera to focus my attention, and then reviewing at home. My camera is like a notebook for me. What I have learned regarding the coyotes is that these are individuals, that generalizations might not necessarily hold. Watching coyotes is like watching the same dogs in a park for a while: you get to know certain things about them — they each have their personality quirks. Does one dog have more in common with the other dogs or less? For each individual animal it is different.

For the most part I know what a coyote is doing, if it is busy or not, that they are communicating. I was aware when one tested me. I know they can “read” most dogs and can assess each individual dog from a distance. They keep a safe distance from people who they also assess — either cautiously trusting them at a distance, or avoiding them.  I know how important the coyote family unit is — I’ve seen them greet one another, I’ve seen them work as a team,  I know that a mother will protect her young, I’ve seen a yearling act as a sentry and warn a mother if an intruder is coming her way. I know food is marked as foul by urinating on it. I know what dog activity upsets certain coyotes, which coyotes are shy, which ones are more curious or daring. I can tell them apart by their facial features — mostly — at least at certain times. I have seen a barking coyote look out of the corner of its eye, to see how it is affecting an onlooker — I could see that part of this is bluff.  I have been allowed to be on the same side as a coyote when a it was chased by a dog. And there is so much more to become aware of — I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. I am getting to know the behavior of individual coyotes, and I am making sense of it all.

Other things about myself: I grew up in South America. My husband and I live with our 15 year-old dog in the center of San Francisco where we have been for over 30 years. We have a front yard garden where we grow corn (200 ears a season) and have an apple tree which gives us over 300 apples a season. We have grown wheat which we made into sprouted wheatberry bread — nine full loaves, we succeeded with one cotton plant — it produced one boll — we were able to make one Q-tip!, we have tomatoes sometimes. We have two grown sons who live in the Bay Area. We both love the urban environment and our walks. I took up the harp when my kids went off to college.

Please see article in The New York Times which appeared on March 14, 2010: Taking Walks on the Wild Side.

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