Seven years ago I stood under the “Owl Tree” in Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco. The large eucalyptus had become known as the Owl Tree from having been the nursery for the previous 16 years for the same pair of great horned owls. I had been documenting these raptors growing up — there were *three* owlets that year. People would stop and talk with me regularly as I did my observations. One such conversation was extremely bizarre. A woman stopped to say something about “the one surviving owlet”. I let her know, excitedly, that there were in fact three owlets — that she could see them if she waited long enough. She bluntly told me that there was only *one* baby, that *all* owls kill and eat *all* their other chicks, and that she had read this in an “official” book. Then she walked away, not interested in seeing the photos of the three owlets — she didn’t want to discuss it further! For her, what she read from so-called “experts” stood as the truth above the reality which was staring her in the face.
When our City officials and “experts” don’t get it.
In Stern Grove, at Pine Lake, a long string of metal police barriers was put up in the Fall of last year as a warning to keep dogs and walkers away from where some people believe is a coyote den, way up the hill. Folks at the time had been hearing from each other that there was a den under the row of porches and openings on the northern edge of Pine Lake at Stern Grove Park, above the dog-play area. How did this belief come about? Several park visitors apparently heard squeals — *adult* coyotes greet each other with this sound — and saw a couple of coyotes up there on various occasions. In fact, many of the public’s ideas about coyotes evolve in this manner: an isolated observation leads to a knee-jerk interpretation and the word is spread. And this rumor, fueled by fear of protective coyote parents and more coyotes who might interact with dogs, spread.
Indeed, the area immediately below and adjacent to those houses has been used as a lookout post and a corridor by coyotes. But there is no den there and there hasn’t been for years. I can confirm this from my own ongoing first-hand coyote observations in the area, from my various ongoing examinations of the site, as well as from conversations and feedback from the residents of these houses. Dogs run up to this row of porches continuously. A wise coyote — which those at Pine Lake are — they’ve been there quite a few years — is not going to den in such an exposed place with dogs constantly running up. A young, first-time mother might make that mistake, as has occurred in Golden Gate Park, or even on Capp Street, but the Pine Lake coyotes are older, and they are wise, not ingenues. Signs of a den are actually in a more remote area on the opposite end of the park. So the barriers at Pine Lake were installed because of a faulty site evaluation and a rumor which was corroborated by city officials in charge of coyotes. I think we can do better than this. Shouldn’t we be relying on higher caliber information than just “officialdom”?
Who is in charge of our coyotes?
The coyotes in San Francisco are under the purview of ACC (Animal Care and Control) and RPD (Recreation and Park Department), even though our coyotes are “owned” by the State of California. These two agencies have a limited knowledge about coyotes, so they brought in an outside coyote consultant to help them, particularly with education. If this were working, all would be fine and well. But it isn’t. Little if any useful information, help or support gets out to the public, and an informational meeting which was held last October did nothing to calm the public’s anxiety level — it was a disaster. Based on responses of educator (an educator who was not in-tune with the public nor about SF coyotes) and public (a public which was upset about this) to each other, it is clear to many that the city departments needed an infusion of help and information to handle what is required. But the way it is set up now, this isn’t going to happen.
Input or participation from other veteran specialists, which has been suggested and offered, has been blocked by those departments in charge and their one consultant. Rather than opening-up and welcoming discussion, input and cooperation from various entities, which could help with the coyote issue — entities with specific knowledge of San Francisco coyotes, specialists in coyote behavior, and those with a knowledge of the specific human population dynamic in San Francisco, having lived here and interacted daily with the park visitors here — ACC instead has closed-in on itself more than ever: they are circling the wagons, as if everyone else were an enemy instead of a resource. But coyote coexistence does not function well as a ‘cookie cutter’ program imposed from the outside — it needs input and knowledge which already exists in the community — yet the City authorities aren’t tapping into this knowledge. It’s a catch-22: need help/reject help. That the Supervisors — Supervisors are the city’s “bosses” — are allowing this exclusion and exclusivity, in a department with this track record, is astonishing. To be fair to the departments, it’s the consultant who apparently is promoting this exclusion — but then, how is this benefiting them (or maybe they, too, are in a bind)? And now there’s the “management plan”… Let’s back up a little.
A consultant was chosen from outside the city based on her national outreach and on her impressive list of notable and highly educated biologist “advisors” — they are a boon for her reputation. These advisors are all involved in conservation and in the coexistence cause. Other than that, they have studied or are working on a wide variety of issues from wolf introductions, wolf conservation, livestock and predator issues, bringing down the infamous Wildlife Services, even on wild coyotes and more. Their work is increasing our understanding of various forms of wildlife and making the world a better place for all of it, often by clearing up long-held but erroneous conceptions about them. Kudos to them all!
But therein lies the rub: None of these advisors has studied, or has had experience with, urban coyote activities and behaviors in urban parks — so they don’t really have a knowledge base in urban coyote behavior, or the expertise in this to formulate or advise upon strategies for coyote coexistence, and specifically for San Francisco. Due the public’s overwhelming dissatisfaction with ACC’s current laissez-faire coyote program and the disastrous meeting last Fall, this is actually what ACC has now been charged with by the Supervisors: coming up with an urban coyote management plan for San Francisco.
For lack of turning up anything effective, the “ACC and consultant team” has instead been supportive of radio-collaring and tagging coyotes as a “management plan” without thinking these tactics all the way through. Tagging and collaring are tools which might be suitable for a graduate academic study, not for a management program. Collars and tags may look dramatic for a news story, but, when all is said and done, they provide no data useful for a management plan: And they can be damaging to coyotes.
Fortunately, the City Supervisors, who make the final decision on such a plan, know this. If any cataloguing of individual coyotes or family units is needed to help understand their territory dynamic, it can be accomplished knowing their behavior or through sightings and ground transects. A coyote management plan is a blueprint for how to coexist. It will require a description of relevant urban coyote behaviors and how to respond to certain of these behaviors in order to keep the interface between humans and animals safe for both humans and coyotes.
So far, this system of relying on one single and exclusive consultant, by all accounts, has been a disaster. Outreach has been minimal and solutions offered have been insufficient or ineffective, so much so that the department is being skirted by residents in the City, and a more knowledgeable and seasoned expert has been called in repeatedly by various neighborhoods — Mary Paglieri, a Behavioral Ecologist and Human-Wildlife Conflict Expert/Manager who has been studying, and working hands-on with urban coyotes for over 17 years. But she is being kept out of ACC’s loop.
The starting point for a “management plan” —
It is through learning about and really understanding urban coyote behavior, family dynamics, territoriality, and habitat within particular environments, that you can actually glean much more pertinent information for management than anything you might gain through tagging/collaring. The exact “specifics” about coyotes, which tagging and collaring might approximate, are in constant flux — it’s only the overall picture which will inform for this purpose. For instance, the parks where I have been documenting coyotes for the last ten years continue to have ONE family in them, even though that one family continues to vary in size from two to six and back down again, etc., over time. Also, coyotes move around — and their dens are also moved — so pointing out specifically where one is located at any particular time is not going to aid anyone and may create a false sense of security or even the opposite, a greater sense of fear. In almost all cases, dens are off and out-of-the-way in very secluded places — knowing exactly where one has been will have zero impact for management unless it is right on or extremely close to a path in which case, yes, it should be marked and foot-traffic should be diverted. But dog walkers in any area of the parks will continue to be caught unawares and off-their-guard unless they remain vigilant. And this is what needs to be addressed.
What CAN be done? —
1) There needs to be much more signage and intensive educational outreach — “no dog-owner left behind” — including at all pet-adoption centers and possibly distributed when dogs are licensed.
2) The most important information which needs to be imparted is the guidelines, especially that a dog walkers’ first line of safety in dealing with a coyote always should be vigilance and awareness.
3) Then, we need to teach that, when you are walking your dog, whether a coyote has been spotted in the distance, is approaching, or suddenly appears right next to you, the *first line of action* should be total avoidance — not hazing, which is engagement. Avoidance means tightening your leash and walking away from the coyote, while keeping your eyes on it. This is an easy protocol to follow, especially for dog-walkers with little or no coyote knowledge or experience, and those who are fearful. A person needs simply to get their dog away from that coyote — disengage and move away. TOTAL AVOIDANCE.
This protocol was formulated by Mary Paglieri. It’s really not practical or fair to ask elderly people or those who are afraid of coyotes to “haze”/harass them which is what ACC has been teaching. Walking away accomplishes what is needed: the coyote’s entire intention in approaching is to move your dog and you away. So, do it! It is not something that happens frequently, but it has occurred, and dog walkers need to know what to do when it does.
Vulnerable smaller dogs which might be viewed as prey should be picked up immediately. If the dog is small enough, tuck it under your shirt or jacket to remove it from view as you are walking away from the coyote. The point is to be pro-active, not reactive, where dogs are concerned.If a coyote were to come close enough, you would be creating the circumstances under which a coyote might try nipping your dog or even grabbing a smaller dog, and then you’d have to fight back. By preventing proximity, you can prevent the situation from ever reaching this point.
4) Let’s provide more secure fenced areas for small dogs to play in.
5) Let’s educate people about coyote behaviors and the “why” behind these behaviors so that people will understand them better and develop compassion rather than fear and hate due to lack of knowledge. At the same time, tolerance for coyotes can be increased by improving communication with the community (you can’t just say, “learn to coexist”). Coexistence can’t work if humans remain hostile. So this is something that can be worked with.
6) It would also help to understand the gamut of human behaviors, attitudes and perceptions about these animals, and how these developed. Questionnaires to gather this information and written reports of coyote encounters are not used by the City, but could be. For instance, every reported incident needs to be prefaced with the setting and what led up to the incident. Also, each incident needs to be written up as to exactly what happened and how the incident could have been averted: these would be real examples turned into educational tools.
7) Finally, let’s stop removing the dense, impenetrable — impenetrable to humans and dogs — large areas of underbrush and thickets which coyotes use as harborage. In an urban setting with so many people and dogs, coyotes need these areas to escape into. Removing this dense foliage makes them more visible and it allows dogs constant access into what once was “their” exclusive areas — this results in more negative encounters between dogs and coyotes. It also may make coyotes more prone to look for equally “open” spaces elsewhere, outside the parks, as they get used to these constant intrusions.
In the last ten years, I’ve witnessed the increasing removal, year by year, of what once was their protected forested thickets and dense underbrush, either for “maintenance” purposes, or for the questionable “nativist” program which many in the city are opposed to. Habitat, habitat, habitat. It’s the most important factor affecting wildlife.
Inviting knowledgeable participants to help with the task at hand
Since no effective or acceptable “plan” has been presented, ACC has now been charged with coming up with an emergency response plan for coyotes, like the plans the City has for fires and robberies. But more can be done, as the steps listed above which come from entities which have been excluded from the process. Shouldn’t ACC be seeking, and open to, input and collaboration from more than the one source whose performance and knowledge have proven to be inadequate for what the city needs?
About Janet Kessler: I observe, photo-document and write about specifically-urban coyote behavior, including their behavior towards people and pets, in San Francisco parks. I’ve been doing this daily for ten years — it is a labor of love, and it is intense. Zeroing-in or zooming-out with a powerful lens during long sessions of observation, along with the resultant bursts of camera shots and videos, allow me a detailed view of what’s going on in the coyote world. Few biology or ecology experts have done this in urban parks, and none have here in San Francisco. Please see, “Coyotes As Neighbors”, a YouTube presentation (it can be Googled), created from first-hand observations and photos taken in our parks.