In the summer of 2016, a coyote was gunned down by an unknown person on a Silver Lake street. Locals had deemed the coyote a problem and several people interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in the wake of the shooting spoke of pet safety. Folks in the neighborhood seemed troubled by the killing, but they also seemed troubled by the prevalence of coyotes in the area. (The LAPD never publicly announced an arrest for the shooting.) While L.A.’s mountain lions are championed across the internet, particularly in the event of one’s untimely death, area coyotes are considered a grave nuisance. No one mourns a coyote.
Upon moving to L.A. 15 years ago, I started hiking in Griffith Park. Almost immediately I noticed the coyotes. The animals belong to a narrow-shouldered native North American canid species. Their fur is gray and blond and rust colored, the mix of colors and thickness depending on the time of year. Taller than foxes, more svelte than wolves, coyotes are North America’s alone. They carve slender trails in the hills around Los Angeles. Indoctrinated by those devilish Warner Brothers cartoons, generations are taught from early youth the coyote is a shifty, scheming nuisance—a bad guy, if a hapless one. The truth is more complicated. The truth is we humans present more of a problem.
Intrigued by the animals, I stumbled across Coyote Cacher, an interactive website operated by University of California’s Dr. Niamh Quinn. A native of Ireland, Quinn has been studying coyotes for about four years. “There are no coyotes in Ireland, but when I came here there was the need for coyote research in Southern California,” Quinn says. “There is a need for professional extension to the cities and the police departments, the people that never managed coyotes before but all of a sudden find themselves needing to do so.”
Coyote Cacher is one way to facilitate that management. People can list the kind of interaction, the location, and the time. The site uses a color-coded alert system. Red alerts are for chases, bites, and on-leash pet attacks. Yellow signifies less menacing behavior and off-leash pet attacks. Green alerts are for sightings and missing pets.
As coyote incidents have increased, Angelenos have become much more savvy, setting up cameras to capture images and video of coyotes invading their space. What people aren’t doing is changing the habits that lure coyotes closer to them in the first place.
Alexis Mychajliw is a Cornell- and Stanford-educated post-doctoral fellow at the La Brea Tar Pits. Tracing the Holocene Paleoecology, Mychajliw connects the ecological dots from the Ice Age to today. “Coyotes are the third most common species at the tar pits,” she tells me in an email. “All the ‘large’ carnivores we think of in California today—coyotes, mountain lions, black bears—are actually the smallest of their group. Coyotes outlived the dire wolves. Mountain lions outlived American lions. Black bears outlived short-faced bears. Body size and dietary flexibility seems to predict survival—at least up until the present day.” Mychajliw points out that coyotes were “released” from competition with gray wolves after hunters and ranchers pushed gray wolves to statewide extinction in the early 20th century. As they come back to California, gray wolf numbers are still small, though they are now protected by state and federal laws. Coyotes are not.
As L.A.’s coyote hysteria kicked into high gear, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services dedicated an officer to handle large carnivores, coyotes among them. Officer Hoang Dinh has since been reassigned due to budgetary issues, but in the summer and fall of last year, he led me on a tour of the locations of several city-dwelling coyote families. Officer Dinh has an intelligent, compassionate understanding of coyotes. He offered a reading list on the animals (including the magnificent Coyote America by Dan Flores) and displayed a nuanced care for them that was as persuasive as it was diligent. He pointed out the fresh scat of a coyote and several makeshift dens in landscaping and gangways between homes. Find a water source, he told me, and coyotes won’t be far off.
In each neighborhood, Officer Dinh pointed to evidence of feeding, not always for humane reasons. On the Westside, it appeared that someone was trying to lead the coyotes into traffic. In Los Feliz, the feeding had turned into a social media spectacle. People drove up in cars and photographed themselves tossing food to the canids. Later the images would turn up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as a kind of experiential trophy. In the meantime, coyotes were being clipped by automobiles, habituated to kibble, and killed by rodenticide casually left out property owners. Those incidents didn’t make social media.
Eventually, I went to a feeder’s house in order to understand their perspective. A friend set us up and we gathered one night after sunset on San Fernando Road. Before the food was set out, I placed my trail cam on a nearby deck chair. From behind a sliding glass door, we heard the coyotes’ high-pitched, childlike call before they appeared, one by one, taking turns eating as the alphas guarded the entranceway. If someone moved inside, the coyotes skittered back into darkness and waited several minutes before resuming their feast, even though they’d been eating there for more than a year. As the feeding went on I counted about five coyotes. The feeders explained they began setting out food after several neighborhood cats, including two of their own, had disappeared. Since they started feeding, the cat killings ceased. Not every neighbor agreed to their solution—a man next door had previously shot at the coyotes from his porch.
Virtually every expert on coyotes insists that feeding coyotes is wrong. National Parks Service ecologist Justin Brown heads the L.A. Urban Coyote Project, which periodically hosts “coyote scat parties” to determine what local coyotes eat. Brown displays the same dedicated appreciation for coyotes as Officer Dinh. They both stress the multitude of dangers created by feeding and habituating urbanized coyotes, as well as the problems of mange and rodenticide. Brown also noted how much of a human issue the interactions can be. “There’s this situation in Silver Lake where this female coyote, every year she gets pretty defensive. Every year, when she has pups, all these issues arise. And part of it is getting the communities to work together to try and reduce that. That’s not a food-based thing. That’s her protecting her pups. So some of it is making sure that there’s not places for her to den in yards and those types of places. Make her find a natural spot where she’s not going to be causing these issues.”
Although there aren’t exact population statistics, scientists are baffled by the number of coyotes in Los Angeles. Brown is actively trying to determine how many live in the city. “We don’t know how many coyotes are in L.A.,” he says. “They are in every part of the city.”
And coyotes aren’t leaving Los Angeles. Their ancestors are buried in the tar pits. This has been their habitat before there was any urban landscape to contend with. As the juggernaut of Southern California development continues unabated, coyote-human interactions have reached a hysterical crescendo. Animal Services could return a dedicated officer to the urbanized wild animal beat, which would help. As tar pits scientist Mychajliw puts it, “There’s a huge need for collaboration with social scientists and environmental educators to understand how people perceive these animals and what actions are reasonable to expect people to take in their daily lives to support coexistence.”
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