On a Tuesday afternoon in late November, a San Francisco woman reported a dog owner’s worst fear: A coyote had attacked her pit bull near Pine Lake in Stern Grove. The San Francisco Police Department had to clear a path to the dog with batons, as it was whimpering and stuck in a bramble thicket after the encounter.
“We want to remind the public that there are coyote sightings in the grove,” police spokesperson Sgt. Michael Andraychak said about the attack. “Especially if you have smaller dogs, coyotes will go after them.”
However, a different story emerged when the dog was examined by Animal Care and Control. The owner had assumed the attack was by a coyote, despite not seeing one. But the nature of the injuries indicated something else.
“The scratches and injuries to the dog appeared to be from a raccoon,” Deb Campbell of Animal Care and Control tells SF Weekly.
For Jonathan Young, who helps monitor the current pack of five collared coyotes in the Presidio in his role as Lead Wildlife Ecologist, the impulse to blame a coyote comes as little surprise.
“Social media can spin these coyote stories out of control,” he says. “I regularly see people without any kind of source say there are hundreds of coyotes in San Francisco when — knowing their social dynamics and the limits of habitat, food, and water — it’s much more accurate to say their numbers range in the dozens. And even that varies with seasons and droughts.”
But fear of coyotes predates social media. A closer look at the thousand-year history of coyotes in urban areas reveals a story of adaptation, predation by humans, and, ultimately, grudging co-existence.
According to Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, coyotes have been living near humans for at least 1,000 years, with rodents being the common denominator for both parties. It’s a simple food chain: human trash tends to attracts rodents, and the rodents attract coyotes. Coyotes are opportunists and omnivores — like us — but they do not survive off a diet of pets.
“Biologist Stan Gehrt has been studying urban coyotes in Chicago for over 15 years,” Flores tells SF Weekly, “and he told me flat-out that if urban coyotes were depending on pets for food, we quickly wouldn’t have any pets left.”
Humans moved to cities 5,000 years ago to get away from nature. But there’s no getting away from — or getting rid of — coyotes. Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, and even New York City have coyote populations.
In San Francisco, the temptation might still be to get rid of the coyotes and just deal with more rodents. The Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 launched a 10-year campaign to trap, poison, and shoot coyotes into extinction, even employing biological warfare with the introduction of sarcoptic mange into wild canine populations.
The massive effort failed, but why?
Part of the answer is the coyote’s amazing adaptability, specifically what scientists call “fission/fusion,” the capacity of a species to either fuse together in groups or fission off as individuals — whatever it takes to survive an environmental challenge. So while pack animals like wolves — which are so loyal that the scent of one can be used to lure and trap the entire pack — were extirpated in the lower 48, the wily coyote went off alone to survive another day.
In addition, when coyote populations are suppressed, Flores says they respond by having even larger litters — up to 15 to make up for any losses and get more of their pups to adulthood. Unlike deer, rodents, or humans, which can overrun an area, an established alpha pair of coyotes will only breed enough pups that a given area can sustain, while also aggressively running pups out of their territory once they are old enough to be rivals.
“We are the ones, humans, who have to make the adjustment,” Flores says. “You need to know your coyote natural history, like when they are making dens, and how they will defend or even escort dogs and people away from dens during pupping season.”
Pupping season runs from March through September in San Francisco, and, with coyote parents more protective of their litter, it ups the chances of negative human and coyote interactions.
“Every year in the Presidio we have a spike [in negative coyote encounters] because dogs get too close to the active den site,” Young says. “During the spring-summer months, these issues are specifically a dog and coyote issue, that can be significantly reduced by maintaining a buffer between dog activity and the den site.”
“We advocate co-existence with coyotes,” Sally Stephens of the San Francisco Dog Walkers Group tells SF Weekly. “But that may or may not involve a leash.”
Stephens supports following the rules of on-leash areas, but defends the few areas that are off-leash, noting that dog owners always need to ensure their dogs respond to voice commands when off leash and that all dog owners should be aware of their dogs at all times.
Camilla H. Fox, executive director of Project Coyote in Larkspur, offers programs throughout the Bay Area to educate the public on practical steps to ensure safe coyote and human co-existence.
“This is so much about risk perception,” she says. “We are understandably scared of predators, but the chance of being harmed by a coyote is so slim. It’s really about empowering ourselves with facts.”
Some of those facts: Coyotes have been found carrying rabies only rarely, and that was in southern parts of Texas. And coyotes are certainly not sick or rabid if they are out in the middle of the day. Also, a coyote on top of a hill watching a hiker is not stalking a person, only observing someone or something in its area.
“San Francisco is named after the patron saint of animals, so it makes it so appropriate that the city has adopted coexistence as its ethos,” Fox says. “If we can shift our view on coyotes, we can shift the view on all nature. It’s why the coyote is the flagship species of our organization.”
For the record, coyotes have, indeed, killed dogs in San Francisco. In June, a shih tzu named Bella was snatched off the front steps of her owners’ house in Balboa Terrace. And a coyote even needed an escort from the roof of a one-story commercial building in SoMa as recently as last week.
“You lock your house at night. You put your seatbelt on in the car,” Campbell says. “This is a change in our environment to keep everything safe. It can be done. We don’t want people to have the heartache of losing a pet.”
The coyote, by all scientific measures, only wants a safe place to raise young, find enough food, and be mostly left alone. That’s why feeding a coyote is always a terrible idea, and occasional “hazing” — or making yourself bigger and being loud when you are near coyotes who do not back away — may be necessary to keep coyotes distrustful of humans.
The strongest case for coyotes may be that it’s an opportunity to show we’re still capable of adaptation, even empathy. If the forecasts for global warming and a rapidly changing Earth are correct, the capacity to adapt and empathize might come in handy in our unpredictable future.