Coyotes are recent transplants to modern-day San Francisco. The local population was eradicated during the Gold Rush days, but coyotes managed to reappear here in the early 2000s. DNA and tracking technology suggest they got here merely by trotting across the Golden Gate Bridge.
These days, the story of San Francisco coyotes is mostly told by viral social media posts. Regular folks’ videos of local coyotes playing with tennis balls, kissing and licking each other, or frolicking as adorable pups have fueled a cult of coyote fandom. Some coyotes have been issued nicknames like “Bernal Coyote,” while others have Facebook groups established in their honor.
The last month has produced an increase in coyote sightings at the canines’ regular haunts like Bernal Heights, Coit Tower, and Buena Vista Park. San Francisco Animal Care and Control spokesperson Deb Campbell tells SF Weekly that it’s normal to see more coyotes this time of year, and they pose little risk as long as you enjoy them from a distance.
“Many of them are pups born last spring, and are still dispersing and looking for their own territory,” Campbell tells us. “We’re also in mating season, so they may be looking for a partner.”
Social media posts create the impression there are legions of coyote packs in San Francisco, but many of these pictures and videos are of the same coyotes over and over again. Experts estimate there are only a few dozen coyotes in town, probably numbering between 50 and 100.
“The San Francisco population has remained pretty stable,” says Campbell. “Even though we have mating pairs that have pups, they also face many urban dangers that keep the population from increasing dramatically. We pick up a lot of coyotes that have been killed by cars.”
Urban coyotes are turning up in cities across America; they’ve even been spotted recently in New York. Cities offer ample rodent populations to snack upon, and fewer predators than they encounter in the wild.
“They are acclimated to city life,” Campbell explains. “They get used to the sights and sounds of humans and lose their natural fear. They’re just used to us.”
Coyotes are far more defensive during spring and summer months, when they’re protecting their dens and newborn coyote pups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did shoot and kill two Golden Gate Park coyotes in 2007 after they attacked a dog. That said, these incidents are pretty rare, and often not the work of coyotes. A 2017 dog attack was blamed on a coyote, but an Animal Care and Control investigation showed raccoons were the guilty party.
But pet-owner paranoia persists, personified in a viral Twitter photo of an unfortunate chihuahua mix dressed in a Coyote Vest. Coyote Vests deck out your doggo in neon Kevlar and conspicuous spikes, but there is no evidence that they actually deter coyote attacks.
“We don’t have any info on the success of the vest,” Campbell says. “The best thing to do is keep dogs on leash in areas that coyotes frequent. If you see a coyote, and you have a small dog, pick it up and walk away. And never, ever let your dog chase, play with, or interact with coyotes in any way.”
It’s tempting for city slickers like us to think of the coyotes we see on urban streets as “lost.” They’re not. They know the city better than most of us, and radio tracking collars tell us that adult coyotes commonly traipse across several Bay Area counties.
“They know where they’re going and aren’t lost,” she insists. “They can cover a lot of ground in a 24-hour period. They often are visiting known food or water sources.”
Animal Care and Control stresses that we should never feed coyotes, because it alters their natural behavior. Coyotes are magnificent at adapting to circumstances, and even base the size of their litters on the resources available near their den.
Coyotes are coming back to urban areas because they’re so savvy at adapting to new environments. Pet owners might want to see them eradicated from San Francisco, but the changes they’ve made to adjust to the global warming era indicate that coyotes might manage to survive longer than us.