On Tuesday, October 27, two coyotes mauled 19-year-old Taylor Mitchell on a hiking trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, Canada. Although Mitchell was hiking alone when the daylight attack occurred, two nearby hikers heard the commotion and called 911. Officers responded in time to shoot one of the coyotes. Airlifted to a Halifax hospital, Mitchell died of her injuries the next day.
Mitchell, a 2009 Canadian Folk Music Award nominee, leaves behind grieving family and fans, a shocked wildlife community, and a public wondering whether coyotes are animals to fear.
The consensus among wildlife professionals is that a fatal coyote attack on a human is a freak occurrence. “If I had to guess what animal would be responsible for a fatal attack in eastern Canada I would have guessed black bear, never coyote,” says Mike O’Brien, the Nova Scotia DNR’s Manager of Wildlife Resources. O’Brien says coyotes first appeared in Nova Scotia in the 1970s, and there have been very few attacks on humans since that time. Incidentally, eastern Canada’s coyotes are significantly larger than their western relatives, often weighing well over 40 pounds, perhaps due to interbreeding with wolves.
“It’s very abnormal,” says Ron Andrews, Iowa DNR Fur Resource Specialist. “It’s as rare as you can get. Normally coyotes avoid close contact with humans. They usually turn tail and run.”
While the United States averages over 20 fatal dog attacks a year, there has only been one fatal coyote attack ever recorded in the U.S.: in 1981 a coyote killed a three-year old girl in California. However, as coyotes and humans continue to invade one another’s habitats, conflicts become inevitable.
Mitchell’s death will remain a horrific aberration, but more human-coyote encounters take place every year. Suburban sprawl creates coyote habitat, especially in dry southern California, where irrigated lawns boost rabbit and rodent populations while bird baths and swimming pools provide sources of water. In addition, humans leave food in the garbage, pets in the yard (suburban coyotes provide the ecological benefit of preying on feral and free-roaming pet cats that feed on songbirds), and, in some cases, people intentionally feed coyotes. So good is life in town that suburban coyotes live longer than “wild”coyotes.
Coyotes are almost never hunted and are rarely harassed in the suburbs. Consequently they know little fear of humans. As coyotes make themselves at home in suburbia, incidences of coyotes biting people increase. In the nine years from 1988 to 1997 there were 41 coyote attacks reported in California. The frequency of attacks rose to 48 in five years from 1998 to 2003. In nearly every case, there was food, a small child or pets present, all of which can be seen as a meal by an opportunistic coyote. In some instances coyotes attacked adults who were running or bicycling, which coyotes may interpret as flight behavior. Almost every attack recorded in the United States has taken place in suburbia, with most occurring between May and August, a time when coyotes need to feed their young.
Cape Breton Highlands Park
At first glance, the attack on Taylor Mitchell in a 367 square mile national park doesn’t fit the pattern of the usual suburban coyote attack, yet it’s an exception that proves the rule. Cape Breton Highlands is a very popular park, attracting large numbers of leaf-viewers in October. There’s a well-used campground near at the head of the Skyline Trail where Mitchell was killed. Coyotes frequent the area, having long ago learned to scavenge around the campsites. There is no hunting or trapping allowed in the park; coyotes associate humans only with food, not danger. Six years ago a healthy adult coyote bit a teenage girl on the same trail where Mitchell was mauled. A cross country skier in the park last winter fended off a pursuing coyote with a ski pole. Like suburban coyotes, coyotes in the park have adapted to life close to people and occasionally they approach curiously or aggressively.
Your chances of being attacked by a coyote if you’re out hunting or fishing are virtually non-existent. Wild coyotes retain their fear of man. “If you make your presence known, show them you are the boss and in control, they won’t tangle with you,” says Andrews. “The worst thing to do is run away. That can stimulate an attack.”
It’s much more likely you will come into conflict with coyotes around your home. If you’re worried about coyotes, keep pets inside; reduce the amount of food (garbage, pet food, bird seed, fruit) around the house; prune and thin heavy cover. Consider building a fence, although be aware that a coyote can climb almost anything under six feet tall. Haze coyotes — act in a threatening manner towards any you see, yelling, waving your arms, throwing rocks or shooting paintballs.
Many communities have responded to growing coyote populations with both lethal and non-lethal measures. The city of Denver has an organized hazing program in which both parks and recreation personnel and volunteers are trained to aggressively confront any coyote they see. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado and non-lethal control advocate cautions: “Hazing works, but only if people stop feeding coyotes intentionally or unintentionally. The positive reinforcement of food overrides negative reinforcement of hazing. Coyotes are persistent.”
Dr. Robert Timm a University of California Wildlife Extension Specialist is the creator of CoyoteBytes.org, a website dedicated to urban coyote management. He believes hazing can be effective in the early stages of a coyote problem. Once coyotes begin taking pets, Timm says lethal controls are more effective. According to Timm, trapping, rather than shooting, quickly re-instills wariness of people in coyotes. Timm further believes it’s only necessary to take a few animals from an area, not try to wipe out an entire population.
The death of Taylor Mitchell, although a singular, tragic event, nevertheless stands as a warning: we need to find ways to deal with coyotes living close by, because they aren’t going anywhere. “They’re very adaptable animals,” says Andrews. “Long after humans are gone, cockroaches, crows and coyotes will still be here.” — Phil Bourjaily