Who's afraid of the big bad coyote? Not many of us. But we should be. For our sake and theirs.
It was getting late in the season when Taylor Mitchell decided to go for a hike in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Highlands National Park last October 27. But the 19-year-old musician was determined to explore some classic East Coast wilderness. Two nights earlier, when she'd played a concert in Lucasville, near Halifax, she'd mentioned to the host how happy she was to have two days off to do some hiking.
Perhaps the songwriter in Mitchell thought a trip to the highlands would provide some musical inspiration. The Torontonian had released her debut album last spring, and, as she excitedly told the crowd in Lucasville, she had just been nominated as Canadian folk music's Young Performer of the Year.
Mitchell chose the Skyline Trail, a 9.2-kilometre route that starts at the Cabot Trail and leads to a dramatic viewpoint over the Gulf of St. Lawrence before returning to the road. She was hiking alone, and—it being a Tuesday—there were few other people on the trail.
That night Mitchell would be heading to Sydney, where she had a concert scheduled for the next day, but she was apparently not in any rush. On her way back to her car, she was overtaken on the trail by a pair of middle-aged hikers from the United States.
Not long afterwards, shortly past 3 p.m., the Americans were about 800 metres from the trailhead when two coyotes trotted down the path toward them. To the surprise of the two Americans, the coyotes didn't shy away but walked boldy past them as the hikers stepped to the side of the three-metre-wide trail. The hikers snapped a few pictures of the animals as they passed before resuming their hike.
A few minutes later, the two Americans heard the first screams.
Aware that there was a phone at the trailhead, they hurried out to the end of the trail to call 911. On their way they passed an incoming group of four hikers, from Europe and Australia, who ran in to investigate.
When the four hikers were almost a kilometre in, they passed some keys and a small knife on the trail. A little farther along, almost 20 minutes after the screams had started, they came to a clearing where a toilet building stood. There they found Taylor Mitchell on the ground, being attacked by two coyotes. (Apparently Mitchell had first attempted to defend herself with her keys and knife and had then retreated to this spot, hoping to get into the building.)
Shouting and hurling rocks, the four hikers scared the coyotes away from Mitchell, but the animals, probably sensing how close they had come to their objective, wouldn't leave the scene. They were highly agitated, and the larger of the two—a 42-pound male—continued to circle the group, growling.
Mitchell was in bad shape, barely conscious, lying just a few feet away from the unlocked building where she had sought refuge. When RCMP constable Pierre Rompré drove into the clearing five minutes later, he thought she was already dead.
"Her wounds were very, very serious," said Rompré.
It took a round of buckshot to convince the larger coyote to slink into the woods, and Mitchell was bundled into an ambulance and eventually airlifted to Halifax.
She died of blood loss early the next morning with her mother at her side.
For Mitchell's family, friends and musical community, the challenge of understanding her death would be enormous, but they weren't the only ones at a loss. As headline writers across the continent tried to marry some unfamiliar words—fatal, coyote, mauling—most people who spend time outdoors found it hard to believe that coyotes had actually killed a human.
There's one group of individuals, though, who were less inclined toward total disbelief: wildlife biologists. Their expert opinions didn't figure in many of the news stories that week—possibly because they weren't inclined to try to sum up the issue of whether coyotes were dangerous to humans in daily-news-sized pieces. But if they'd had the chance, they would have explained that the tale of the coyote's relationship to man is a tricky narrative, and it's one that is still being written.
Coyotes evolved on North America’s western plains in competition with larger, more powerful predators. Their running speed of up to 65 kilometres an hour, keen sense of smell, superior hearing and legendary intelligence allowed them to occupy a niche preying on smaller animals that wouldn’t sustain their wolf cousins. Coyotes are similar in appearance to wolves, but they are smaller, their snouts are sharper, their paw prints more elongated and, most tellingly to those wishing to differentiate them in the field, they tend to hold their tails pointing down while they run. Also, their yippy and nasally derived calls are not as pleasing as a wolf’s deep-throated howl.
The coyote’s success as a species is remarkable. As humans have cleared forests across the country, coyotes have been able to settle in fringe areas that would be too close to people for wolves to inhabit. Coyotes also breed earlier and more rapidly than wolves and are without a rigid social structure, allowing them more reproductive flexibility. Which explains why, despite being subject to open hunting seasons and bounties in various parts of the country for more than a hundred years, they have continued to thrive.
It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that the coyote became an official part of the eastern Canadian landscape. The first coyote crossed over from the United States into southern Ontario in 1919. Its descendants moved on into Quebec in the 1940s, down into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the 1970s and across the ice to P.E.I. and Newfoundland in the late 1980s. With their eastward expansion, coyotes have become one of the most widely distributed mammal species on the continent. But they’ve also become a slightly different animal.
While coyotes are quite dissimilar genetically from the grey wolves of western and northern Canada, there’s no such genetic gap between coyotes and the eastern (red) wolf. So when coyotes started pushing into southern Ontario from Michigan less than 100 years ago, female coyotes were able to mate with the eastern wolves.
As coyotes moved through Ontario and Quebec, they picked up significant amounts of wolf genes, with the result that eastern coyotes are markedly bigger than their western counterparts. Compared to pure western coyotes, the eastern hybrids average five to 16 pounds heavier (up to 46 pounds) and they have larger skulls as well. They also have bigger territories, and show a greater tendency to prey on larger ungulates such as deer. In short, they are more wolf-like, which makes them more capable predators.
Valerius Geist thinks it’s essential that no one forget that coyotes are predators.
Geist, a zoologist and professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, says that for most of the time since Europeans first spread across North America, the continent’s predators have been greeted with aggressive harassment, at best, which influenced the way bears, wolves, cougars and coyotes related to humans. But he says that thanks to a widespread cultural shift toward environmentalism and an embracing of nature’s rougher edges, our interactions with predators over the last 30 years or so has taught them that we aren’t scary at all. According to Geist, individual animals learn very quickly if something is or isn’t a threat to them.
“I worked for years in wilderness areas, with never the slightest bear problems,” says Geist. “But as soon as I went to a national park, I got treed, my students got treed, we had our camp ripped apart—all by bears who had learned that humans were timid and no threat.”
Geist says the ways in which animals become habituated to humans vary, but it only takes a few cases of people treating dangerous animals like either photo opportunities or hungry charity cases for some animals to lose their fear and let impulses such as hunger overtake their natural and wild-born instinct to avoid us. Geist thinks this problem is most acute in our national parks, which tend to draw nature-lovers. But he says it’s also evident wherever Canadians are encountering coyotes. Whereas we used to scare these animals, they now come to know us as, in Geist’s words, “starry-eyed wonders who don’t believe that coyotes could harm human beings.”
A case in point might be the coyote that snatched a chihuahua from a backyard in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto last February. Only non-lethal means were attempted (unsuccesfully) to deal with it because, as the city explained, a coyote that was eating primarily squirrels did not constitute a public safety hazard. And after all, if coyotes are in such close quarters to so many people—including small children—how could anyone think they posed a significant threat to humans?
Brent Patterson, a research scientist for Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, has studied coyotes in Southern Ontario and on Cape Breton Island. He also sees coyote fearlessness toward humans as an increasing problem, for the coyotes as much as for us.
“It’s tempting to have this romantic view that we can be kin to these predators, but we’ll all get along better if we keep these animals fearful of us,” says Patterson.
Otherwise, we may end up with people demanding a return to mass and indiscriminate killings of coyote populations, as happened recently in Osgoode, on the southern outskirts of Ottawa. A few weeks after the attack in Cape Breton, a coyote lunged at 16-year-old Joey Schulz while he was picking apples in an orchard. The encounter spurred city councillor Doug Thompson to call for a widespread cull, and the Osgoode Township Fish, Game and Conservation Club launched the Great Coyote Cull Contest, in which successful hunters were to bring in proof of a dead coyote to enter a draw for a new shotgun.
The fatal attack on Taylor Mitchell was only the second documented human death attributed to coyotes. (In 1981, a coyote killed a three-year-old girl in Glendale, California.) And though it’s true that the vast majority of coyotes remain fearful of humans and pose no threat to human safety, the number of attacks is growing markedly.
According to researchers Lynsey White and Stanley Gehrt from Ohio State University, coyotes bit 159 North Americans between 1960 and 2006, and the frequency of these encounters has been increasing steadily since 1985. Shelley Alexander and Michael Quinn from the University of Calgary report that from the 1970s to today, there have been 17 attacks in Alberta, 12 in B.C., 10 in Ontario, three in Nova Scotia and one in Saskatchewan, with adults accounting for more than half of those who suffered injuries. A Parks Canada database shows more than 60 “unacceptable encounters” since 2003 in seven national parks in Alberta, B.C., Nova Scotia and Manitoba.
Robert Timm, a wildlife specialist at the University of California, suggests that to maintain a healthy relationship with coyotes as a species we need to be able to recognize problems before individual animals lose their fear of humans. Timm and his colleague Rex Baker have developed a seven-point scale to measure a coyote’s transition from being naturally fearful toward humans to being a safety threat. The progression starts with increases in nighttime sightings of coyotes, then nighttime approaches by coyotes, then daytime sightings, then daytime attacks on unleashed pets, and then instances of coyotes following people. The progression continues with coyotes hanging around children’s areas during the day, which leads, finally, to coyotes acting aggressively toward adults during the day. Timm says this progression will likely occur with all habituated coyotes if they do not receive any negative consequences as a result of being near humans (hazing measures include shouting, pepper spray and rubber bullets).
Valerius Geist, who has identified a similar pattern in deteriorating wolf-human relationships, explains that a predator that is considering taking on a new prey species usually follows a drawn-out process of learning through careful observation and timid exploratory attacks.
“The first indication of a coyote targeting humans as alternative prey is that the coyote is interested in and watching people,” says Geist. “In the next weeks or months, these coyotes will come closer and closer to humans.”
If Geist and Timm are right, it would seem the attack on Taylor Mitchell did not happen out of the blue, but was the culmination of a prolonged process of coyote habituation to humans. The Skyline Trail, after all, is the park’s busiest, seeing 25,000 hikers a year. So, were coyotes watching visitors to Cape Breton Highlands National Park?
Derek Quann, a park manager, says that Cape Breton Highlands’ history of coyote encounters started only about 10 years ago. He notes the park has responded to reports of “unacceptable” coyote behaviour on an annual basis since then, sometimes up to five a year. Park staff were forced to destroy three animals prior to last year, but Quann stresses the Skyline Trail area was not a trouble spot before the attack.
“People have reported being followed in the park,” Quann confirms. “The fatality was an extreme extension of existing behaviour. In a national park the tendency has been to give the animals what we consider a fair shake. We may have been too tolerant. We didn’t see these animals as the threat they can be.”
The park responded to the attack on Mitchell swiftly, shooting a female coyote that returned to the scene shortly afterwards. A necropsy confirmed that the animal had been involved in the attack. Four other animals were caught in leg traps and shot within a kilometre of the site over the next few days and on November 4, five kilometres away, a large male was trapped and shot. Shotgun pellets found in the animal confirmed this was the coyote wounded by RCMP constable Rompré at the scene. Perhaps to the dismay of some looking for tidy answers, the necropsy table revealed that both the female and male were healthy, not driven to attack by rabies or hunger.
The investigation also raised a new question. While the photographs of the two coyotes taken by the American hikers showed that one of them had distinctive markings, neither the female killed the day of the attack nor the male killed on November 4 had similar markings. Is it possible Mitchell was being stalked by a lone coyote and that when the two approaching coyotes came on to the scene the three set upon her, with the distinctively marked animal fleeing as the four hikers arrived? It’s likely nobody will ever know.
Meanwhile, in mid-November, a couple walking on the Cabot Trail just seven kilometres from the Skyline Trail was being followed by a coyote so closely that one hiker hit it on the head with his walking stick.
In early December, a folk music club in Toronto held a tribute evening for Taylor Mitchell. In the front row sat Gordon Lightfoot, while in the back row members of the Skydiggers roots rock band chatted with acclaimed singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge.
Rutledge had contributed to Taylor Mitchell’s first album, and remembers being impressed with the maturity of the woman who died so young.
“She wrote beyond her years,” says Rutledge. “She didn’t provide answers, as so many of her age try to do. There was no preciousness about her. Instead she asked questions.”
In her death, Mitchell has posed yet more questions. And back in Cape Breton, Derek Quann has spent the winter asking some of his own.
“We need to find out how coyotes learn, how they pass on knowledge, what role people can play. And what tipped the balance in this case,” says Quann. “After all, coyote sightings are common in the park.”
Perhaps too common. He may have just stumbled upon the first answer.
When coyotes turn ugly
Brent Patterson, a research scientist for Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources, says that anytime you see a coyote, it should be at a distance, and preferably showing you its tail. If you are confronted by an unusually bold coyote, you should pose as a formidable opponent by making noise and acting assertive. Give the coyote space and retreat slowly if you can, but don't turn your back, run or do anything to trigger the animal's chase reflex.
Patterson encourages hikers to report fearless or curious coyotes to the appropriate authorities, saying that reinvigorating a coyote's fear of people can be simple, if done early.
He suggests dog owners keep pets on a leash, even if the dog is bigger than a coyote. Admitting he ignored his own advice with his retriever, he recalls watching his dog chase a smaller coyote into some brush near Peterborough, Ontario, only to have both animals charge out in reverse order shortly afterward, with a puncture wound in his dog's shoulder.