November 02, 2009
Why biologists are baffled when coyotes kill people

You may have heard by now of the tragic death of Canadian singer-songwriter Taylor Mitchell last week, killed by coyotes while solo hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. As is typical after these types of incidents, wildlife biologists and public land managers are scrambling to find any reason why the animals attacked other than the obvious one -- that they were hungry and looking for food. In this typical article, the Chronicle Herald authors quote Jon Way, said to have studied coyotes for 12 years, and who runs Eastern Coyote Research in Massachusetts:

"I don't think they regard people, even kids, as an opportunity for a food source, so this is certainly an abnormal attack," Mr. Way said. "They certainly are not like (big) cats that regard people as food, they just don't do that."
I am always baffled at biologists who are baffled when larger predators attack and even kill people. Mr. Way ought to know that at least one child has been killed by a coyote, and there have been numerous non-fatal attacks by coyotes on children as well as adults (including an attack on two boys right here in Bellevue in 2006).

Eastern Coyote - Photo by Steve Byland

Photo by Steve Byland

One of the reasons I started BEARS and Other Top Predators magazine 11 years ago was that I didn't trust the information about animal attacks that I was getting from people who should know better -- from public land managers and publicly funded wildlife biologists. For example, when we first started the magazine, many park rangers and even wildlife PhDs told us that there has never been a documented fatal killing of a human by a wolf. It was repeated like a mantra. This didn't ring true, especially since it is common knowledge that dogs sometimes kill humans. As it turned out, there are numerous documented cases of wolves preying on humans, including some in North America in the last two decades.

Why would someone who has responsibility for public safety ignore evidence that may help people be safer? No question there is a a preservationist motive involved. They don't want people to destroy either individual animals or the species. But I share the preservationist ethic and I still want to know what the real risk is when I go into the backcountry.

I think there is more at work here. I think there is a tendency with some people, more prevalent on the left side of the political spectrum, to be wishful about the world, to minimize or ignore evidence that it is hasher out there than we would like, whether it be about dangerous animals (as in this case), dangerous humans (e.g., ignoring the efficacy of concealed carry laws) or dangerous regimes (e.g., holding fruitless talks while Iran builds nuclear weapon capability).

More by Carter Mackley on this and other animal attacks at FindingWilderness.com.

Posted by Carter Mackley at November 02, 2009 12:29 PM | Email This
Comments
1. Wow, what a horrific way to go out. I'd never heard of coyote's attacking humans, let alone only 2 of them. I think this serves as a reminder that you should be prepared for anything in the wilderness and that there's always safety in numbers.

Posted by: Rick D. on November 2, 2009 12:56 PM
2. This kind of thinking about coyotes is a collision of the gaia concept of the earth and, frankly, a sort of naive concept of specism (for lack of a better term) that a furry dog-like creature wouldn't possibly want to kill a human. Particularly a environment loving, liberal who writes folk music. The truth is that most wild animals are opportunistic killers, and if they are hungry or protecting young, will be particularly aggressive.

I've had raccoons aggressively challenge me in my back yard so the thought of a coyote doing the same isn't abstract to me.

The simple fact is that, today, when you hike alone you are putting yourself in danger. With bears and cougars now fearlessly found in Seattle parks (oh, and the two legged rats as well), people have to have a heads-up attitude when in even the near wilderness. The theory is that Ms. Mitchell turned herself into pray by running away. Wrong thing to do with coyotes. A hike isn't a walk down Rodeo Drive. Hike with a companion and (really) know what you are doing and think about what you would do.

It could save you life.

Posted by: G Jiggy on November 2, 2009 01:27 PM
3. Carter Mackley, 11/2/09: "there is a tendency with some people, more prevalent on the left side of the political spectrum, to be wishful about the world"

Dick Cheney, 3/16/03: "from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

Posted by: Bruce on November 2, 2009 01:35 PM
4. Having witnessed a Coyote "attack" myself, I'm puzzled as to why so-called professionals would have a hard time understanding the phenomena. The Coyote in question was inadvertently cornered and lashed out defensively, then ran off. This is very similar behavior to Deer and Rattlesnakes - both of which have been known to kill humans.

Posted by: Alphabet Soup on November 2, 2009 01:42 PM
5. The problem is they grew up watching too many disney movies.

Posted by: Vince on November 2, 2009 01:49 PM
6. Carter complains about lefties "ignoring the efficacy of concealed carry laws". What evidence (statistical, not anecdotal) of efficacy is the left ignoring?

He also complains about "holding fruitless talks while Iran builds nuclear weapon capability". Well, no one can defend anything fruitless. But sometimes talks with bad guys are fruitful, particularly when combined with incentives, sanctions, and other pressure. Or do you propose immediate military action against Iran and North Korea? Should we attack China, Cuba, Russia, and Pakistan while we're at it?

Posted by: Bruce on November 2, 2009 01:52 PM
7. Dick Cheney, 3/16/03: "from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

Touché. Although I don't think it is an example of the same phenomenon. Conservatives have their own blind spots, but it's different. Cheney's rosy worldview has more to do with a positive belief in human nature, and in that particualr case ignorance about Iraqi society.

Posted by: Carter Mackley on November 2, 2009 01:53 PM
8. I live in Maple Leaf.

Three weeks ago, in the early morning, my large german shepherd was lightly woofing at the back door, and my motion sensor yard lights had come on. I thought "intruder"?

So I followed him out the back door, and there immediately followed a racket like I've never heard. Barking, snarling, screeching, yowling and the clatter of little claws on the roof of a low shed.

A coon escape route over the shed prevented my dog from losing his nose.

It was the NE 100th Street Racoon Alley Gang.

I warned my neighbors to protect their pets, perhaps with pepper spray.

My immediate neighbor, turns out, welcomes coons into her back yard, and indicated that racoons were a more desirable member of the neighborhood than I or my dog.

She was particularly annoyed that I suggested coons were getting bolder.

I mentioned the recent incident of a woman being attacked by a pack of coons a month ago someplace back East. It was a mother coon and her coonlets.

City coons, city bears, city cougars, and city coyotes are not wildlife. They are urban scavengers.

Radio transmitter tracking on "wildlife" often indicates that these creatures are clustering around human incursions. Not because they are being crowded out, but rather because the city and the suburbs are where the "good eatin is".

Be it garbage, dog food, cat food or the "other" dog food and cat food. Throw in a human child or two for the best morsels.

Posted by: Bart Cannon on November 2, 2009 01:58 PM
9. "Carter complains about lefties "ignoring the efficacy of concealed carry laws". What evidence (statistical, not anecdotal) of efficacy is the left ignoring?"

Thanks for helping me make my point. There is tons of high-level statistical evidence on the subject. Start with Anything by John Lott. Here is a place to start. http://www.johnlott.org/ (Note his invitation to look at his raw data.)

Posted by: Carter Mackley on November 2, 2009 02:01 PM
10. Bart - your neighbor sounds like a freaking psychopath.

Posted by: Crusader on November 2, 2009 02:11 PM
11. Let's not forget that wildlife and it's protection is big money business and the general public will not put up with people being killed by them. But it isn't all that uncommon for a select few to use such species as a cash cow to further an agenda or even for worship. There are a lot of those types in land and wildlife management these days and when they retire, they usually go make huge salaries at envirnomental organizations and push the same agenda's even harder.

Posted by: Jane on November 2, 2009 02:13 PM
12. Carter,
Surely, you know that coyotes are the most persecuted animal in North America, even though they may be the most intelligent mammal in the woods. You also fail to mention their proximity to urban areas. When considering that, the number of coyote attacks IS remarkably low.

Wildlife biologists, who have studied coyotes for decades, defend the benefits these animals provide to the ecosystem, amid a multi-million dollar campaign by federal and state governments in the U.S. (using our tax dollars) to exterminate them. These biologists' efforts are courageous, not idealistic.

They fully understand that coyotes are wild predators and advocate keeping them at a distance by advising hikers and homeowners not to feed them. It remains to be seen if the coyote that killed Taylor Mitchell was habituated. Tourists were seen feeding coyotes in that park before.

You are right, in that we should respect predators for what they are. But don't criticize the scientists who have devoted their lives to studying them as less knowledgeable than you. By mixing politics with science, your motives become suspect.

Posted by: Bailey on November 2, 2009 02:52 PM
13. Baily,

My point is that I expect biologists to convey objective data regardless of their policy viewpoints on coyotes. As far as protecting coyotes, I am on the side of the biologists. If you don't believe me take a look at my magazine. Lastly, all policy arguments should rely on data, so you will often see me "mix science with politics".

Posted by: Carter Mackley on November 2, 2009 03:08 PM
14. Baily,

My point is that I expect biologists to convey objective data regardless of their policy viewpoints on coyotes. As far as protecting coyotes, I am on the side of the biologists. If you don't believe me take a look at my magazine. Lastly, all policy arguments should rely on data, so you will often see me "mix science with politics".

Posted by: Carter Mackley on November 2, 2009 03:08 PM
15. Print this article from kirotv and give it to your neighbor.

I recommend googling raccoon recipes. No need to let them go to waste.

Posted by: Vince on November 2, 2009 05:33 PM
16. Vince,

Thanks for the link, but the best I can hope for at this point is detente.

There are NO winners in a neighbor war.

Interestingly enough, the spat began the morning after I placed a Mallahan for Mayor yard sign up.

Note: opposite our lot line.

The next morning she had taped the Stranger's "Mallahan is an Idiot" front page article across our mailbox cluster.

Note: federal crime.

Wow. Mallahan's a democrat for god's sake, but not a Sierra Club Attorney. Her gods.

Seattle is NOT just a democrat town, it's now an extreme democrat town.

Posted by: Bart Cannon on November 3, 2009 12:40 AM
17. I agree that bioligists tend to downplay the dangers of wild animals. See Steve Irwin for a tragic example of that phenomenon.

However, this is no reason to go paranoid and kill every critter in sight. We should respect nature at all times, but also be allowed to defend ourselves when needed.

I believe this means allowing law abiding citizens to carry guns in National Parks, with the understanding that they only be used in self defense and not for hunting or any other purpose.

Posted by: Kato on November 3, 2009 01:15 AM
18. Bart: perhaps your neighbor should do a little reading about the parasite Baylisascaris procyonis that most raccoons are infected with. It can be passed on to humans, especially children, fairly easily if they are near a raccoon "latrine" or the runoff from same. You and your dog should be very careful.

Posted by: HT on November 3, 2009 07:59 AM
19. Thanks HT!

I'll be a "good neighbor" and warn her about this danger to her THREE cats.

Remember, each cat's "environmental footprint" is equal to that of a small volkswagen.

The result of my thoughtfullness will probably be that she will dump her yard waste into my back yard like she did in my front yard last week.

Posted by: Bart Cannon on November 3, 2009 11:41 AM
20. Bart,

If your neighbor is infringing on your property rights (by dumping yard waste into your yard, feeding the raccoons, or posting things to your mail box) you need to stand up for your rights and take the issue to a resolution. I suggest you contact your lawyer.

If you let this neighbor continue to do this to you and perhaps your other neighbors, you are doing worse than feeding raccoons---you are tolerating someone who doesn't respect the rights of others, which is the downfall of our society.

Posted by: Jonathan Gardner on November 3, 2009 12:35 PM
21. Bart, your neighbor is why I live in the Methow Valley. I can see my neighbors but I can't hear them. :-)

Posted by: Smeethow on November 3, 2009 03:58 PM
22.
Now Canadian radio stations won't be able to fulfill their mandatory 25% native born content requirement!

They'll have to breed another singer-songwriter and fast!

Posted by: Blue Swan on November 3, 2009 06:55 PM
23. Jonathon,

Thanks for your concern and your suggestion, but I can assure you that the LAST person you want to involve in a neighbor dispute is an attorney.

So far, all my neighbor has done is proven herself as a jerk.

I'm leaving the yard waste as a lasting tribute to her community spirit. It's a yard waste barrel's worth of ivy cuttings and roots.

We had an "invasive species" discussion. I indicated that I thought english ivy is a beautiful evergreen groundcover.

I'll have McGinn's Ivy Squad remove it to great fanfare here on the street.

Sweethow,

I love the Methow. I once had a private key to the North Cross State highway before it opened when I was doing my thesis work at Washington Pass.

I would move there in a moment if I knew for sure that my nearest neighbor wouldn't be an un-employed meth maker. Is my notion unfounded?


Posted by: Bart Cannon on November 4, 2009 04:27 AM
24. "Seattle is NOT just a democrat town, it's now an extreme democrat town."

Seattle is an insane asylum...

Posted by: Alphabet Soup on November 4, 2009 05:54 AM
25. Wait until the wolf populations grow. It is only a matter of time that some kid is snatched from a bus stop or walking around the block in the Methow or even in the states of Idaho, Montana or Wyoming.

The wolf which was introduced by the USFWS is not the same wolf which inhabited the region a century ago. It is a larger species.They broke all the rules regarding re-introduction of the wolves in the lower 48.

Anyway sad to hear about the young lady. Coyotes are aggressive and capable. People say they never kill. Ever been approached by coyotes? I have and they were very aggressive. I did not provoke them in the least.

Animal control - hunting - is one major answer. But this - animals are loving creatures by environmentalists is just over the top sometimes. It's time to heed the word of hunters who say cull the herd.

Posted by: J on November 4, 2009 08:55 AM
26. None of my neighbors are out of work or meth makers. Some are retired, I guess a lot of them are retired. Did you know that some of the wolves that were located in the widerness area have moved to Twisp? Just out side of town, cool as long as they arent hungry. But there are a lot of deer here. :-)

Posted by: Sweethow on November 4, 2009 04:40 PM
27. Sweethow,

I am very interested in the information about the wolves released into the Wilderness Area and their migration out.

Pasayten, I presume.

This supports my notion that humans are not PUSHING wildlife out of their original habitats, but rather drawing them in toward us with our succulent treats. Be it garbage or kitty cats.

Do you have some sources?

Posted by: Bart Cannon on November 4, 2009 07:02 PM
28. I read about the wolves in the Methow Valley News or the Wenatchee World, sorry I can't remember for sure. As my Dad used to say, " I've sleep since then". I do remember them talking to a couple Twisp residents that had been suprised to see wolves in their area. And the town folks were divided on whether to move them back where they started or leave them alone. Hope that helps.

Posted by: Sweethow on November 4, 2009 08:10 PM
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