COVER STORY

Backyard Beasts of Prey

One of Los Angeles’ urban coyotes passing by the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park.
STEVE WINTER
One of Los Angeles’ urban coyotes passing by the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park.
Coyotes, becoming increasingly tolerant of humans, are getting much bolder about venturing into cities and suburbs.

It’s unseasonably warm for a mid-October evening. The air is still, except for the occasional gust of wind. The only sound in Rio de Los Angeles State Park, aside from the faint din of nearby traffic, comes from a handful of men playing a pickup game on the basketball court. Beyond the park lies a set of abandoned railroad tracks and, beyond that, the concrete-lined Los Angeles River meanders toward a highway interchange near Dodger Stadium.

A homeless man moves in and out of the shadows as he rummages through a series of trash cans scattered along the edge of a grass lawn. A gray-haired coyote with splotches of orange-brown fur trails patiently just a few paces behind. “There’s no way he’d be following him,” says National Park Service researcher Justin Brown, watching from inside his SUV, “unless he was feeding him.”

Brown jots down a few notes, but this male coyote isn’t what he’s here for. Brown is looking for another of the coyotes that lives in this area, a female known as C-149. One of a growing number of coyotes making a home for themselves in the asphalt-coated cities and towns of North America, C-149 is a new sort of animal.

Utterly wild yet wholly comfortable in the big city, urban coyotes root around in our garbage, sniff out the fruits and vegetables growing in our yards and sometimes even take a run at our pets. Even though the mesopredators — the prefix “meso” means “medium,” referring to size — have been a feature of the Southern California landscape for tens of thousands of years, these animals are far more tolerant of human proximity than just about any other North American predator. They’re also more tolerant of people than their rural counterparts.

Stephi Matsushima, one of Brown’s interns, steps out of the car and lifts an antenna above her head. She dons a pair of headphones to listen for a signal broadcasting from the radio transmitter on C-149’s neck. The coyote, an adult female, was the sixth that Brown outfitted with a $2,000 collar since he took charge of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s (SAMO) coyote study in May 2015. She was lactating at the time, which means she had recently given birth to pups.

It isn’t long before Matsushima spots her walking alongside a large male, presumably her mate and the father of her pups. Brown records her visual appearance, writing that she seems healthy, has no visible injuries, and that the collar itself looks fine. While Brown can follow her nightly activities, thanks to a GPS transmitter affixed to her collar, this is the first time he’s laid eyes on her in more than half a year.

The coyote, known formally as Canis latrans, is one of the most adaptive mammals in North America. It eats both plants and animals, lives alone or in groups, and is active during the day or night. This is the only carnivore that has managed to double its range in North America since European colonization, even while suffering from intense human persecution and hunting pressure.

And now they’re invading our cities.

CANIDS IN THE CITY

Coyotes have been in the Los Angeles area since at least 45,000 years ago, and perhaps even earlier, according to studies of the 22,500 coyote bones excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits. They never really left the City of Angels, even though their numbers surely diminished. Other cities, including San Francisco, did a better job of becoming inhospitable to the predators, especially in the early part of the 20th century as urbanization swept through North America.

The last coyote that lived in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park died in the late 1920s. With that, the species was completely extirpated from San Francisco, a sort of localized extinction. From time to time, coyotes would wander into the city from outlying rural areas, but they never got a chance to re-establish themselves. They never set up permanent territories, they never bred. “If and when a coyote was spotted, which was a rare thing, they would go out and they would shoot it. And that was it,” says Jonathan Young, an ecologist with the Presidio Trust in San Francisco. He’s heard stories from longtime residents who remember the San Francisco Police Department quickly dispatching any coyote that did turn up as late as the mid-20th century.

In 2003, another coyote wandered into the city. The San Francisco it found was a different, more accepting place than its ancestors would have encountered 50 years earlier. Researchers conducting a mammal survey in the Presidio had set up humane traps for raccoons, foxes and skunks, so when the coyote turned up in the sprawling park on the northern tip of the peninsula, it was quite a surprise. The scientists took biological samples and sent the coyote on its way.

Genetic information revealed that the coyote was closely related to those living on the opposite end of the Golden Gate Bridge. That means that this animal — the first one to successfully make a home in San Francisco in nearly a century — survived the nearly two-mile journey over America’s most iconic suspension bridge.

Nobody really knows exactly how many coyotes have since taken up residence within San Francisco’s city limits. They live in the Presidio and in Golden Gate Park, in Glen Canyon, Bernal Heights and Lake Merced. There’s a small family living in a park near Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Coyotes don’t need much to make a living in the big city. Any open space that has enough hiding places, like shrubbery under which to protect a small den, would be sufficient.

The main conflict in cities is between coyotes and pets. San Franciscans love walking their dogs in parks like the Presidio, and when coyotes have recently given birth, they work hard to defend their dens if they think other canids, like Fido, are getting too close for comfort. In some ways, Young says, his job is more about managing human behavior than coyote behavior. By encouraging dog walkers to avoid trails near den sites, everyone benefits. Still, analysis of urban coyote scat indicates that their diet includes the occasional cat or dog.

Factoring in the specifics of coyote social dynamics and potential habitats, Young’s back-of-the-envelope math estimates that San Francisco could realistically be home to perhaps 50 coyotes at any one time, scattered among perhaps 12 spots within the city’s 47 square miles. That number would naturally fluctuate as individuals are born and then die; of five one-year-old pups that Young collared in 2016, only one is still alive. The rest met their ends under the tires of a car.

Indeed, as attitudes toward wildlife have improved, the main threats to coyotes in developed areas have become vehicular. Between 1996 and 2004, Brown’s predecessors at SAMO tracked 131 coyotes in the Los Angeles area. The primary cause of death was becoming roadkill; the second was rat poison. Many coyotes have found ways to reduce the chances of getting hit by a speeding car: They take to the night, when most humans are off the streets. Some have even learned to look both ways before crossing the street. It’s no wonder that so many Native American folktales depict the coyote as a clever trickster.

A dog and a coyote encounter each other in San Francisco. JAYMI HEIMBUCH/MINDEN PICTURES

A dog and a coyote encounter each other in San Francisco.

HUMAN PREY

Coyotes have become more and more prevalent in urban and suburban areas throughout the United States in recent decades. Chicago and its suburbs, for instance, are home to as many as 2,000 coyotes, according to Ohio State University wildlife ecologist Stan Gehrt. The area is also home to one of the longest-running studies of the urban coyote phenomenon. In the 17 years Gehrt has been monitoring the coyotes in Illinois’ Cook County, his team has captured and tagged more than 1,100 of them.

Once upon a time, Chicago was outside the coyotes’ natural range. But as humans killed off vast populations of larger predators, like wolves and bears, coyotes were able to expand their North American footprint. Relieved of the necessity to compete with larger predators over access to prey, coyotes were free to become the most successful non-human predators on the landscape.

Still, in all the years he’s been working there, Gehrt has not heard of a single instance in which a Chicago coyote has bitten a human. That stands in stark contrast to California’s urban centers.

Over the summer of 2015, 13 bites were recorded within L.A.’s Elysian Park alone. “We had bites in Montebello, Pico, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Diamond Bar, Los Angeles, Commerce and Pomona,” says Niamh Quinn, human-wildlife adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Southern California also boasts the uncomfortable record of being home to the only known fatal coyote attack on a human in the United States: In 1981, a coyote killed a 3-year-old Glendale resident named Kelly Keen.

According to a 2017 analysis of 367 recorded attacks on humans by coyotes between 1977 and 2015 in the United States, nearly half occurred in California — though the Golden State is not the only one dealing with this newly emerging threat.

In the summer of 2011, Broomfield, Colo., a suburb of Denver, saw three separate coyote attacks on children, all of whom escaped with minor injuries. “It was really dramatic, in the sense that this coyote was just sitting next to trails and as a little kid would walk by, [it] would run out and bite him,” says Stewart Breck, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo. “Coyotes had been in the Denver metro area for a couple decades, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that there were people reporting conflicts,” he says. That’s about when he began to study them.

Breck’s aim was twofold. First, he wanted to identify strategies for reducing the incidence of coyote aggression, especially by non-lethal means, since those would generally be better accepted by wildlife advocates. He also wanted to understand whether urban coyotes were bolder than their country counterparts: a perfect recipe for problematic interactions.

COUNTERING COYOTES

Now that the coyotes are among us, what can be done to drive them away? Non-lethal strategies for eradicating unwanted coyote behavior typically involve “hazing.” In other words, the best way to chase off coyotes, it turns out, is to scare them: Act tough, scream and shout, throw rocks. But folks who fear coyotes generally seem unable to implement those strategies when adrenaline takes over, and even people who enjoy seeing coyotes might find it difficult to square their love of animals with the idea that the best way to protect them is to terrify them.

Unfortunately, hazing itself does not wind up being all that useful when implemented as a response to a coyote that is already becoming aggressive. “Based on what I’ve seen people willing and able to do with hazing, and how I’ve seen animals respond to that, these non-lethal tools are not going to work,” Breck says. “Once you get a problem individual acting aggressively toward people, it’s too late.” The only chance for hazing to work is by applying it proactively, toward all coyotes in an area.

Some cities and towns have resorted to culls, or mass killings, in a generally unsuccessful effort to reduce the chances of negative coyote-human encounters. The goal of a cull ostensibly is to reduce the size of an entire coyote population, but it often ends up doing the reverse. As families are haphazardly torn apart, coyotes establish new mating pairs. With plenty of newly available, undefended territories, they quickly breed and fill those territories with even more coyotes.

Lethal removal, on the other hand, is a targeted strike at a particular animal. The goal isn’t population reduction but behavior modification, says Quinn, who considers this more an issue of public health than one of animal welfare. The problematic coyote is removed, and another coyote inevitably takes its place, but “the hope is that the [new] coyote behaves how we expect wild animals to behave, afraid of people,” she explains. Gehrt claims the reason Chicago hasn’t experienced bites the way LA and Denver have is that it has an aggressive, highly effective lethal-removal program.

Increasingly brazen and unafraid of human contact, a pair of coyotes walk down a street in Los Angeles. STUART PALLEY/NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Increasingly brazen and unafraid of human contact, a pair of coyotes walk down a street in Los Angeles.

ON THE PROWL

Back in Los Angeles, Brown’s team has spent most of the night tracking C-149 and her mate. Using the river as a transit corridor, the duo darts in and out of neighborhoods, poking around yards and trash cans in search of a meal.

As the coyotes saunter down streets and sidewalks seemingly without a care in the world, it’s hard not to wonder about Breck’s questions: Are urban coyotes losing their fear of people? Are they bolder than their countryside cousins?

“People are not hunting them, they’re not trapping them. I think that allows a push toward a bolder individual,” Breck says.

If the modern urban environment favors a bolder coyote, then cities could be breeding a new, less fearful sort as bold coyotes breed with each other and produce equally bold offspring. It’s a pattern that some researchers have even compared to the earliest stages of dog domestication, when some wolves began to scavenge the garbage dumps of ancient human settlements. To begin addressing that question, Gehrt is now working on linking genetic patterns with the Chicago coyotes’ personality profiles. While the research is still in early stages, he’s seen some encouraging results.

About two hours before sunrise, C-149 finally returns to the park. She and her mate will remain in their den, safely snoozing with their sons and daughters, as the park once again fills with ballplayers and picnickers. Most will remain blissfully unaware that they’re playing and snacking so close to North America’s most successful carnivore. But when the sun goes down, the coyotes will sniff out the parkgoers’ carelessly discarded chip bags and slowly spoiling leftover lunch meat.

The modern urban coyote phenomenon “is one huge natural experiment that is still ongoing right now,” Gehrt says. Superficially, the experiment asks whether humans and coyotes can ever find a way to safely coexist — whether we can keep our limbs out of their jaws, whether they can keep out of trouble. The experience in Chicago offers proof both that we can and that they can. But the urban coyote also forces us to decide whether we see ourselves as a part of nature or as utterly divorced from it.

As the coyotes gobble up their anthropogenic hors d’oeuvres in preparation for another night prowling the sleepy suburbs of northeast Los Angeles, they serve as a reminder that big cities are not somehow superimposed onto an underlying landscape. Cities are ecosystems unto themselves, places where the forces of nature drive wild animals toward new means of survival. The wild insists upon invading our spaces, so the only question is whether we will accept our place within the natural world — or try, once again, to shove it toward the margins.