It used to be that coyotes were considered the sneaky denizens of the night: relegated to howling and yipping under moonlit skies, creeping through western hills and high deserts, and skulking away at the first sign of a human.
Those days – and nights – are long gone.
Now, it’s common to see viral videos or hear news stories about coyotes making their way through suburban neighborhoods as well as major metropolitan areas of the continental United States. The animals have even been spotted as far south as Panama.
A renewed concern over Southern California coyotes comes on the heels of increased sightings and snatches of pets from area yards. Most notably is the recent story of a coyote coming through a Buena Park home’s dog door and attacking two small dogs there (killing one and mauling the other).
“Unfortunately, this is bound to continue,” said Dr. Ted Stankowich, director of Cal State Long Beach’s Mammal Lab and an expert in animal behavior. “In the Los Angeles area, we have a particularly difficult time with aggressive coyotes. And we find that simply removing some individuals just makes things worse.
“When an alpha male or alpha female is removed from its pack, the dynamics change,” he added. “Coyotes are territorial, so removing the top male or female leaves space for single floating coyotes to breed and build-up a new pack. The research shows that they breed earlier and have larger litters, and more coyotes take their place in an even more crowded territory, where competition for food also increases. This may result in offspring that are bolder and more aggressive.”
That means there will be more instances of the animals and people (and their pets) coming face to face, and likely fewer coyotes backing down as quickly as before.
While Stankowich is concerned by the growing numbers and boldness of Canis latrans, it gives he and his graduate assistants additional opportunities to study the animals. The researchers’ work includes studying how skunks deter attacks by coyotes; operating a series of motion-activated trail cameras running from Disneyland through Irvine; and conducting a survey of pet owners about their animals’ interactions with coyotes.
The information collection has just begun, but Stankowich believes the findings will contribute to the well-being of people and their pets, as well as give researchers a better understanding of the animal that once lived on the edge of civilization.
“Coyotes are important predators in our ecosystem and provide the service of removing rodents and other pests from our urban centers,” Stankowich said. “The good news is that most coyotes naturally tend to fear humans. So that – combined with some proactive steps – can help minimize or even eliminate the numbers and types of encounters we have with them.”
According to Stankowich the “smart steps” include:
- Clearing yards clear of dense vegetation, where coyotes can make a den or find fallen fruits or vegetables.
- Keeping trash off the ground and in sealed trash cans.
- Not leaving pet food outside.
- Keeping pets inside – especially at night (still the coyote’s choice time for hunting) – and dogs leashed during walks (again, especially at night).
Stankowich said that if someone does see a coyote roaming their neighborhood, they should keep their distance and let the coyote “go about its business.” If it does appear threatening, yell, harass and even throw something at the coyote to chase it away. Most coyotes will be deterred by noise and sudden actions.
“If a coyote lunges at you or if there’s an actual attack, get to a safe place and alert authorities,” he said. “This is abnormally aggressive behavior and would indicate that it’s a ‘problem animal.’”