John Hall, the information manager for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, keeps a file of reports of predatory coyote-on-human interactions. It’s thin — there have been only three in our state since 1991. All of them involved hunters. The worst one happened in Chester in 2004, when a turkey hunter was bitten in the face. That’s why Hall was so surprised to hear about what happened to Taylor Mitchell.
On October 27, 2009, Mitchell, a talented 19-year-old folk singer from Toronto, was set upon by two coyotes as she hiked along a popular trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. The first to hear her screams were two American hikers who, farther down the trail, had taken pictures of the same coyotes just a few minutes before.They ran to the trailhead and called 911. On the way, they passed four more hikers, who ran toward the shrieks. They found Mitchell 20 minutes later, on the ground and being torn by the animals’ 42 teeth and powerful jaw muscles. The hikers threw rocks and shouted to scare the coyotes away. One did flee, but the other just circled the group, growling. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable arrived five minutes later, Mitchell was barely conscious and bleeding badly. She died of blood loss in the hospital the next day.
Like Hall in Vermont, Roland Kays, the curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, was shocked by the animals’ brazen behavior. Mitchell’s was only the second fatal coyote attack ever recorded in North America. Judging by the usual pattern of less serious interactions, Kays had hypothesized that if a coyote were to kill a person, it would probably be rabid, and the attack would occur in an urban environment.
He was wrong on both counts. Mitchell was killed by two otherwise normal and healthy eastern coyotes — the same species that lives in Vermont — in the wilds of a national park. “It caught everyone by surprise,” he says. “But animals are unpredictable, just like humans.”
The question Vermonters naturally ask is, could such a thing happen here?
The first step in answering that question is figuring out just who these eastern coyotes are, and that requires a little lesson in natural history. When the first European settlers arrived in eastern North America, coyotes lived only to the west. In the east, the role of the predator that kills medium-to-large prey — white-tailed deer, for instance — was played by the eastern wolf. The Massachusetts Bay Colony began a long process of extirpation when it first put a bounty on the eastern wolf in 1630; by the late 1800s, there were no wolves left to hunt, trap or poison. Today, they occupy only a provincial park in Ontario and parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Québec.
But the wolves’ demise opened the way for coyotes, according to Kays, who recently published a study on the evolution of those eastern canids. Evidence shows coyotes began migrating east in 1918, from the Great Lakes area into Ontario and then into New York in the 1940s. By 1948, the first coyote had been shot in Vermont. Being smart, opportunistic animals, coyotes have thrived in this state, and today their numbers range from 4000 to 8000, depending on the time of year. (Population is highest in the spring, when pups are born; half of them don’t make it to the end of the year.)
Smarts don’t explain it all. What’s most interesting about Kays’ research is his discovery that eastern coyotes carry some wolf DNA. Apparently, coyotes crossbred with wolves during their travels east, creating a particularly capable hybrid. “What we have here,” says Hall, “is an animal evolving to have the strengths of the eastern wolf with regard to size, but the adaptability of coyotes with regard to food consumption and the ability to live among humans.”
For coyotes, these traits represent the best of both worlds. Wolves are extremely shy creatures, and they don’t do well among people, even in very rural areas. Yet they’re awesome predators as a result of their body size and the strength of their jaws. Coyotes, socially speaking, are more similar to dogs than wolves: They’re good at living near humans “in little patches of forests, in gullies and occasionally sneaking through neighborhoods,” Kays says.
Coyotes generally travel solo or in twos instead of in packs like wolves, and that makes them more independent. Furthermore, they’re remarkably good breeders and don’t seem the least bit threatened, as a species, by hunting and trapping. Blend the advantageous traits of both canine species and you get the eastern coyote, which, Kays and others have concluded, is up to 16 pounds heavier than the western coyote, with a bigger skull and larger jaw muscles.
We know a lot more about coyotes’ physical attributes and habitat preferences than we do about their behavior. It’s fairly certain that coyotes subsist on deer, rabbit, woodchuck, birds, plants and fruit, among other things. How they hunt larger prey — whether in packs or by surprising the quarry one on one — is still up for speculation. Their typical Vermont habitat, dense forests, enhances their mystery. Here, coyotes are more often identified by their footprints and scat than in the flesh.
That’s not the case in more populated places, like New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, where coyotes have been known to forage in backyards. This behavior indicates that coyotes are becoming habituated to people — a troubling development, because they have the hardware to harm.
Some wildlife researchers believe coyotes become less wary of humans in a step-by-step fashion: First they show up in yards at night; next, they attack domestic pets during the day, then small children playing, and finally adults. “It makes good sense,” Kays says of this theory, “but whether it’s true or not, I’m not sure.” If it is true, he offers, the consistent pattern would give people a chance to track the behavior and intervene.
Kim Royar, a furbearer biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, says she only knows of one instance where coyotes were bold enough to visit a backyard repeatedly. It happened in West Dover, at a ski condominium where trash was put outside.
Hall says coyotes often kill cats and dogs in Vermont and have occasionally harassed people walking with dogs in the woods, especially after dark. “We strongly urge Vermonters to appreciate and enjoy coyotes,” he advises, “but to respect them for the wild animals they are.”
But what does it mean to “respect” coyotes? One might argue that prohibiting the hunting of coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park was a form of respect. Yet wildlife biologists think that policy is partly to blame for Mitchell’s death. In the park, coyotes may have learned, in their shrewd and observant way, to see humans as friendly beings armed with nothing more than a camera. When you’re thinking like a hungry coyote getting ready for a long winter, that image translates into a tempting prey.
In areas where coyotes are hunted, by contrast, they tend to be shyer. “And shy coyotes,” says Kays, “you can barely get a glimpse of them.”
Which probably explains the dearth of reports in Hall’s file. In Vermont, coyotes can be hunted year round, and trapping season runs from late October to the end of December. An important part of “respecting” wild animals in this state, it would seem, is making sure they know who’s boss.
“They are intelligent animals,” Royar says of coyotes in Vermont, “and they learn from negative reinforcement. They associate human beings with negative things, whether it’s being run by dogs or trapped or hunted, and therefore they tend to stay away from humans.”
Of course, Mitchell’s death should still be a cause for concern for people who live in coyote habitat. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of their dangerous capabilities. But the best way for humans to avoid incidents with coyotes, wildlife biologists say, is to keep them fearful of us, to suppress that urge to treat them as cute and furry forest dwellers. If you happen to confront a coyote, Royar advises making yourself as large and frightening as possible by waving your arms and yelling. Once the coyote figures out you’re a human, “in all cases I’m aware of, they’ve turned and run away,” she says.
“These are wild animals, and that’s the way we’d like it to stay,” Royars says, “for both their sake and ours.”
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