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