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In Defense of an Urban Survivor

When It Comes to Coyotes, L.A. Has a Not-in-My-Backyard Mentality. But There May Be Less to Fear Than You Might Think. By Deanne Stillman

October 20, 2002|Deanne Stillman last wrote for the magazine about researching her book "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines in the Mojave" (William Morrow), a Los Angeles Times selection as one of the top nonfiction books for 2001.

I know, I know. The coyote killed your cat, attacked your dog, ate your daughter's homework, your wife's Palm Pilot and your Greg Norman signature golf tees, ripped your pet bunny to shreds, devoured your chickens, wiped out your sheep farmer brother-in-law's spring lamb population and gorged for days on hundreds of priceless black Angus cattle, thereby reducing the country's livestock supply by a third and simultaneously quadrupling the price of a good steak, before a holiday weekend no less.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating. But to listen to a lot of people tell it, the coyote is the four-legged, cloven-hooved antichrist, ranging around our cities and plains for the sole purpose of destroying the American economy, and having a few laughs along the way. Now, I admit that the coyote probably did eat your cat, and maybe he knocked off a couple of sheep, give or take a hundred, out in the hills somewhere. But so what? The coyote is just doing what he or she has to do to survive.

I would also like to suggest that instead of simply chuckling patronizingly when someone tells a story about a coyote rummaging through an urban garbage can and spitting out a tennis shoe in favor of an approaching rodent, we reconsider this Los Angeles totem, this atavistic representative from long ago, eons before the first humans entered the stadium and evolved into a species that could tolerate the survival of no other.

First, a few biological stats: coyotes, Canis latrans, are often mistaken for domestic dogs, as they typically weigh 25 to 40 pounds and look like a relative of the German shepherd--perhaps a third cousin from the fun and irresponsible side of the family. They can be distinguished from dogs by their black-tipped tail, which is carried down (at or below the level of the back) while running, whereas dogs run with their tails higher. One evening, Robert Wayne, a biology professor at UCLA, saw a coyote making a beeline down Sunset Boulevard. The animal was acting very much like a stray dog, which, he pointed out, he would be more likely to fear than a loose coyote. "Coyotes are afraid of people, they'll run away," says Wayne. "I'd be more frightened of a dog off leash than a coyote." His point is well-taken: Dogs kill several people every year while coyotes reportedly have never been responsible for a human death in L.A. County.

Although they have long lived on the fringes of the metropolis, particularly dry years such as this one drive them out of hiding. As rabbits and other prey look for more water sources, cruising backyard gardens, golf courses and other suburban attractions, in their footsteps come the coyotes.

Classified as carnivores, coyotes are really omnivores; in addition to eating small rodents, rabbits and insects, they feed on fruit, nuts and vegetables. This makes the common suburban garden, despite the coyotes' mistrust of people, a rather attractive proposition. Where coyotes do live in suburbia, their numbers are denser than they would be in the wild, says Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service. This seems to correlate with human populations: Compare the populations of Montana, a comparatively vast wilderness area, with Southern California, which is the national template for suburban sprawl.

Coyotes are found in every contiguous state in the union, showing up in a slightly larger form in the Great Lakes and maritime states, probably as a result of hybridizing with Algonquin wolves. In the Eastern United States, where they can live on deer, they hunt in packs. In Southern California, when not caring for their young, they are usually found in pairs, although sometimes they pal up in groups of three or four. Typically there will be resident coyotes crossing paths with commuters, usually young males looking for somewhere to settle down. Coyotes do not generally carry rabies, although they can. Adults have relatively long reproductive lives of three to 10 years, and they have been known to compensate for adverse conditions, such as heavy hunting and trapping, with larger litter sizes, with the average litter numbering about four.

A trait that they share with humans is that they punish group members for breaking rules. There have been incidents in which a pack attacked and ostracized a beta male after he attempted to mount the group's alpha female. They also indulge in a sort of play not unlike a milder version of frat boys on spring break. That wild yipping that city slickers assume is a pack of coyotes tearing up a cat is actually the rambunctious outbursts of frolicking coyotes, says Wayne.

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