Coyote Ugly

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In Rye, NY, two recent coyote attacks on young girls have once-placid suburbia in a panic. As this New York Times article reports,

Firefighters have searched for them with heat-sensing cameras. Police officers, under orders to kill, have fired shots at them outside dark golf courses. Nerve-racked parents have stayed up late researching their behavior online.

“It’s all that anyone talks about,” Kate Taubner said, keeping a hand on her son Jack’s head as if to hold him close.

Here’s more detail on the incidents that have inspired such fear.

The first attack occurred last Friday in the Glen Oaks neighborhood around 9:15 p.m., when a 6-year-old girl running alongside her house was knocked down by two coyotes. The animals bit her on the shoulder and the thigh, and scratched her head and her back, according to the police. The girl’s mother, who was some 25 feet away, ran over screaming, scaring the coyotes away, the police said.

“It was terrifying,” said Steve Hodulik, the girl’s father.

The next attack occurred four days later. At about 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, a 3-year-old girl was playing in her backyard with a neighbor when a coyote jumped from behind a rock and knocked her down, biting her on the neck and the torso. The girl’s father, who was on the deck about 30 feet away, ran toward the neighbor’s cry of “Mommy, coyote!” and scared off the animal, according to Mr. Connors.

Coyote attacks on humans are fairly rare — this study by Ohio State researchers Lynsey A. White and Stanley D. Gehrt documented just 142 attacks between 1960 and 2006 in the U.S., an average of about three per year. And nobody’s sure why these particular furry perps in Rye decided to go after small humans instead their more typical fare of rabbits, squirrels or the contents of the neighborhood’s trash cans. White and Gehrt found that 37 percent of coyote attacks on humans were clearly for the purpose of trying to eat them, while another 22 percent were “investigative,” i.e., attempts to determine whether a victim might make a good food source. Of the remainder, 7 percent were prompted by rabies, 6 percent by the desire to eat one of the humans’ pets, and 4 percent were in defense of coyote pups. Another 24 percent were unexplained.

The reality that coyotes not only don’t fear us but actually contemplate us as tonight’s dinner is a bit unnerving, especially to eastern suburbanites whose knowledge of the species is probably defined by Wile E. Coyote, the bumbling predator who is doomed to perpetual humiliation in the Road Runner animated shorts. If coyotes had TV and watched cartoons, no doubt they’d be as irked by Warner Brothers as Neanderthal holdouts are ticked off by Geico’s “So Easy, Even a Caveman Can Do It!” slogan. In reality, Canis latrans, also known by the less-cute name of the American jackal, is not only an adept hunter, but also is one of the few medium-to-large sized animals that have not only survived human civilization’s encroachment upon their wild habitat, but actually have thrived.

As this 1998 Audubon magazine article details, in the late 19th Century, coyotes were found primarily in the western U.S. But since then, they’ve actually extended their range, and by the end of the 20th Century had been  been spotted in every state except Hawaii–thanks largely to humans killing off the bears and wolves who were their natural enemies.

Humans tried to kill off coyotes, too, but the collie-sized distant cousins of the domestic dog, who’ve successfully evaded bigger creatures over the past 1.8 million years, proved to be too, well, wily. Coyotes are amazingly athletic creatures, with a top running speed of 40 miles per hour. They don’t see particularly well, but they make up for it with a finely tuned sense of smell and acute hearing. Their creepy-sounding howls are actually a sophisticated form of communication that they use to warn of danger and to announce their presence to other members of their species. They move around early in the morning and late at night in small packs. They have big litters with as many as 19 pups in them, and shuttle them surreptitiously between multiple dens to elude predators on their trail. (And Dick Cheney thought he was the only one with an undisclosed location.)

In New York State, it’s unclear whether coyotes have migrated recently into the area, or always were a low-key presence. As the New York Suburban Coyote Study home page notes, early settlers in the region described an unfamiliar animal that they called the “brush wolf,” which may actually have been the coyote. In any case, however, about 20,000 to 30,000 of them now live in the state, so it looks like Rye residents are going to have no choice but to get used to their presence. As Ohio State’s Gehrt explained to the Times:

In cities and suburbs, he said, “they find a bounty of food, they have a lack of predators, there’s no hunting and trapping. Once they can crash that threshold into that urbanized landscape, they find that the living is pretty good.”

He added: “It’s not just us encroaching on their territory. They’re encroaching on us.”

New York State wildlife officials provide these tips for avoiding confrontations with coyotes.


  1. Delmer B. Rigsby
    July 9, 2010, 12:24 am

    Firt open hunting season, and put a bounty on there heads!!!!!! Soon coyotes will be scared of humans and will not think of humans as pray! Kept on listening to all the animals rights groups and humans will stay on the menu for all predators!!!!!!!! Delmer B. Rigsby

  2. Patrick J Kiger
    July 11, 2010, 12:21 am

    I see you’re eager for a chance to try out your new Savage Model 24F combo rifle-shotgun. Wildlife biologists say that fear of humans can be taught to a coyote, but you don’t necessarily need to shoot one to scare it–screaming, sounding an air horn, and/or a taking a few menacing-looking steps in its direction will do the trick. The thing is, though, they’re not going to fear a little child, no matter what, so it’s doubly important for parents to keep an eye on their kids. As for shooting coyotes, that’s only going to eliminate as a threat the one that you kill, because they’re solitary hunters, and not likely to see or hear you make an example of another one. Coyotes have survived and actually expanded their range, despite western ranchers’ efforts to hunt them down, trap them and/or poison them since the 19th century. Coyotes are too cunning, too fast and physically hardy, and too adaptable. When we wiped out their natural predators, who were far more adept at culling the coyote population than we are, we pretty much ensured that they would overpopulate.

    The problem is, what you advocate has been tried with coyotes before–ranchers in the western US tried to eradicate them for 100 years or so. It didn’t work, and it won’t work now.

  3. Patrick J Kiger
    July 11, 2010, 12:23 am

    Here’s an update from CBS News on the story.

  4. ecedman
    July 11, 2010, 12:39 am

    Are you by any chance related to Sarah Palin? She feels the same way you do about wolfs. If we keep killing all the predators, what will happen to the dear,moose, elk population? Oh, I forget, you are gunhappy and probably would like to see the hunting season for these animals get longer so you can hunt them as well. Would you be able to eat that much meat? Or what would someone like you do with it? I’m sorry, but I like animals with fur and four feet. I have a dog, who is part dingo. Would you kill her as well?