In defense of the urban coyote
by Matt Howatt
They have adapted to urban life and survived near the top of the urban food chain mostly out of sight and out of mind for decades. But all eyes are on urban coyotes this week after a chihuahua was plucked from the backyard of a home in the Beaches area of Toronto by an allegedly â€œbrazenâ€ coyote.
This weeks coverage of the attack on the Toronto Star’s website incited passionate debate and generated more comments than many other stories in the news with 60 to 70 per story. The coyote attack has served as a catalyst for debate over a myriad of issues from the rural-urban divide and gun control in cities to proper parenting skills and the need for domesticated pets. Pitbull owners question why their dogs are banned while coyotes roam freely and fence builders are proclaiming the qualities of a well-built fence.
The thought of mammalian carnivores such as the coyote living amongst us in the city is both thrilling and frightening for many. Coyotes resemble many of the domesticated dogs that chase tennis balls in local parks and excitedly greet guests at the front door, but they are not. They are not bound by familiar collars and leashes and they rely on instincts and refined skills to survive. Coyotes represent a wild side of the city that survives with a resilient and adaptive nature.
The comments of online Star readers have ranged from unsympathetic farmers who see a clear problem and solution (got a coyote? grab your rifle and a shovel), to anti-consumerists and naturalists who ponder if those petitioning to have the coyotes removed are the same people who pile into their SUVs dressed in high-priced active wear and guzzle gas all the way up the 400 highway to get back nature. Others have proclaimed this to be a normal occurrence in a wilderness country like Canada and decried any type of American response to grab a gun and head into the woods.
Another issue is the possibility that the Beach coyote’s apparent disregard for humans signals it may be a â€œcoydogâ€ — a hybrid combining the fierce hunting abilities of a coyote with the familiarity and attraction to humans possessed by dogs. Messages of condolence to the family who lost their dog are mixed with the â€œstrongest will surviveâ€ comments that label the chihuahua as natural coyote food.
The argument that coyotes should be left alone because â€œthey were here before usâ€ as many of the comments on the Star’s website have stated does not give credit to their unique adaptive abilities. It is believed that coyotes arrived in the area around 100 years ago after development had begun in many city centres. According to the 2007-2008 report from Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner coyotes quickly adapt to human-caused alterations to the landscape such as the clearing of land for agriculture or development. They’ve basically followed the path of human development for its provision of open fields, wood lots and ravines along with the livestock, rodents and food waste provided by human activity. The report estimates approximately 4,600 coyotes were hunted or trapped last year in Ontario while their population remains â€œabundantâ€.
Conversely, the argument to remove coyotes from urban environments fails to recognize the coyotes roll in controlling the population of rodents and feral cats in cities. In addition, their presence provides opportunities for education and awareness of the complex urban ecosystems thriving in our park systems, along our infrastructure corridors and across vast tracts of disused industrial areas. For example, Vancouver’s Stanley Park Ecology Society implemented a Co-Existing With Coyotes Program that seeks to educate the public and provide school curriculum about coyotes in addition to tracking coyote sightings on its website.
As the City of of Toronto strives to establish its City Within A Park image, it must manage the urban ecosystem it supports. Toronto’s system of ravines, valley parks and tracts of naturalized industrial areas make life comfortable for the commuting coyotes who may traverse across the city via hydro corridors, highways and the cities extensive green network. It’s late winter and the lure of food waste, pet food and the rodents it attracts, as well as household pets, are food opportunities for the coyote that has been scrounging for mice under the snow since December. Residents must recognize their position in the urban ecosystem and the vulnerability of small pets. The City’s first step in managing urban coyotes should be to have its citizens keep their garbage secure and their pets in sight.
Incidents like the Beaches coyote attack will hopefully spur discussion and action to balance the necessity of both safe communities and vital urban ecosystems.
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Matt Howatt is a fourth-year student at Ryerson in the Urban and Regional Planning program. He lives in Burlington where coyote sightings are common.
photo by Dru Bloomfield