Why Coyotes Need Our Protection

These majestic cousins of the domesticated dog have been maligned by the fur industry and in culling for far too long

Rescued coyote at Lockwood Animal Rescue Center

by Teresa Rhyne
Photography be Jen MaHarry

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

He trots along the ridge of the hill, crouching slightly, his gray and gold mottled coat catching the new rays of the morning sun.

Following close behind is another, smaller. And then two more, much smaller and not nearly as focused. Bringing up the rear are yet two more — adults. The scene is stunningly beautiful. I watch from my bedroom balcony as they make their way up the hill, then over and out of my sight. I look down at my dog, sitting at full attention by my side. She hasn’t howled, though that is in her beagle nature. Instead she, like me, simply watches in awe of a coyote pack that is our neighbor. My beagles howl by day, and these coyotes—these native American “song dogs”—howl by night. Yet it is more than the time of day and a fence that separates them.

Any observation of a dog’s behavior and that of a coyote, a fox, or a wolf, makes it clear these animals are cousins. Each belongs to the Canis genus—so closely related they can interbreed. And yet, these canids have become, through no fault of their own, the maligned and misunderstood members of the family. They are not invited into the same mental space as our beloved domesticated dogs. And while we care for – and some would say spoil – our canines, humanity’s misperceptions allows for the slaughter of their cousins.

Into The Wild

“This was a lone coyote in Nevada who stopped next to me by my truck on the side of the road as I read my map,” recalls photographer Jen MaHarry. “He quietly stared at me for five minutes before moving along. He seemed to know something I didn’t. It was over 100 degrees and he seemed perfectly fine in the desert heat.”

Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild describes the coyote as “a creature that inhabits our imaginations as richly as it does the edges of our neighborhoods.” I know of what she speaks. I live in a Los Angeles suburb, in a townhome that backs up to a hill dusted with sagebrush; palm, yucca, juniper, and conifer trees; a few fruit trees, and plenty of rodents, rabbits and squirrels. Nearly 40 years ago, in response to the development of these townhomes, the city passed a measure to eliminate development of the hillsides, arroyos and other open-space areas, stating the desire to protect the abundance of wildlife. The city’s general plan still mentions the importance of preserving these spaces, stressing that “diverse biological resources are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem.” Yet as I take pleasure in seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, a neighbor sends out an email to surrounding homeowners warning of the coyotes’ presence, decrying the risk to our dogs and cats, and suggesting the homeowner’s association talk to the city about shooting or poisoning or otherwise eliminating them. We humans recognize that we came to them — we built our homes right up against their dens, then we attempted to assuage that action by passing a measure (which, not incidentally, protected some stunning city views as well), but because the coyote has been so long vilified, coexistence does not come easy. And it is not just suburbanites protective of their pets who wish harm on coyotes.

Both rural and city residents refer to coyotes as “vermin” or “nuisance” and because they are not protected by any regulations, they can be and are killed year-round, without limits. Camilla Fox, founder of the nonprofit Project Coyote, says that 500,000 coyotes are killed in the US every year. USDA Wildlife Services alone kills 70,000 to 80,000 annually.

The Knowing Gaze

“This coyote at Lockwood Animal Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest, California was actually very shy at first and wouldn’t look in my direction,” recalls MaHarry. “When he finally did, he seemed to sum me up instantly as he stared straight into my eyes. I snapped the photo quickly while holding his gaze.”

In rural areas, they are exterminated on behalf of ranchers; in suburban and urban areas, because they are a perceived threat to pets or children. They are killed everywhere because there is a mythological need for “population control.” Perhaps most horrifyingly, they are killed for sport, in nonsensical, bloodthirsty “Coyote Contests” (the “winner” is the thrill killer who slaughters the most animals) gaining popularity in the West and Midwestern United States. They are live-trapped with leghold traps or snares and then, injured and bleeding, released into pens and used to “train” hunting dogs — packs of whom are released to pursue and kill their wild cousin. They’re killed on the ground, above ground by aerial gunning and below ground by “denning,” the practice of killing pups in their dens with fire or poison. They’re even destroyed for a perverse notion of fashion — their fur used to trim coats by companies like Canada Goose, who maligns the coyote on their website in defense of their practices. This is an animal revered by North American Indians for its playfulness, ingenuity and resourcefulness. But to Canada Goose who wants to profit from the coyote’s death and skinning, they are merely “a pest.”

USDA Wildlife Services, an organization beloved by the ranchers who benefit from it and despised as a “killing agency” by environmentalists, has a yearly $100 million budget to carry out its lethal methods that also claim many other animals as collateral damage. Yet despite their own science that demonstrates culling as ineffective population control, they persist. As Camilla Fox says, nature and coyotes abhor a vacuum. If nature were left alone, the breeding within a coyote pack is limited to the pack’s alpha male and female. If the alpha of a pack is killed, the betas who have been behaviorally sterile, will then begin breeding. This biological response is known as compensatory reproduction. In other words, the USDA Wildlife Services lethal “control” of the population actually results in an increase in coyotes.

I’ve seen this in my backyard. Despite a fire that ravaged that hillside, the neighbors’ cries for their deaths, and the California drought, the coyotes continue to exist. And they exist for a reason. They play a role in the ecosystem. Fox explains, the coyotes are a “keystone species” helping to regulate the number of smaller “mesocarnivores” (the skunks, raccoons, foxes and even feral cats). The mere presence of coyotes sends the mesocarnivores elsewhere. And indeed, what the coyotes usually eat is the food easiest to obtain—rodents, reptiles, insects, rabbits, and fruit. My hillside is a veritable buffet to a coyote.

“Like many societal issues, it’s a matter of understanding our neighbor, so we can live harmoniously alongside one another.”

Which begs the obvious question: If lethal methods don’t work — and they haven’t—what then? As a coalition of wildlife biologists, Project Coyote, is using the most current science for promoting educated coexistence with North America’s song dog. Their tips and methods are simple and nonviolent. In rural areas, shepherds, range riders, a human non-killing presence — can all control and reduce negative encounters with coyotes. In urban and suburban areas, Project Coyote teaches citizens about coyote “hazing,” the practice of acting big and loud near coyotes to reinforce their fear of humans.

Priscilla Feral, president of the animal advocacy group Friends of Animals, stresses there are ways to manage human-coyotes encounters, “First, never feed coyotes which makes them accustomed and habituated to associating the presence of humans with food. Don’t give them access to garbage. Keep your garbage can lids tight by securing them. Feed your cats and dogs indoors as pet food will attract coyotes. Also, prevent the buildup of food surrounding bird feeders.” It sounds uncomplicated, and it is. Like many societal issues, it’s a matter of understanding our neighbor, so we can live harmoniously alongside one another.


This piece is part of a in-depth feature on fur-bearing animals, including foxes and wolves,

and can be found in our Sixth Issue.