Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Vancouver’s Stanley Park is perhaps one of the most idyllic public spaces in all of Canada. It’s full of natural beauty, old growth forest, groves and trails, gardens and picnic spots. And during a pandemic that has made so many indoor spaces fraught with danger, Stanley Park has become a cherished meeting place for families and friends to spend time together, to exercise and rest and play. And you really should not go there right now.
News Clip: A local wildlife group is calling for the closure of Stanley Park to address the spike in coyote attacks.
News Clip 2: Stay away from Stanley Park. At least right now. It’s what conservation officer Sergeant Gravel is advising the public after a two year old girl was attacked by a coyote Monday night.
News Clip 3: Several Coyotes are believed to be linked to several recent attacks on humans in Stanley Park. And there are concerns the animals have been fed or have somehow lost their fear of people.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stanley Park is the most high profile example, but it’s not the only park or neighbourhood in Canada made dangerous by aggressive coyotes. In most cases, the animals have lived in these places for years, going about their business and mostly avoiding interactions with humans. So what has changed? Are there more coyotes, or are they just becoming more aggressive? And if so, why? What options do governments have for dealing with the coyotes beyond the obvious one? What should the public know in the increasing likelihood that they encounter an aggressive coyote on a hike or in their city? Is this a permanent behavioural change, or is there a way that we can bring the coyotes behaviour back in life? And if we can’t, what becomes of these parks and the people who use them?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. She specializes in the study of how animals, including coyotes, behave in landscapes that have been altered by humans. Hello, Colleen.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Hi, Jordan. Thanks for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: No problem. I’m glad you could spare the time. Why don’t you start by telling us what’s happening right now in Stanley Park in Vancouver? But also, I understand it’s not just in Stanley Park.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Sure. Well, what I know of Stanley Park comes to me from the news. So it’s similar to what other people know. There’s an unprecedented situation going on there where there’s been 30 documented attacks on people by coyotes, where coyotes have bitten people in the past six and a half months. That’s extremely unusual. I have never heard of something like that happening anywhere in North America previously, but nor have I heard about the situation that’s occurring in Calgary in the last month. In Calgary, eight people have also been bitten by coyotes, eight different people.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So you mentioned that this is incredibly unusual. How do coyotes normally behave in spaces that they share with humans?
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Well, normal has been a sliding slope for many years. Decades, really. Over about the past 20 years, there’s been increasing reports from across North America of coyotes and urban areas. Probably coyotes always danced around urban areas, and we’re seen there occasionally by people. There’s a Street at Edmonton that was known as Coyote Alley 100 years ago. So it’s not entirely new that Coyotes are in urban areas, but they just seem to be more abundant and bolder, and that’s occurring in urban areas across the continent, from Vancouver to Halifax, from Phoenix to Yellowknife. Pretty much every urban area in North America that I’ve heard of anyway, has a population of urban coyotes, and that’s a fairly new phenomenon.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s interesting. I mean, we live in the East end of Toronto here, and there are certainly some of them that you will occasionally see walking down the Street, or somebody will put up a sign warning, dog owners say that one has been spotted in this Park. But what we’re talking about sounds like a whole ‘nother level.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Yeah. I think that we are undergoing a bit of a sea change here, and the relationship between people and coyotes in urban areas has been changing for quite a while, I think. But it’s reaching a point now where it’s causing a great deal of concern and loss of a sense of security for people in areas that are really quite urban and quite designated for people. And in my estimation, we’ve reached a bit of a tipping point. Tolerance for urban coyotes by an increasing proportion of the population is changing rapidly right now because of these attacks on people, particularly when they involve children. So there was quite a dramatic one in Burnaby almost three years ago, where a toddler was attacked and bitten repeatedly on his head, needing something like 35 stitches. That attack occurred in broad daylight on the driveway of the family home. So not deep in the Woods, there was attack, an attack on a toddler in Edmonton last spring, an urban Park surrounded by residential areas where people just don’t expect that kind of thing to occur. And then this most recent attack in the parking lot of the aquarium of Stanley Park on a toddler. So those situations are examples of the ones people just will not tolerate and understandably so, I think.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So let’s get to the money question, then. Do we have any idea what’s causing this more aggressive behaviour?
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Well, there’s quite a bit of speculation, and I think it’s like many complex ecological situations where there’s not one explanation, there’s not one factor, and there’s not even just a sum of factors. There’s interaction among many factors. So I’ll rattle off a few of the ones that I think have created this acute situation recently, except for the toddler in Burnaby, and that animal was associated with food conditioning. I’ll come back at that later.
All these other attacks that I’ve described, the 30 in Stanley Park over the last six months, the eight in Calgary, the the one in Coronation Park in Edmonton last year. They’ve all occurred during the pandemic. I think that has been a very complicated situation for wildlife. They suddenly had a rapid change in human behaviour, where everyone disappeared from the roads and from the parks for a little while. Then suddenly people started to flood into the parks, but they stayed off the roads, might have really changed movement patterns, and it might have really reduced the number of animals that are killed on roads that’s been documented by others. At the same time, there was a lot more people occupying a lot more spaces in natural areas. So more coyotes, more people might have created situations of more competition for space, more territoriality by coyotes.
I wonder whether there’s also been more feeding by people. There’s also a problem with a lot more garbage, with more people using parks. And that’s a trajectory that’s been going on for years, I suppose, but it got much more significant. So if we put all of these things together, there’s a lot more resources worth defending. There’s a lot more people getting in the way. There’s a lot more competition among coyotes for territories and more valuable territories. And I think that might be some of what’s causing this more aggressive behaviour along a continuum that’s much older than the pandemic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So in that sense, there are all these contributing factors. But ultimately, what we’re seeing in these attacks is these animals defending their territory from what they see as an incursion or a threat to their food supply?
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: This is how it looks to me. I’m more familiar with the specific nature of the attacks in Calgary. I visited the neighbourhoods where they occurred, and I’ve talked in detail with the wildlife professionals and city managers that are involved. It’s really interesting that all eight of those attacks were on women. All eight involved a bite to the upper thigh. And that’s how coyotes take on both competitors and potentially sometimes also prey, large prey. They do a behaviour called hamstringing, where they seek first to immobilize their competitor or would-be large prey, and then they cooperate for further action. So the fellow in Stanley Park that ran into some Coyotes, ran into a coyote in the dark, and then it was sort of surrounded by coyotes that seemed fairly like, very aggressive, almost predator like behaviour. But it still could be induced by territoriality. Experts in Vancouver estimate that there’s about 12 coyotes in Stanley Park. And if your listeners were to just Google Stanley Park and look at it, they see that it’s a big green space on a Peninsula, and its only connection to land is through a very dense part of Vancouver. Coyotes probably don’t find it easy to come and go from Stanley Park, and there’s all kinds of resources there. So there’s all kinds of habitat that shelters natural prey for coyotes.
It does seem from some reports that there’s a lot of extra food in Stanley Park from garbage. But there’s also reports of people feeding in Stanley Park. That might have really increased very rapidly during COVID, in Edmonton, park visitation increased by four times. And maybe that’s a general phenomenon. So if rare feeding increased by four times, that’s a lot of feeding. So those animals, 12 animals, are sharing this space, and suddenly they have to share it with a whole bunch of people that are threatening the space that they can occupy, from their coyote point of view. I think there might also be some cultural transmission where some very bold behaviour has been learned by those coyotes, probably through food conditioning. And so that’s the kind of perfect storm that I think has emerged there to create this very unusual behaviour.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I think I get it. But since you’ve used the term a couple of times and maybe people don’t, can you explain food conditioning?
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Yeah. Thanks for that invitation, Jordan. It just means that animals have learned to associate people with food. So probably people have heard the expression of fed bear is a dead bear. And it comes from that phenomenon of food conditioning. So when carnivores become food conditioned, when they associate people with food, they lose the natural fearfulness of people that they have. They lose that weariness. They start to approach people, and often they’re looking for handouts. But it spills over into other kinds of reasons for approaching people. They’re not afraid to approach people to, for example, defend their territory or investigate what they think might be potential prey. And they might view children that way. And that’s the reason that the province of British Columbia destroys sometimes as many as a thousand black bears a year. That happens when they cross the line that is believed to be representing food conditioning, when they, for example, start entering human dwellings looking for food.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: And the reason they’re destroyed is because other techniques don’t work very well. It’s really hard to reverse food conditioning, once animals have learned that association. And it doesn’t really work to translocate animals, they tend to try to come back. Often they’re hit on the road trying to get back. Sometimes they’re killed by resident animals where they’re dropped off. Sometimes they get into conflict where they’re dropped off. Sometimes they just die a slow death of starvation, you know, not great outcomes often. So food conditioning is the thing to avoid if you want to avoid destroying animals. And that’s the reason national parks have fines of up to 25,000 dollars for feeding wildlife.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, that brings us to what the city of Vancouver and whoever is making the decisions there, I realize you have nothing to do with it, are deciding to do with these animals in the Park. Four of them were killed last week I see, for the other animals, there might be eight or more left. Is there any hope that they could be dealt with any other way or at the very beginning of this chat you mentioned that we’d reach a tipping point.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Well, I appreciate you mentioning that this is not my call to make, and I don’t work directly in that situation, so I would definitely defer to the wildlife professionals there, but I’ll say a couple more general things. Well, one specific one. I believe it’s six animals now that have been destroyed, so that’s half of them if there are 12 there. I think that in an area of that size, you know, Stanley Park is about a a couple of kilometres wide and a couple of kilometres deep. So that’s not a huge area for 12 Coyotes, it could well be big enough, but it seems very unlikely that the six animals that remain haven’t, haven’t participated in any similar behaviours, because this has been escalating for a long time. So it could be that the only way to get rid of this behaviour that is now typifying these animals is to remove all of them. That’s quite a plausible interpretation of the situation as I see it.
What I’ve been suggesting when asked to comment more generally on urban coyotes is that I think we need to be more proactive about how urban coyotes are managed way before it gets to the point where people are attacked. And specifically, I think we can’t tolerate bold behaviour by coyotes in areas that are designated for use by people. So that would be residential areas, commercial areas, and parkland that’s designated for high visitation by people. It wouldn’t be natural areas that might have some trails in them, but still are designated partly for wildlife conservation. So in these human use areas, I think we have to have an absolute prohibition of food attractants. There has to be tighter management of garbage that would occur through a combination of education, action, bylaws. There has to be an absolute prohibition on feeding wildlife, any wildlife. No scattering bird seed on the ground, for example. I see that all over in the parks in Edmonton in a way that I didn’t see 10 years ago. And what people don’t realize is that when they’re feeding bird seed on the ground, they’re feeding everybody that will eat it and that’s everybody, including coyotes, we find plenty of bird seed and coyote scat. Plus, it increases the mammal populations that increase the value of the territories, making them more worth defending.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: So there has to be a really much more serious approach to food conditioning. And then the other angle that I’ve been recommending is one that is intended to teach more wariness to coyotes. Do you want me to say a bit about that?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, Yeah. Maybe we could go from there, because I know it’s going to become relevant, into what to actually do about these attacks. One of the things we like to do on the show is kind of give people the proactive information. So how deadly, how aggressive can a coyote attack be? What should you do if you run into one who’s acting aggressive in the street or in the Park?
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Yeah. Good idea, Jordan. Let’s cover that first. So kind of the immediate reaction when you meet a coyote that seems aggressive, if it seems great from some distance away and you’re in a human use area and you’re comfortable doing so, please participate in this teaching of great awareness by acting very bold towards that coyote. Don’t accept that kind of behaviour is my advice. And I’ll say more about the specific things people can do in a moment. But first, let me cover the things that people can do if they are fearful of being attacked by a coyote.
I think the most important thing to do is be ready for that possibility. You can carry something that makes noise, that can be used to deter a coyote from some distance of many meters away. You can carry something to throw. And the tool we use here in Edmonton is a tennis ball that’s been weighted with sand to make it the weight of a baseball and then wrapped with flagging tape or have some flagging tape is actually injected into a little hole in the tennis ball because all canid species are weirdly frightened of flapping flags, at least initially. This is an ancient technique known as fladry. So we make these tennis balls and we give them to our volunteers for a program I’ll tell you about in a minute. But anything that you can throw can increase the distance between you and an aggressive coyote. So that could be a rock. It could even be like a drink can or something like that, if there’s nothing else available. By throwing things at animals, you show them an intention and aggressive intention without having to be so close.
Then for further protection, one can carry a stick. It might be a hockey stick if you live in Edmonton, or a hiking pole, or just a branch that you pick up because you’re going through a wooded part of a Park and you’re a little bit extra nervous. When you swing that branch around, you make yourself look larger. If you bang it on trees or on the ground, you create an aggressive sound. But you might also carry an umbrella. An umbrella is a great tool for creating a barrier between an animal and yourself, or yourself and your pet, or yourself and your children very quickly. Animals don’t have the the experience to understand that an umbrella is a flimsy piece of nylon that could be bat it away with a four paw. To them, it looks like a wall. So, you know, you can carry an umbrella easily. You can erect it very quickly, creating this visual barrier between you and an animal. So umbrellas are used extensively to ward off baboons in Africa. And I think it could be a good tool for urban coyotes.
And then finally, you could carry a noise making device like a small wildlife airhorn or a can full of coins or rocks that you can shake. And you can use your voice to shout aggressively at a coyote, and you can make motions towards it. A chasing action towards it is very frightening for a coyote, as opposed to running away from it. That’s one thing one should never do, because all coursing predators, meaning chasing predators like coyotes, are just evolutionarily wired to chase things that run away from them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right. So tell me about the program then, that you’re hoping will curb this behaviour.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Yeah. It’s modelled after similar programs that occur for bears in the National and provincial parks and Alberta and BC. We’ve used the same technique for elk and the mountain parks as well, and the technique is known as just too closely related techniques. One is known as hazing. That’s probably the one people have heard before, but it’s related to a more formal kind of associative learning that’s called by psychologists aversive conditioning. And what it means is that an animal is being purposefully subjected to an experience that helps it learn to associate people with something that it fears.
So what we’re doing with our community-based aversive conditioning program is we have a bunch of volunteers. This is the master’s project of Gabrielle Lajeunesse. She’s conscripted over 70 volunteers in over 20 neighbourhoods in Edmonton who, during a field season this past winter, went on patrols for coyotes in residential areas, and in the treatment neighbourhoods, if the coyotes allowed people to approach as close as 40 meters, that was the signal that aversive conditioning would begin. And it consisted of trying to chase the coyote while yelling at it or shaking a can of coins and attempting to throw these weighted tennis balls at it. Weighted tennis balls are something that is as aversive as we are allowed to be. We’re not allowed to use any kind of projectile. The public in general cannot use a projectile and fire that at wildlife.
But in Calgary, there’s an even more intensive and to some extent, in Edmonton, aversive conditioning program being carried out by wildlife professionals who are doing something similar, except they are using service dogs to draw out coyotes in neighbourhoods where aggressive behaviour has been reported. And once the coyote emerges, the wildlife professionals attempt to shoot the coyote with a paintball gun containing chalk balls. So that’s something that’s pretty frightening to an animal. If the chalk ball hits a nearby object, it explodes. Chalk goes all over the place, it makes a noise. And that’s very frightening. And we’re working up these data now in collaboration with a company that’s doing it, Animal Damage Control and the city of Calgary. But from just anecdotal observations of the 311 reports, it seems to immediately reduce reports of this aggressive behaviour.
And in Edmonton, with our community-based aversive conditioning program, we had that opportunity to treat Coyotes just five times, but they always retreated from the approaching person in the course of the program, they either never came back or I think in three cases, the coyote was next reported 44 days later, and I’ve used the technique myself in my own neighbourhood and had that experience, too. Twice I’ve chased a coyote out of the Park across the street, and a coyote wasn’t reported in the neighbourhood again for many, many weeks. So it doesn’t take much to scare a coyote. And if we had enough citizens who are willing to work on this, teaching coyotes they’re not welcome residential areas. They’re not safe there. They can’t trust people there. I think we could increase coexistence. And that’s not to say lethal management would never be needed. I think we never want to take that two out of the kit, but I think that this kind of hazing or aversive conditioning approach could reduce the need for lethal management.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, that’s kind of the last thing that I wanted to ask about is you say that this behaviour has evolved over time as they’ve moved into urban areas and gotten used to people, but it can change back rather quickly, I gather, from what you’ve just described, because I had assumed that much like the behavioural changes that got them here, it would take a while to revert back, if at all.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Well, I guess that’s a bit of an unknown at this point, Jordan, we don’t know how fast or how well it will work, but our anecdotes suggests it works really quite quickly. If you think of coyotes as testing people all the time, that’s the nature of their behavioural flexibility and their incredible adaptability as a species. They are always testing us. And they have these dozens or hundreds of benign encounters with people or positive ones where people give them food. It’s kind of little wonder that they lose their fear of people. But they’re a cagey species. You know, all domestic dogs are descendant from wolves. Coyotes have never been domesticated. They are just so wiley. So I think that it’s quite plausible that if we have enough aversive conditioning of high intensity, it has to be high intensity to avoid actually causing habituation. I think we could maintain some coexistence as long as we keep the population in check, and we would do that by managing their food supply.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Colleen, thank you so much for this. It’s fascinating. My only remaining question is, why do you call them coyotes [kai-yotes], and I call them coyotes [kai-yo-tees]? Is that an East Coast, West Coast thing?
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Yeah, it is. The middle of the continent calls them coyotes [kai-yotes], and that’s where I am. And the edges, I guess, is far from the edges, Toronto call them coyotes [kai-yo-tees]. And both of us are said to be correct, but the word actually comes from the ancient Aztec, which I think sounds something like krr-tl.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh! Also, you called them wiley, which immediately put the Warner Brothers cartoon in my head, but.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Can’t help it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Amazing Yeah. Thank you so much for this. I feel like I learned a lot.
Dr. Colleen Cassidy St. Clair: Well, thank you, Jordan. I really appreciate your interest and your effort to help people coexist with coyotes.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. That was The Big Story for all of our recent episodes on animals in Canada that can hurt you, from gypsy moths to ticks to now coyotes, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can talk to us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can find us via email, thebigstorypodcast, that is all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And, of course, we’re in every podcast player you could possibly hope for, Apple, Stitcher, Google, Spotify PocketCast, Overcast, etc.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page