I have always been a lover of nature and the great outdoors. From mud puddles to wildflowers, from arachnids to butterflies, from opossums to bobcats – it all imbues me with wonder and it all commands a great deal of respect from me. Nature is fraught with beauty. Sadly some of its more intricate, minuscule features go unnoticed by most people. But I think that most of us can appreciate the more obvious characteristics in nature: the colors of a prairie landscape in July, the grace of a white-tailed deer as it bounds across the horizon, the majesty of a bald eagle perched high atop an oak, the agility of a butterfly as it flutters from one blossom to another. Such things, when noticed, are appreciated, or they are at least not feared. Sadly however, there are some attributes of nature that instill a great deal of unjustifiable apprehension and even anxiety and dread in many people. I suspect that in our urban and suburban locales, this is more often the case than not.
I live in a suburb of Chicago. Many people here are not comfortable around most wildlife. I’ve known people who have diced up snakes with shovels because they happened across them while tending to their lawn. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived threat. What people fail to realize is that we only have 4 poisonous snake species here and their numbers are very few. What’s more, if you bother to take a quick look at any wildlife resource, you would find that those snakes are pretty easy to identify. I’ve known people who have called the police because a wild turkey meandered into their yard from the adjoining forest preserve – that’s right, I said the ADJOINING forest preserve where wildlife resides. I’m sure they had to pay a premium for a lot that backs up to a forest preserve. What did they expect? That the critters would observe the implied boundary and heed the warning of the “no trespassing” sign? I once had to help an elderly woman remove a “weird looking dog” from her patio. It was an opossum! People are simply naive and their naivete leads to unreasonable fears. Unfortunately for the wildlife, their unreasonable fears can be dangerous, even deadly.
Many people in our area believe that we have a “coyote problem”. These vicious canids allegedly roam our neighborhoods and brazenly snatch little dogs out of the arms of their owners. They lurk in the shadows and wait for an opportunity to ambush small children. These insolent beasts invade our neighborhoods in packs of 30-50 and ransack our garbage bins. They carry rabies and spread disease. They are huge, ferocious beasts that are taking over our communities! Hooey! This is all myth stemming from ignorance and irrational fear. It is unjustified. To reference FDR, there is nothing to fear, but fear itself. Coyote’s are not vicious. They are curious, playful, wild animals. The operative word being wild. And as with any wild animal, you must exercise common sense, be cautious and be informed.
Now let’s debunk these myths. Will coyotes prey upon your little dog? They might. But when they do so it is simply in the context of hunting for sustenance. Coyotes are opportunistic generalists, which means that they eat everything from plants to bugs to small animals. If they see a small dog or cat alone, they cannot make the distinction between a domestic pet and a wild animal. It is prey to them. Common sense should dictate that you don’t leave your little pets unattended, especially at night. And they can jump fences, so don’t fall into a false sense of security simply because you have a fenced in yard.
Will coyote’s attack small children? Again, they might. But coyote attacks on children, or on humans in general, are the exception, not the rule. They seldom happen. And almost all of those that have been reported resulted in only minor injuries. The number of attacks from domestic dogs are far more prevalent and the injuries far more serious, not to mention the fatalities that result from domestic dog attacks. The mere presence of coyotes near my home would not prompt me to keep my kids confined indoors and I certainly wouldn’t put out a call to action to have these relatively docile animals eradicated. As a parent I would certainly err on the side of caution if we were to encounter a coyote and I am constantly educating and reminding my kids about wildlife and how to react and respond to close encounters. But to be honest, I am more leery of domestic dogs that I don’t know and things like bees. I don’t want to find out that my child suddenly developed an allergy to bees after he or she has been stung. These things are far more likely and far more dangerous than a chance encounter with a coyote. And one more thing to consider, any wild animal may attack a human. Whether it is out of fear, or aggression stemming from a protective instinct for its young, or defending its meal, or simply reacting to harassment, wild animals may attack. I’m talking about deer, turtles, rabbits, squirrels, etc. My dad was attacked by a squirrel when he was a kid. He had a nice scar on his hand to prove it. There is data out there, but it is not as easy to find as the data for animal attacks from the more “ominous” species.
Do coyotes travel in large packs? No. They are social animals, but a pack of coyotes usually consists of a male and female (who mate for life by the way), their juvenile pups from the previous year and their new pups. Once in a while a family pack will accept a lone coyote if resources prove sufficient for another member. What’s more, coyote’s are very vocal animals. They howl, yip, bark and almost sing at times. They are loud. The thing with coyotes is that one coyote sounds like two, two coyotes sound like six, three coyotes sound like fourteen, etc. So when you hear what sounds like a very large pack of coyotes, rest assured that there are fewer of them than you think.
Do coyotes carry rabies? Duh, any mammal can contract rabies. Rabies (Lyssavirus) is an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system. It’s transmitted through the saliva a few days before death when the animal “sheds” the virus. Rabies is not transmitted through the blood, urine, or feces of an infected animal, nor is it spread airborne through the open environment. Because it affects the nervous system, most rabid animals behave abnormally. Rabies is more common in certain animals than in others. You will most commonly see it in bats, skunks and raccoons.
Are coyotes huge, ferocious beasts? Are they taking over our communities. No and no. Coyotes are actually pretty small. They can weigh anywhere between 35 and 45 pounds. That is the size of a medium sized dog. And, unless cornered, they are not typically aggressive toward humans or domestic dogs of their own size or larger. Their prevalence in our communities is not a result of them taking over. Instead it is a result of humans taking over their stomping grounds. We push them away as we settle in. They move out and then we catch up to them and push them further away. We do this until there is nowhere left for them to go. So they learn to coexist, as should we.
What prompted me to write on this topic was an article I recently read in our local paper about a resident whose Chihuahua was taken by a coyote. Instead of taking common sense precautions and educating herself, she waged a war against coyotes. She appealed to the village board to “fix the coyote problem.” We had a similar call to action not long ago at the county level and leg traps were discussed. Fortunately that measure was denied. In this case our police chief rebuked this resident’s efforts to “take care of the coyote problem” with common sense. He advised the resident that coyotes are a part of our landscape here and the best solution would be to learn about them and take proper precautions when necessary. Kudos to the chief.
So when we fear something, we must learn to respect it, not necessarily destroy it. Inform yourself and take precautions. Use common sense. These tactics will prove more useful and more effective than knee-jerk responses. I’ll be honest. I fear some humans more than I fear any wild animal. If you want to look at statistics… we are destroying ourselves and everything around us. Have respect for all living things. They are all creations from God.