The coronavirus global pandemic has emptied streets and sidewalks and led to a surge in stories with headlines about animals taking over cities worldwide.
Pictures of mountain goats wandering in a town in north Wales, wild turkeys in Boston and Oakland, a puma jumping fences in Santiago, Chile, and wild boars in Barcelona have captivated self-isolating people everywhere.
Although widely circulated social-media reports of dolphins in Venetian canals and drunken elephants in Yunnan, China, have been debunked, several Twitter posts about coyotes roaming a deserted San Francisco recently were picked up by international media and sensationalized.
Given that Vancouver has had a permanent population of coyotes for more than three decades, has there been an uptick in sightings here, with our equally vacant and quiet neighbourhoods?
And will our pets, especially free-ranging cats and unleashed dogs, become sustenance for the bold and clever hunters often referred to as “tricksters” by the First Nations peoples who lived alongside them for thousands of years and who gave them prominent roles in their myths and legends?
According to Dannie Piezas, the urban wildlife programs coordinator for the Stanley Park Ecology Society (SPES), the answers are “yes” and “maybe”.
Coyotes started moving to cities more than a century ago
Coyotes moved into the Lower Mainland, and into the consciousness of many Vancouverites, in the 1980s. The BC SPCA estimates that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 coyotes living in the Lower Mainland.
The wily members of the Canidae family—which also includes wolves, jackals, foxes, and even domestic dogs—started moving out across North America from their semi-arid Great Plains and southwestern desert territory in the 1800s, when human invaders cut forests, established farms and ranches, and extirpated populations of the coyote’s most feared natural predator: the grey wolf.
Coyotes adapted well to living near the colonizing humans, and it wasn’t long before they moved near, then into, cities that incorporated parks, ravines, and other wooded areas. There, coyotes could hunt the small mammals that make up the majority of their diet: squirrels, rabbits, rats, birds, and mice.
Unfortunately for humans, valued domestic animals and pets—mainly cats and dogs—sometimes became just another item on the opportunistic carnivore’s varied menu. It is not uncommon in Vancouver to see homemade posters with pictures of missing felines on telephone poles in residential areas frequented by coyotes.
Coyote sightings rose in February
Piezas manages the nonprofit SPES’s Co-Existing With Coyotes program, which has been educating Vancouver residents about living peacefully with the adaptable canids for almost two decades.
Besides producing school presentations as well as signs and pamphlets that teach people how to react to coyotes when encountered, how to keep pets and young children safe, and how to remove attractants from properties, the program—which is cosponsored by the provincial Environment Ministry and the park board—also operates a phone line and an email address by which residents can report sightings. (See bottom of story.) Those reports are then transferred to an online citywide sightings map, which also indicates whether or not the coyote appeared aggressive, attacked a pet, was feeding, or seemed to be ill or injured.
“I think I started getting more sightings in late February,” Piezas told the Straight during a phone interview from her home, where she is working during the health emergency. “A couple of neighbourhoods had a jump in reports because people were seeing them a lot more in the daytime. And because people usually think they’re a nocturnal animal, they just wanted to check in and see if this was concerning behaviour. But in their natural environment, like outside of the city, they won’t exclusively hunt in the nighttime; they’re actually more daytime hunters.
“That [nocturnal] behaviour is more observed in the city, actually as a reaction to us,” she added, “because it’s a lot busier with more pedestrians and traffic in the daytime and the coyotes want to get around that.”
That increase in sightings is normal at this time of year, she said, due to the coyotes’ annual denning season, which lasts for a few months.
“When we talk about the denning season,” Piezas explained, “it’s pretty much when the coyotes are going to be raising their pups, and so they will be getting their dens ready by this time, by April, because by mid-April, that’s when we’re expecting to have the pups born inside the dens. And then towards May is when they’ll begin to come out, because at four to five weeks, that’s when they start to emerge and go along with their parents to learn how to hunt and to survive.”
Coyotes' "bold" behaviour: territory first, then food
Piezas said some people calling in sightings recently noted that the coyotes seemed bolder, but she chalked up that behaviour to natural instinct.
“During February to March, that happens not because of food, actually, but because they are trying to signal to everyone in the community, particularly dogs, because they are very sensitive to other canids at this time. They’ll be signalling that ‘Hey, we’re here, and we want to safeguard this territory because we are raising this family.’
“And so it’s not so much that they‘re desperately looking for food,” she continued, “but it’s actually an intentional messaging that they’re doing to let the community know that they’re there.”
She noted, however, that hunger will play a larger role in diurnal appearances in the near future.
“But later on, as they’re looking for food for the pups, yeah, they will probably come out a lot more in the daytime so they can find food for the pups.”
Coyotes will prey on cats, both domestic and feral
As for the possibility of pets, especially cats, falling prey to emboldened coyotes hunting both for themselves and for stay-at-home moms during a time when there is far less daytime vehicular and pedestrian traffic—not to mention far more sequestered pet owners at home all day and exposed to cats’ demands to be let out in the warmer weather and longer days—Piezas said, essentially, that predators will follow their instincts.
“If the case is, indeed, that more pets are being left unsupervised outside in our situation today, then coyotes probably will take advantage of whatever food sources are there. It doesn’t change the fact that pets should be kept inside or supervised well and that dogs should be leashed at this time, especially now that the breeding season is here.
“If there is an abundance of prey in general—and, again, they really prefer rats and mice and squirrels and other small mammals—cats, if they are available in an area and if they’re fairly easy to catch, then, yeah, they probably wouldn’t want to turn away that opportunity.”
Piezas stressed that a Chicago study found that cats and dogs make up only about three percent of urban coyotes’ total food intake there, and that no one can say with certainty why any given cat has gone missing.
“It’s hard to get a measure of the number of cats that fall prey to coyotes just by the number of cats that go missing, because we don’t actually know if all of those are coyote attacks. But if we’re able to study their remains in their scat—or you can even do isotope studies of their fur—you can get a notion of where their food is from.
“Of course,” she admitted, “if you do a scat study, you won’t be able to tell if that three percent of cats is pets or feral cats.” Piezas added that such a study has not been done in Vancouver. “There isn’t much funding for that research.”
Keeping cats stimulated key to indoor life
Although Piezas said she couldn't confirm whether or not self-isolating people were allowing their cats outside more frequently, she said she could sympathize with those who feel that way.
"I understand that it could be difficult to be in the same space [for long periods of time] with your own family, and now with your pets as well, and there might be that desire to let them out for longer and more frequent times.
"I think a lot of people feel sorry for their cats if they don’t have a lot of stimulation for them inside," she explained, "and they seem to want to dart outside right away if you open the door, let’s say. And that’s because they are not getting a certain kind of fulfillment inside for their own psychological and physical needs. There are ways around that.”
She said indoor cats “are much better off and have more healthy and longer lives than outdoor cats do", not having to contend with vehicles, wild animals such as coyotes and raccoons, disease and parasites, and other cats and dogs.
A good resource for information about how to keep a cat happy indoors, she noted, is the BC SPCA website's page for that topic.
As for humans coping with coyotes, Piezas urged education as the pathway to tolerance.
“I think, in these times, it’s easy to be in a place of disquiet and fear because there’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s a lot of anxiety, and I think...one of the solutions is learning as much as we can about something we fear or don’t know. And it is possible for something like coyotes: just because they exhibit certain behaviours, there are reasons behind them, and we can have an active role in our relationship with coyotes or other urban wildlife as well.
“I hope that through our program and through the messages that we have and the information that we can share that people can have more empowerment to send a positive and proactive message to their communities and have a more harmonious relationship with nature and wildlife.”