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April 20, 2012

Coyotes Among Us, Page 4: The Model Refined

Aurora naturalist Mary Ann Bonnell is determined to change coyote, and human, behavior

All Animals magazine

  • Mary Ann Bonnell                                     Stephen Collector

by Karen E. Lange

In 2009, at the request of Centennial officials, several Denver area communities began meeting to figure out how to manage the region’s burgeoning coyote population nonlethally. DeLaup provided leadership, as did Bonnell, Aurora’s lead naturalist. Since then, coyote attacks on people have fallen, and when they do take place officials can usually figure out the cause and address it. However, in Broomfield the solution has not been so simple. There, people continue to be bitten and no one is quite sure why. Last summer in the Anthem neighborhood, three children were bitten. The state shot 11 coyotes before finally killing the apparent culprit.

Finding no signs that anyone had been feeding coyotes, or that pet dogs were involved, city officials brought in three outside experts—Gehrt, Riley, and Julie Young from the research arm of Wildlife Services—to visit Broomfield and solve the mystery. Their report is expected in May, but Riley says it will provide no easy answers because it’s impossible to reconstruct at this point exactly what happened.

In a quest to go beyond the anecdotal evidence in hazing’s favor, Stewart Breck, who with Young works for the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center, is launching a study this spring to determine which nonlethal means best prevent conflict. Young already found that one technique—shaking an Altoids can filled with coins—worked on most of the captive coyotes at a Logan, Utah, research center. But not all—a sign perhaps that different personalities influence whether hazing works. Coyotes in pens, however, are not the same as wild animals. Which is why Breck’s real-world research is so important.

The study will cover Broomfield, Jefferson County, and Aurora, where Bonnell has pursued a nonlethal strategy since 2006. That was the year she watched a woman at a city council meeting cry because a coyote killed her pet dog. “I felt so sad for that person ... [and] I thought, ‘We could do this better.’ ”

Coyote Hysteria: How media coverage stirs up fears. »

Today, if Bonnell gets a complaint about an aggressive coyote, she puts up a sandwich board in the neighborhood telling people how to haze. She posts on the Web and Facebook. She gives talks in which she calls on people who see a coyote during the day to “release your inner warrior princess.” She orders businesses and housing complexes to clean up their overflowing dumpsters. And she lets people know that it’s not birds or wildlife in general eating the food they leave out; it’s coyotes. (She once discovered a senior center putting out its breakfast leftovers every morning—pancakes, bacon, and sausage.)

Bonnell has set up cameras along trails and in backyards to demonstrate how close at hand coyotes are: A sequence of photos shows a person walking by with a dog and then, shortly after, coyotes following behind. She has gotten a grant to study how people’s feelings about coyotes shape their response to them. And she’s recruited a network of citizen scientists to observe coyote behavior.

One of those volunteers wanted to shoot coyotes not so long ago: Ten minutes after Virginia Engleman let her four Yorkies into her backyard one evening, she heard a lot of barking. She ran out to see Daisy in a coyote’s mouth. There was blood all over the ground. She screamed and the coyote dropped Daisy, but it was too late—her neck was broken. Initially, Engleman wanted revenge. “If you would have talked to me six months after that happened, I would have said, ‘Let’s kill them; let’s get them out of there.’ … But I started thinking, ‘This is partly my fault too.’ ”

In January, just as Engleman and other volunteers were beginning their work, Bonnell got some bad news. After more than two years without an attack, a coyote had nipped a woman on the back of the leg in Aurora. It was the second time on record that a coyote had bitten someone in the city. And Bonnell knew why it had happened. An unknown person, nicknamed “the bunny man,” was leaving carrots, peanuts, tangerines, and peaches in the greenbelts, right next to Bonnell’s “Please don’t feed wildlife” signs. Another resident was letting her dog run off leash to play with the coyotes. Yet another resident was allowing coyotes to regularly hang out in her small yard. Because of this, an alpha pair had been approaching dog walkers and following children to school. When Bonnell tried hazing, they didn’t respond. The male let her get within 10 feet.

Coyote Hazing: Guidelines for Discouraging Neighborhood Coyotes»

After the bite, Bonnell called the state to trap the two bold coyotes—she had to. And then, on her day off, she went to identify their corpses.

“It was really important to me to know that it was the right [pair]—I mean, I hate to say that, because it’s not the animals’ fault. … When citizens ask me, I can say I know we got the right two.”

The next day Bonnell stayed home, sad and angry and in a daze. Finally, her dog jumped in her lap. She broke down and wept.

More than a month later, Bonnell still cries as she remembers what she sees as a terrible failure. But she’s back at work, trying to change coyote—and human—behavior.

“Boundaries were not only blurred, but lost. ... These coyotes ... just didn’t get it that they were wild,” she says. “There have been tracks seen—the remaining coyotes are keeping a human avoidance schedule. … I think everybody’s learning. … And now we can move forward.”

Read Part 1 of this series: Coyotes Under Fire»

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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