Coyotes go out of their way to stay out of ours: They’re partial to open areas but seek hiding places in cities. They’re naturally active in daylight but adopt nocturnal lifestyles when living near humans. They can follow traffic signals and cross roads after rush hour. They even try to “escort” dog walkers away from den sites where vulnerable young play.
Yet for all their efforts to politely coexist, these intelligent, adaptable canines receive little thanks. Coyotes rarely attack people—only one fatality has ever been recorded in the U.S.—but sadly, the reverse isn’t true.
“Roughly once every minute … someone somewhere is ending the life of a coyote,” writes historian Dan Flores in his book Coyote America.
But coyotes have roamed this land longer than people have, surviving stressors that doomed camels and elephants here. Though likely new to modern life in parts of the U.S., they’ve thrived near us for 15,000 years, inspiring Native American creation stories and Aztec worship while subsisting on mice, rats, rabbits and other small animals who inhabit human settlements. “Coyotes took our measure a long, long time ago,” says Flores. “They figured out that they could get the goody out of being around us without having to be domesticated.”
That refusal to be tamed may be why America’s song dogs—whose howl Flores calls our “original national anthem”—inspire unwarranted fears. They’re so closely related to domesticated dogs that, though it’s uncommon, they can breed with them. At the same time, they’re not interested in being our besties, even eluding scientists who study them. When Lynsey White worked on the Cook County Coyote Project in Chicago, radio telemetry pinpointed what her eyes could not: Coyotes in brush, construction zones and a restaurant parking lot. “We got very close,” recalls White, HSUS director of humane wildlife conflict resolution. “But I did not see one coyote the whole time.”
When coyotes do enter our sightlines—in suburban gardens, city parks or, most famously, a Chicago sandwich shop to cool off on a hot day—they’re chasing the shadows of human disturbance. Our mass extermination of wolves made way for these smaller cousins to trot into every state but Hawaii and, in many places, assume the role of top predator. Our animal control programs eliminated roaming dog packs, likely making cities more welcoming. And when we invited pets into our own families, we inadvertently created conditions that sometimes get coyotes in trouble simply for trying to feed theirs.
In August, the HSUS-affiliated South Florida Wildlife Center treated a coyote with a hip abrasion and fractured teeth. Caught in a snare trap, he’d banged his head repeatedly, trying to escape the cable wrapped around his neck. Residents claimed he’d been attacking cats. That wouldn’t be unusual because, as White says, “to a coyote, a free-roaming cat or a small dog looks very similar to a rabbit or a woodchuck, which are normal prey for a coyote.” Rather than punishing animals for natural behaviors, we can protect all creatures—domestic and wild—living among us. Here’s how.
Don’t bait them
Respect family time
Now is the start of breeding season; pups born in spring stay in dens for four to six weeks. Parents mate for life and take care of their young together, sometimes assisted by older offspring. If you unknowingly walk your dog near a den, coyotes might follow to encourage you to move along. “The animals are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do,” says Flores, who’s been shown the way out of a New Mexico canyon while walking his malamute. “They’re defending their dens and their pups.” Reduce their anxiety and yours by taking a different route.
Keep them at bay
If coyotes get too close, yell, wave your arms, make loud noises, throw sticks or spray water; they’ll probably get the message. But avoid unnecessary harassment, says Megan Draheim, founding director of the District Coyote Project in Washington, D.C. They may be caring for pups nearby or, as Draheim experienced on a winter night, giving us a harmless glimpse of their many talents. While salting her icy steps, Draheim saw a coyote trotting effortlessly across the street—a funny contrast to an earlier walk with her dogs when they’d all been “slip-sliding all over the place.” But a little frozen terrain is nothing to animals who, like us, have made every terrestrial habitat—from deserts to swamps to concrete jungles—their home sweet home.