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Uneasy Neighbors: Feral Dogs, Coyotes, and Wolves

A habituated coyote in a neighborhood street.

A habituated coyote in a neighborhood street.

It snowed last night, about an inch. Fresh snow is pretty and makes it possible to see what critters are passing near the house at night. Aside from a couple jumping mouse tracks under the bird feeder, what caught my attention was a line of dog-like tracks that looked like the animal walked on two feet–most likely a coyote.

Coyotes make an effort to place their back foot in the same place that the front foot on that side has stepped. This makes for silent walking without having to try to see where each of their four feet is meeting the ground, which would make stalking impossible as they would have to continually look down at their feet.

Dog tracks.

A little farther down the road, there were some more prints which were about the same size as the coyote’s, but all four feet made their separate tracks and there were sloppy drag marks. Definitely a dog. Sloppy footwork indicates that it didn’t have to worry about keeping silent while stalking wild animals for food.

Neither the coyote nor the dog had tried to knock over the garbage can, so, all is peaceful, but this is not always the case when man and members of the genus Canis (dog-wolf-coyote) species come together, as they increasingly are doing all across North America.

On December 26, 2012, eight-year old Jay Heino was attacked by nine feral dogs on the Ramah Chapter of the Navajo Nation, south of Grants and Gallup, New Mexico. By the time his parents arrived, he was dead. Several of the dogs were strays being fed by the boy’s uncle.

According to Kevin Gleason, Navajo Nation wildlife and animal control manager, each of the 89,000 homes on the reservation owns 4-5 dogs, resulting in about 445,000 dogs roaming a two-county area; most of them free-ranging or even feral. They all need food and this can translate into feral dogs killing livestock, eating garbage, and even occasionally attacking people. In 2011 a 55-year-old man in that area had a seizure, fell down, and was attacked and nearly killed by feral dogs.

The problem with wild dogs attacking people is not unique to the Navajo Reservation. In January 2013, wild dogs attacked and killed four people in a park in Mexico City. St. Louis, Missouri, reports packs of wild dogs roaming through parks, golf courses and suburbs. It’s estimated that there are at least 50,000 wild dogs roaming the streets of Detroit.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. The CDC “Dog Bite: Fact Sheet” says that each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by domestic dogs, and as many as 50 Americans die every year from dog attacks. However, 75 percent of the attacks and over 50 percent of the fatal attacks are by three breeds–pit bull, presa canario, and rottweiler–all bred for aggressiveness. Most importantly, domestic dog attacks are defensive, unless the dogs have been bred to attack. When feral dogs attack, their behavior is predatory.

Coyote tracks.

Bites by feral dogs account for the majority (nearly 4 million) of all reported animal bites in the U.S. Between 1979 and 1996, 238 people died as a result of dog bites in the U.S.; one-quarter of these deaths were attributed to free-ranging and/or feral dogs.

A recent study concludes that feral dogs are responsible for $620 million a year due to damage to livestock from attacks and disease, property, and threats to human health. A pack of feral dogs in the Spokane area have recently killed about 100 animals, mostly livestock.

The estimated dog population in the U.S. is 74.8 million in 44.8 million homes. No one is quite sure just how many feral dogs are in the U.S., but one estimate is there are at least 100 million feral dogs and cats.

The irony is that is the 100 million number is also the upper range estimate of the U.S. population of coyotes. But, what is a coyote, or a wolf or a dog for that matter, is increasingly difficult to determine. All members of the genus Canis have two options when they meet: kill each other or get friendly and breed. Inevitably, as populations of coyotes, feral dogs, and wolves increase, hybridization of all free-ranging species of Canis will grow. And as the resulting hybrids–coy-dogs, wolf-dogs, and coy-wolves–intermingle with modern society, this spells problems. Hybrids are often more aggressive than plain coyotes or wolves as they do not have the full instinctual hunting skills of their wild relatives, but the same appetites.

Canadian wildlife ethologist Dr. Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary, has developed a model (pdf) of the seven stages of habituation that lead to wolf attacks on humans. This model is based on his observations of wolves on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and his years of study of ungulates and their predators.

  1. The first stage is scarcity of wild game. This can be due to over-predation, poaching, disease, or habitat loss and so on.
  2. Wolves begin approaching human habitation, though limit their visits to nocturnal hours. Their presence is usually established by barking matches with local dogs.
  3. After a certain amount of time, wolves begin to frequent human habitations in daylight hours, and observe people and livestock at a distance.
  4. The wolves begin acting bolder by attacking small livestock and pets during daylight, sometimes pursuing their prey up to verandas. At this point the wolves do not focus on humans, but will growl and act threateningly toward them. There are numerous reports of dogs being killed by wolves, some while the owners have them on leash.
  5. The wolves begin attacking large-bodied livestock and may follow riders, as well as mount porches and verandas to look into windows.
  6. People begin to be harassed, usually in a playful manner. The wolves will chase people over short distances and nip at them, though will retreat if confronted.
  7. Wolves begin attacking people in predatory fashion.

(Note that this model does not describe the behavior of rabid wolves.)

Geist’s model has been published in peer-reviewed journals and verified by researchers in Europe. As of 2013, numerous wolves in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and western New Mexico have been reported in stages four and five. A pair of wolves wintered in Polson, Montana this year, worrying town residents.

Geist’s model predicts that as U.S. wolf populations increase and large ungulate wild prey declines, wolves will venture into towns, farms, and ranches and there will be hybridization, as well increasing attacks on livestock, pets, and people. But will the offspring of these wolves be wolves?

Habituated coyote sleeping beside house.

Coyotes are the least likely wild dog to fatally attack a person, but their  population is growing–estimates range from 10 to 100 million, even though about 400,000 are shot or trapped every year. They are now found in all states except Hawaii.

As they move into urban areas all across North America, garbage, cats, dogs, birdseed, compost piles, and roadkill all are on the menu for coyotes. It’s now estimated that 2,000 live in the greater Chicago area. Another large pack resides in and around the Griffith Park area in Los Angeles.

Dr. Robert Timm of the University of California at Davis reports finding a similar habituation pattern to Geist’s model in coyote behavior. Timm and Rex Baxter have documented over 200 coyote attacks on people across North America. California has the most, but attacks have occurred all across the country. Some are rabid animals, but a growing number of attacks are by healthy animals. Timm says that it only takes one person feeding them to make them aggressive.

There are only two recorded fatalities from coyote attacks in North America.

In 1981 in Glendale, California, a coyote attacked toddler Kelly Keen, who was rescued by her father, but died in surgery due to blood loss and a broken neck.

On October 29, 2009, Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell was walking alone and unarmed in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia when two “coyotes” attacked and killed her. The animals were later found to be coy-wolves–wolf and coyote hybrids.

The irony of the urbanization of coyotes is that coyotes can help limit urban Canada goose populations that have become nuisances and health hazards, fouling playgrounds, athletic fields, ponds in suburbs, and golf courses. There is, however, a way to tap the goose fear of coyotes without any real coyotes. Many companies make rubber faux 3-D coyotes, such as Bird-X.

Geese feeding around a coyote decoy.

My own observations of the use of rubber coyotes in Mill Valley, California showed mixed results. Flocks of tame Canada geese had descended on the high school football, soccer, and baseball fields, depositing copious amounts of droppings, which resulted in anyone falling to ground being smeared with goose poop. Astroturf was laid down on the football field, and that kept the geese off that playing surface, but they continued to feed and poop along the sidelines.

At first the geese fled when the decoy coyotes were put up, but after a while the geese caught on, and came back to graze happily on the high school baseball field right beside the decoys. If anything, the geese seem to be attracted to the decoys. If the decoys were motorized to move, howl, or growl that might help too, but with school and homes nearby that would give people something to howl about.

So, what do I do about the free-ranging dogs and coyotes that roam around the house at night? Any sign of a rabid animal or one that approaches in Geist’s stage four or up goes to Canis heaven. But otherwise I am willing to co-exist. Most all dogs in this area have collars and tags and no livestock are in this area. New Mexico also has the highest rate of bubonic plague in the U.S. and mice love to get into engine area of your car and chew wires. If Canis sp. can help keep the rodent population down I applaud them, as the local mice and pack rats seem to be increasingly savvy about my peanut butter and oatmeal baited traps.

Some may say, “How could you trap and kill those poor mice?” Let me assure them that the ravens cheer every time I leave them an offering of a mouse or pack rat that has succumbed to the traps of this two-legged predator, and I will happily neighbor with all the ravens who want to reside nearby, even if they do sometimes perch on the satellite dish.

Images by James Swan

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