To live in Los Angeles is to live within howling distance of coyotes. They are there night and day, usually at a safe remove, more often heard than seen. Coyotes are wild animals yet seasoned urbanites, bedding down in lush shrubbery around our houses and feasting on fruit from trees, pet food foolishly left outside, garbage in unsecured trash cans, and water from fountains and backyard irrigation systems. When they kill small dogs, it’s less about eating them — coyotes are in the canid family — and more about showing dominance in their territory. They sometimes kill cats, but are more likely to pick dead ones off the road. On the good-for-the-ecosystem side, they eat rodents, squirrels, vermin and road kill.
In the last few years, as social media use has gone up so have reported sightings of coyotes. People also report that coyotes are less afraid and more aggressive, following a jogger on a run or a dog on a stroll with its owner. Still, coyotes rarely bite humans. The number of reported bites in L.A. County each year did surge from three or fewer in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to 14 in 2015 and 16 in 2016. But the number dropped to five in 2017, and so far this year the Department of Public Health has reported only two.
Nonetheless, L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander, responding to an increase in anecdotes about coyote sightings and brazenness, has called for the city’s Department of Animal Services to consider trapping coyotes and relocating them in forests or other wild settings. He said this move would protect residents as well as coyotes. No, it wouldn’t.
Trapping and relocating is a completely misguided idea. It would consume an enormous amount of Animal Services resources to make a dent in the coyote population, and even then, it wouldn’t stop new coyotes from wandering into neighborhoods. And it definitely would not protect coyotes. Inexplicably, Councilman Paul Koretz, ordinarily a fervent defender of animal welfare, signed on as Englander’s co-sponsor.
You can’t simply remove masses of coyotes from the city. Coyotes are territorial and live in packs. Take one coyote out, and two or three could move in to claim that territory as their own. And there’s no telling how these replacements are going to treat their new neighbors. Meanwhile, the city can’t legally deposit coyotes or any other wild animals in a new location. Animal relocation is the purview of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But even if the state authorized the move, a city coyote left in an unfamiliar forest or wilderness area wouldn’t know where the food resources are. It also could be expelled by the coyotes that already rule there. If a coyote attempts to return to its old haunt, it’s more likely to get struck by a car than to make it back. In short, relocation sets them up for starvation and death.
The reason that coyotes have become comfortable with us is that we treat them like neighbors. We feed them, either deliberately (which is illegal) or inadvertently when we leave garbage or pet food outside for the taking. We don’t hurt them, so, yes, they have become habituated to us and comfortable.
The right thing to do when a coyote follows you (in case you drop food or walk near a den of its pups) or shows up someplace it shouldn’t (for example, your backyard) is to haze the animal. Yell at it, wave your arms, throw things at it. (The Department of Animal Services website has a detailed list of things to do to get coyotes to stay away from our homes.) Most coyotes assiduously avoid people; others learn to stay away when we haze them.
Of course, there are coyotes that are truly a problem, that are too aggressive, that bite people unprovoked. They should be trapped and euthanized. But a trapping and relocating program will not make the coyote population of Los Angeles go down nor, reliably, take out every problem coyote. Many ecologists and animal welfare advocates oppose trap-and-release programs, as does the general manager of the Department of Animal Services. Better to have intensive education programs for human residents about how to interact or, rather, not interact with coyotes.