Monster vs. Coyote: the Great Surf City Land War continues

A long time ago, before people inhabited the earth, a monster walked upon the land, eating all the animals except Coyote. In anger, Coyote attached himself to the top of the highest mountain and challenged the monster to try to eat him. The monster tried to suck in Coyote with its powerful breath, but the ropes were too strong. The monster tried other ways to eat Coyote, but it was no use.

Realizing that Coyote was sly and clever, the monster thought of a new plan. It would befriend Coyote by inviting him into its home. But first, Coyote asked if he could enter the monster’s stomach to see his friends. The monster allowed this, but Coyote cut out its heart and set fire to its insides. His friends were freed. From the monster’s body parts Coyote made the indigenous nations and they flourished. —Adapted from on a summary of the Nez Perce tale of Coyote, the Creator, written by Terri J. Andrew. Turquoise Butterfly Press.

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

In March, Huntington Beach residents living on the edges of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Naval Weapons Station packed a study session held by the city council and Chief of Police Kenneth Small, joined by state Fish & Game and Orange County Animal Control officials.

Metropolitan coyotes: An increasing common sight in the suburbs
Metropolitan coyotes: An increasingly common sight in the suburbs. (Photo not in Huntington Beach)

The citizens were snarling mad. Coyotes were invading their neighborhoods and city officials hadn’t done enough to stop them, they said. The citizens made it clear they weren’t going to take it anymore.

The emotionally charged meeting was a skirmish in the proverbial land war that has dominated the history of the American west since its first European explorers and would-be conquerors set foot on its soil centuries ago.

Until recently, there was no doubt about who was winning that war. But now, the coyotes are fighting back and seem to be winning.

Lisa Comacho, who lives near the weapon station’s wide open fields, sounded desperate and angry as she described to the officials a homeland under siege.

Seven pets and been killed on her street in the past week, she claimed. The coyotes are more aggressive than ever and they no longer fear people. Instead, they growl at them and stalk them when they walk their dogs, she said.

“The other day they ripped into a friend’s rabbit cage….They’re killing dogs and cats,” she complained.

Comacho expressed her ultimate fear, the same fear held by others at the meeting. “All I know is that we bought homes to live comfortably and safely and we can’t let our children out. Babies can’t go in the back yard….What we’re looking at is someday a child getting hurt or killed.”

One young mother said that her cat had been killed by a coyote and that a coyote had torn a dog on her street into three pieces. Sobbing, she pleaded for her daughter’s safety. “Is it going to take my daughter to get attacked in order for you guys to do something?”

Then she issued a threat: “I can tell you—if I lose my daughter or my daughter gets harmed for this, there’s going to be a price to pay.”

Fearful of coyotes in her neighborhood
“I can tell you—if I lose my daughter or my daughter gets harmed for this, there’s going to be a price to pay.” Photo: Surf City Voice

A licensed day care provider said that her back yard was “social worker approved,” but that she can’t have children there anymore because of the coyotes—one killed her dog early one morning and a nearby school was put on lockdown when the predator came onto the playground, she claimed.

She admitted that people cause the coyote problem by leaving food out for their pets and other small wildlife, such as possums and raccoons, which attracts the coyotes. But “eliminate” the problem coyotes, she advised, and educate the public.

“When I walk to the park with my day care kids, I carry a hockey stick, a baseball bat and an air horn,” she complained, describing the situation as “ridiculous.”

“Basically, I wonder if the city is insured for the risk of personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits. If the city does not take action, it will be a willful disregard of public safety,” she warned.

Some Friends
Despite the dramatic denunciations, Surf City’s Wiley Coyotes did have a few reliable friends on hand.

Julie Bixby, who lives with her husband Mark near the edge of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, cautioned that getting rid of coyotes could lead to a rabies outbreak, citing Central Park in New York City has one place where that happened.

Quoting from the book “Rewilding the World,” by Caroline Frazier, Bixby gave a more dire warning of her own: “Lose the animals, lose the ecosystems. Lose the ecosystems and the game is over.”

People, not coyotes, are the problem, she said.

“Coyotes would focus on their natural prey if people didn’t leave out tempting treats, like their trash, dog food and their cats,” she noted, adding that because of the presence of coyotes her cat is not allowed out at night.

A naturalist from the Bosla Chica Conservancy pointed out that coyotes are opportunistic predators that will eat anything. “If you put the pizza in your trash can you are ringing the dinner bell and they will come answer it,” she explained.

“You are ultimately responsible for the protection of your children and your pets. If you don’t want the animals in your back yard, don’t invite them in,” she advised.

Jamie Pavlat, representing the Wetlands Wildlife Care Center and Amigos de Bolsa Chica, was succinct: “The reality in 2010,” she said, “is that we have to learn to co-exist with wildlife. That’s just the situation we are in.”

Pavlat may be correct, but looking at history, co-existence is not the way it was supposed to be.

The descendants of the first European invaders of what is today Orange County long ago destroyed much of its natural habitat and pushed aside most of its indigenous occupants, both human and animal.  Where natural enclaves remain, like the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, the invasion continues full force in the form of suburban sprawl.

But instead of dying off to suburban utopia, coyotes were fruitful and multiplied, feeding off the monster that stole their traditional homelands.

Chief Kenneth Small
HBPD Chief of Police, Kenneth Small at the March 16 study session. Photo: Surf City Voice

Call it the Reconquista, if you will, but studies show that coyote populations are getting stronger, ignoring the usual borders between humans and wildlife and are recapturing  ground throughout the west, especially in Southern California, while capturing new ground in the east, including in urban areas like Chicago.

A 2004 UC Davis study that cites an increase in coyote attacks  (Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem) compiled data from government agencies and other sources going back over 50 years and concluded that education, environmental and behavioral modification (in humans and coyotes)—and sometimes eradication of problem coyotes—are needed to prevent coyote attacks on people.

The study cited 89 documented coyote attacks in California since 1988 on children and adults, or on pets standing close to their owners, with most of the incidents occurring in Southern California. It also noted 77 other cases where “coyotes stalked children, chased individuals, or aggressively threatened adults.” In 35 cases, the study said, there was a likely possibility of serious or fatal injury to small children if they had not been rescued by adults.

City dwelling coyotes present a different kind of health problem as well. Although coyotes help to prevent rabies outbreaks by keeping skunk populations down, the UC Davis study points out that they can also bring rabies, a dog tapeworm that transfers to people, and other diseases to dog populations.

But the study also reveals that coyote populations thrive where affluent suburban neighborhoods touch upon natural landscapes that contain lush vegetation and provide an ample food source and breeding ground for rodents like gophers, moles and voles.

The rodents, in turn, attract coyotes, which are also drawn by a variety of other human provided food sources including pet food and kitchen leftovers in trash cans, as well as various fruits and vegetables found in many home gardens.

A different study in 2001 found that about 24 percent of the diet of tested suburban coyotes came from human activities, but other studies indicate that the percentage of human food could be much less, suggesting the plentiful availability of other food sources for coyotes.

A favorite food item for suburban coyotes is cats, according to the UC Davis study. In two other studies that examined scat remains from coyotes in Claremont and Malibu, up to 13.6 percent of their diet was from cats.

Suburban coyotes also survive on a steady supply of water runoff from lawns watering and outdoor water dishes for pets. People, who deliberately feed coyotes or other wild animals, which is illegal in the state of California, exacerbate the problem by making life in residential areas more coyote friendly.

In the end, coyote populations expand or contract according to their food supplies: more food, more puppies; less food, fewer puppies.

Coyote fence
A roller and additional chicken wire on top of this fence at Golden View park in Huntington Beach helps protect goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits and other animals inside from coyotes, which have the ability to jump over high fences. Photo: Surf City Voice

The well supplied refuge that residential neighborhoods provide for coyotes greatly increases their population density, the UC Davis study points out.

A male coyote living in natural setting, for example, lives in a range of between 8-16 square miles with a general density of about 1.5 coyotes maximum per square mile or—sometimes—up to 10 coyotes per square mile in wild areas in the western United States.

But Southern California’s suburban coyotes were found living in areas between one-quarter square mile and one-half square mile range.  And it was reported that 55 coyotes were killed within one-half mile of where a three-year-old girl was killed by a coyote in Glendale in 1981, the only incident on record of a human killed by a coyote in the United States.

“This suggests that suburban environments are extraordinarily rich in resources for coyotes, leading to high densities,” the study concluded.

A 2007 study of urban coyotes (Ecology of Coyotes in Urban Landscapes, Stanley D. Gehrt), i.e., coyotes living in city areas not adjacent to natural landscapes, came to similar conclusions.

Based on information taken from electronic tracking devices placed on 150 coyotes, the ongoing study concluded that there are from 200 – 2,000 coyotes living in urban Chicago, far from natural wildlife habitats and that coyotes living in metropolitan environments live longer than coyotes living strictly in the wild.

Escalating Conflict
The growing coyote populations in residential areas will inevitably conflict with people in a characteristic progression of seven identified steps as they gradually lose their fear of people. Starting with increased coyote sightings at night turning to daylight sightings of coyotes involved in various activities, such as going after pets, approaching child play areas and acting aggressive toward adults.

Coyotes attack people, especially children, because they consider them to be prey, and such attacks are more likely when coyotes are raising their young in the spring and summer months. But coyotes don’t necessarily attack out of hunger. Coyotes are also stimulated by “escape behaviors” and may take chase after people they believe are running from them.

Coyote densities in Huntington Beach haven’t been mentioned, but Chief Small reported that complaints about coyotes in the city have gone from 34 in 2006 and 54 in 2008 up to 80 in 2009. After two incidents of coyotes entering back yards during the day and killing dogs in front of their owners, he hired a private trapper to take out the offending coyote/s, but the effort failed to catch any coyotes.

Devin Dwyer
Councilmember Devin Dwyer: "It's a bit ridiculous." Photo: Surf City Voice

While emphasizing their empathy for the angry and frightened residents, Fish & Game officials gave an informed presentation on coyote behavior and proposed a plan that seeks a balance between public safety and the need to coexist with wildlife, including coyotes.

The plan will be a team effort with participation from residents and the government agencies present at the study session, as well as the United States Dept. of Agriculture and officials from the Naval Weapons Station, and it will require education and discipline for people and coyotes alike.

That  approach, based on decades of research, was at least cautiously accepted by most of the city council members, but seemed to be lost on member Devin Dwyer, who hastily lapsed into his usual `government can’t do anything right’ monologues.

Dwyer arrived at the meeting late, after all the concerned residents—whose problems were the reason for the meeting in the first place—had told their stories. Obviously agitated, he took a pot shot at Fish & Game officials and offered his own off the cuff solution.

“To me, I just heard a lot of government rhetoric, to tell you the truth, with no answer,” he scolded. “Farmers don’t have problems with coyotes. Farmers don’t have problems with raccoons. I know how they solve their situations. This is a bit ridiculous.”

Police are authorized by law to kill coyotes they deem to be a threat to public safety—any coyotes that have to be trapped will be shot on the spot either by police or Fish & Game officials, although their mass execution is not an option for obvious environmental and political reasons.

Past experience indicates the Fish & Game plan can work, but it will require, above all, behavioral changes by people who may not be persuaded by education alone to sufficiently change a lifestyle that attracted the coyotes into their neighborhoods in the first place.

In a sincere but muddleheaded effort to deal head-on with the human causes, Councilmember Joe Carchio proposed a city ordinance to ban feeding coyotes or other wild animals in the city. Good idea, but there is already a state law covering that and the HB police can enforce it anytime they want, or any time the city council wants.

Still, an ordinance would have the advantage of allowing the city attorney to prosecute violators directly, instead of handing cases over to the district attorney, and could send a message to irresponsible wild animal feeders—who, studies show, are always associated with coyote infiltration problems—that the city is serious about solving the problem.

Forget that, however, because Carchio withdrew his proposal from the city council agenda fearing that it would have no council support after a handful of critics trashed it and him on a local e-mail discussion board. An even smaller group expressed favorable views, but Carchio may have had flashbacks to the angry mobs that appeared at city council meetings 2 ½ years ago when Keith Bohr tried to pass a mandatory spay and neuter ordinance, another idea that if implemented would probably help keep coyotes out of peoples’ yards and away from their children.

“I guess no good deed goes unpunished,” Carchio lamented during the April 5 city council meeting as he withdrew the item from the agenda. “I did make the point that you’re not to feed the animals, especially coyotes in this case, “and we’re not going to kill them either.”

Carchio’s claim that coyotes won’t be killed will probably turn out to be incorrect in short order. But, so far, no more trapping attempts have been made, according to Lt. Russell Reinhart. Nor have police issued any citations to residents for feeding wild animals.

Meanwhile, the battle between Monster and Coyote continues with no end in sight.

Editor’s note: The lead photo of a killed coyote is not from Huntington Beach or Orange County, but dramatically illustrates the possible fate of at least some Surf City coyotes.

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One thought on “Monster vs. Coyote: the Great Surf City Land War continues”

  1. I wish these discussions motivated more responses. I find it a ludicrous waste of money and energy to focus on the so-called coyote problem while at the same time ignoring the growing and far more dangerous problem of dog owners ignoring leash laws and carelessly failing to restrain their pets at home. In my humble opinion there should be some additional safeguards and security methods implemented in order to minimize coyote attacks. That’s a given. However, it sure seems to me that more success would come from parents and pet owners using more safety conscious common sense and improving their home owner cleanliness with respect to leaving food in an open yard area. However, before we start pointing fingers and guns, I suspect, at wildlife forced to coexist with human expansion, I believe the available “animal policing funds” should be directed at the far greater problem. One that probably the “coyote blamer” may very will be contributing to the cause. As a loving dog owner myself, I believe the bigger problem in Huntington Beach is macho and careless dog owners who ignore “lease laws” and leave pathways for their beloved pets to run out of a house and roam free in the streets. As one who is also entering his third year of medical procedures after a being attacked by a vicious loose dog, I suggest we would be a safer city if the City starts enforcing leash laws, insurance companies begin enforcing contribution rights to recover insurance payoffs from dog attacks, and by prosecuting careless homeowners whose open doors lead to assaults on unsuspecting citizens and their pets.

    One needs only to travel to a local Huntington Beach park to find macho dog owners who allow their so-called “harmless” dogs to run freely despite the numerous posted “leash law” ordinances. My own 10 surgical procedures are at the courtesy of what the homeowner stated as the “sweetest dog” who ran out an unknown open door. Had it not been for my younger and smaller dog’s protective instincts, this “sweet” dog after ripping up my arm, almost causing me to lose a finger, and cracking 8 discs in my back, my face would have been ripped off. My dog jumped up, grabbed the larger dog’s neck and sent him off the local emergency hospital. It only took three more loose dog attacks on us, stopped immediately by the good old doggie pepper spray, to convince us to limit our dog’s walks to the supposedly safe parks. That is, the parks that would be safe if macho citizens who bravely ignore leash laws would forced to pay the significant fines and possible loss of their rights to own dogs.

    Let’s start looking within our own community habits and willingness to ignore the law before we start pointing fingers at nature’s own wildlife.

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