Tina Clement, an urban transplant unaccustomed to living in a town where you’re never far from a rural area, is not comfortable sharing her neighbourhood with coyotes.
When she heard about sightings on The Village streets where she walks her 15-pound dog, she bought a whistle and made sure to carry it with her. She also learned how to behave around the animals, so the afternoon she came face-to-face with one “trotting at a good clip” toward her, she quickly tucked her Yorkshire Terrier under her arm, blew the whistle and walked backward toward her Elizabeth Street home.
But she wasn’t happy about the encounter, and she doesn’t mind saying she was afraid. “Fortunately we were close to home, but I was shaking like a leaf. The whole situation is frightening. I’m a Toronto girl, and this is new to me.”
The experience has driven her to walk her “feisty” terrier on busy downtown streets, where there are more people around to make her feel safe.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero understands Clement’s reaction, and wanted to do something to help her and others in the same predicament. Enter Lesley Sampson, an expert in coyote behaviour, who was asked to talk to residents at a meeting last Thursday at the community centre, to help calm their fears.
Before introducing Sampson, Disero told the audience of about 60 people she too is from Toronto, where she was accustomed to walking late at night on well-lit streets without fear.
Even after 10 years of living in Niagara-on-the-Lake, “I don’t leave my house after dark unless I have to, and then I make sure Dan (Williams, her husband) is with me. I am so afraid of coyotes — I never experienced them in the city. Coyotes scare me,” she said.
“Maybe we’ll learn a few dos and don’ts, such as what not to keep in our backyards. I really don’t want to do anything to attract them.”
Sampson is the founder and executive director of Coyote Watch Canada, a national, non-profit wildlife organization which advocates for humans and canids — fox, wolves and coyotes — to live in peaceful coexistance.
She has made more than 800 presentations, mostly to municipalities, in the last 20 years, but her work with coyotes began in NOTL, and led to her establishing Coyote Watch to educate people. That was her task two decades ago, when residents of the William and Nassau Streets neighbourhood, afraid of a family of coyotes living nearby, wanted action from the Town.
She recalls going to see the late Bob Howse, then Town clerk, whom she describes as a trailblazer in terms of creating peaceful coexistence. With the help of his then-assistant Holly Dowd, it was arranged for her to speak at a meeting to educate the public.
Residents were calling for relocation, but Sampson convinced them they could protect their pets and learn to live without fear for their own safety.
Coyotes become more visible when their habitat is being destroyed, and the media contributes to the fear of residents with myths about the animals’ behaviour, she said.
Understanding their behaviour should alleviate some of that fear, said Sampson, who attempted to dispel some of those myths.
“When I sit down with people from municipalities, it’s to talk about what works, and what’s safest for you,” she said.
Coyotes take their cues from what humans are demonstrating, she explained, and they need to be given a clear message to stay away.
One of the most difficult issues to resolve is people feeding them, usually unintentionally through the presence of bird feeders or cat food left outside for feral cats.
Both attract rodents, and rodents attract coyotes, as well as birds of prey.
“We’re not really here because of coyotes, we’re here because of the ecosystem of which they are a part,” Sampson said.
“Coyotes are not new to NOTL,” she added. “Maybe some of you are, but they’ve been here for a long time.”
She suggested when pets disappear, there are other reasons more likely to be the cause than a coyote. “Bad things happen to animals. They get hit by a car, or someone else may take them. Unless you see it happen, don’t blame a coyote. From a scientific view point, it’s not likely.”
She cites scientific studies of scat, which show 83 per cent of the diet of eastern coyotes is small animals, but only 1.2 per cent is domestic pets.
If you do see a coyote, she said, wave your arms, make loud noises, yell in an aggressive manner but don’t scream. And never turn and run — slowly back away.
She refers to the behaviour of frightening a coyote to convince them to move on as “hazing,” and also suggests opening and closing an umbrella for its “popping” noise, “snapping” a garbage bag, and throwing objects near them, but never at them. Turning a water hose on them also works, she said.
And if you’re walking a dog, she said, be sure to keep them close — the long, retractable leashes that allow your dog to be at a distance from you are not a good idea in an area frequented by coyotes.
Sampson also addressed the myth of coywolves as a new, larger and more aggressive species. The animals seen in Ontario are eastern coyotes, who mated with Algonquin wolves a century ago and so share their DNA, she explained.
“That happened 100 years ago. They’re nothing new. And genetics doesn’t matter. What matters is reshaping their behaviour.”
Coyotes mate for life, and co-parent, she said, dispelling another myth about them travelling in packs.
Typically, once the pups are old enough to mate, they move on, but not always.
“Every family is unique. Coyotes are loving, devoted parents.”
A family of parents and pups will claim a territory, the size of which will depend on available food and shelter, and could be as varied as five to 20 kilometres.
She also dispelled the myth of coyotes screaming because they’ve killed an animal and are about to eat it — what can sound like a pack of four or five is usually two, and they’re communicating to their mate or a pup, possibly alerting them to danger.
“Coyotes work hard for their meals. They’re not going to alert other coyotes to the presence of food,” said Sampson.
She assured residents, if they have concern about coyotes in their neighbourhood, she would investigate for them. “And if you see someone feeding them, report it.”
“They are opportunistic creatures, adaptive, intelligent and resourceful,” said Sampson.
“You live in such a beautiful community. Your behaviour will help coyotes learn their boundaries.”
When there are several sightings in one neighbourhood, it can leave the impression there are many animals roaming the streets, but likely it’s only one navigating through the community on a regular route for food, she said.
Reached by Clement about her encounter in The Village, Sampson went for a drive around the neighbourhood with her, checking out possible food sources, including bird feeders.
One neighbour was quick to remove her bird feeder after hearing it could be attracting the coyote in The Village, but another “is fond of her birds,” said Clement.
She was somewhat reassured by Sampson’s presentation, and learning they don’t stalk humans, and present little danger to them, she said.
“I’m not afraid for my own safety,” said Clement. “She assured me of that. But I’m still nervous for my dog.”
Disero also said she felt “a little bit reassured. It helped that Lesley explained coyotes are not walking around neighbourhoods killing animals and attacking humans.”
From the calls she’s received, she said, she’s learned coyotes are becoming “a bigger issue” in some neighbourhoods, especially The Village and St. Davids.
The meeting was called to help residents “feel a little more comfortable,” and she felt that was accomplished.
“But I’m still not going out after dark by myself.”