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A coyote is seen at Cherry Beach in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, April 3/2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When humans and coyotes encounter each other in cities, the people may actually be more to blame.

The same day that about 80 residents of suburbs west of Toronto filed into their central library for an information meeting about the wild canines, a police officer shot one dead in downtown Toronto's port lands.

Police were attending to a human body that had been found in a wooded area. Although coyotes weren't involved in the death, they had begun to scavenge the corpse. One of them exhibited no fear of people, and was killed when it approached an officer.

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A three-fold increase in coyote sightings in 2012 inspired last Tuesday's public information meeting by Mississauga's Animal Services.

The take-home message from the meeting was that coyotes are part of the urban population now and humans have to adjust so both species get along.

Ministry of Natural Resources biologist John Pisapio told the crowd that the "ubiquitous, abundant, common" coyotes are no threat as long as they don't become too familiar with being around people.

Human-sourced food, such as pet food left outdoors, fallen fruit and garbage leads to familiarity, and an animal that is still a wild predator is not a good neighbour, Mr. Pisapio suggested.

Peter George says he regularly sees coyotes lope down his street in southern Mississauga. A few years ago, soon after moving to his house, which backs onto the Credit River, his dog, a miniature pinscher, walked into the trees at the back of his unfenced yard. He heard a yelp and went to investigate. By the time he got there, his dog had been killed by coyotes.

He now has a 120-pound malamute that sleeps in a fenced kennel in his backyard. He says coyotes no longer come on his property, and he frequently sees six or seven rabbits at a time taking refuge near the large dog's enclosure.

Whenever he's out walking with his malamute and three other dogs, the coyotes keep their distance. At some point on the size scale, however, dogs go from being deterrents to prey.

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Du Rose, manager of Mississauga Animal Services, says the agency gets a few reports a year of coyote attacks on dogs.

Dave Maloney came close to making one of those calls himself. He was recently walking his 11-pound dog in southern Mississauga not far from the Credit River when he noticed coyotes eyeing him. Soon five of them surrounded him. When the closest was 25 metres away but still seemed intent on getting closer, he picked up his dog and scared the coyotes away by yelling.

Mr. Maloney blames part of that boldness on the misguided feeding of stray cats in the area, which translates into both direct and indirect feeding of coyotes.

He says he's seen a woman driving around the area putting cat food out in parking lots, hydro corridors and alleyways.

"The coyotes come through at night and have a feast," Mr. Maloney says. "I hear they like to eat stray cats, too."

Julian Goss has seen this firsthand. The university professor lives in western Toronto's Brockton neighbourhood, adjacent to the railway lines. One night last fall, he was taking garbage out to his yard when he heard a struggle he describes as sounding like "two Bengal tigers having a go at it."

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He looked over the fence into the rail corridor and saw a coyote with a cat pinned down.

"We have this colony of feral cats in our cul-de-sac," Mr. Goss says. "They keep on disappearing."

There's no telling how many cats, stray or otherwise, meet a similar fate each year. Mary Lou Leiher, a supervisor at Toronto Animal Services, confirms that traces of cats are routinely found in coyote scat.

The spread of coyotes across the continent over the past 150 years is a rare biological success story. Once contained to the U.S. southwest by competing wolf populations, the western coyote population expanded to fill vacancies in the food chain as wolves were pushed further to the fringes of North America. They arrived in Ontario around 1920 and made it out to Nova Scotia in 1977.

During this migration, the leading edge of coyotes rubbed up against remnant wolf populations and genetic material was shared. The eastern coyote is significantly larger than its western cousins as a result. Ms. Leiher reports that a typical coyote that Animal Services deals with is around 40 pounds, although those animals may be on the small side since the city usually sees only the injured and sick ones.

Coyotes have proven to be more flexible feeders and breeders than their wolf predecessors, meaning they not only adapt when food supplies vary, but bounce back quickly if humans try to control their numbers with things like poison and bounty hunting. Mr. Pisapio says warm winters like this past one allow gestating mothers to retain fat deposits, which can translate into litters born in April with as many as eight or nine pups, instead of the normal four to six.

It is estimated that 400,000 coyotes are exterminated in the United States every year. Yet, despite this and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on bounties in North America over the past 150 years, they have become one of the most widely distributed mammals on the continent.

The possibility of a once-fearful coyote becoming too familiar and turning into a problem coyote, like the one that bit an eight-year-old Oakville girl in January, is ever present.

Mr. Pisapio suggests being vigilant about not providing food sources for coyotes is only part of a good management strategy.

"We should ensure that coyotes maintain a healthy fear of people," says Mr. Pisapio, suggesting non-lethal discouragement like waving arms and frightening coyotes on sight. "People should not be approachable. Aversion efforts are entirely appropriate."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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