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COYOTES in the city

by: COURTESY OF BOB SALLINGER  - Most people went about their normal routines as this coyote strolled through the Alameda neighborhood.Like hawks, coyotes are near-mythical creatures for city dwellers because they represent a chance meeting with raw nature. This is real wildlife, loping down the road in broad daylight. The coyote brings up associations with wolves, jackals and hyenas. A fox-like creature with a bouncing gait, the coyote has proved far more cunning and resilient than other urban mammals.

Whatever your friends might tell you, they’re not on the increase in Portland — the city is pretty much saturated.

“Coyotes are literally impossible to get rid of,” says Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Portland Audubon Society, who fell into the role of coyote expert in 1992. “People have been asking me since the early 1990s, ‘How do I get rid of them?’ ” Sallinger says. “But even if you manage to kill the entire pack, they will fill back in almost immediately.”

Case in point is Portland International Airport, where staff tried in vain to clear coyotes from the runways. Sallinger’s consistent advice was that improved fencing works better than traps.

Coyotes have a compensatory breeding rate: only the alpha male and female of the pack breed. But if you kill them, all the other pairs start breeding and the population explodes.

Sallinger heard that coyotes were habituated to being fed by humans in Portland’s Alameda neighborhood, so he spent an hour following a coyote one Sunday morning. “The coyote walked right past people out strolling, people gardening, and the vast majority didn’t notice him. A few would do a double-take and go back to talking on their cell phones. I wish I had it on film, it was so bizarre. We’re good at filtering out stuff around us.”

(He adds that people often report the beasts as being around 70 to 100 pounds, although the biggest Portland coyotes top out at 30 pounds. “It’s the fur.” )

Portland not unique

by: COURTESY OF BOB SALLINGER  - Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Portland Audubon Society, tracked this coyote around Portland's Alameda neighborhood one Sunday morning.  It turns out that Canis latrans (“barking dog” in Latin) is well-established in most North American cities. Ohio State University professor Dr. Stanley Gehrt radio-tagged more than 100 coyotes in Chicago and found that the packs have very well-defined territories that back right up to one another, and that coyotes can thrive in areas with no green space whatsoever.

Portland has enough green space that they rarely need to come downtown.

“They have dramatically extended their range nationally, despite massive persecution,” Sallinger says.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal Services program (which used to be called Animal Damage Control) kills 70,000 to 80,000 coyotes a year at the behest of the livestock industry. Steel-jaw traps and net snares are popular. So are sodium cyanide devices. The device is put in the ground. A rag soaked in animal fat acts as the trigger. When the coyote tugs at the rag, the poison explodes in its face.

Sallinger believes coyotes serve an important ecological function, keeping down populations of rodents and Canada geese (eating the eggs). “They’ll eat anything though — grubs, birds, mammals, vegetables, garbage, pet food...”

Attacks on humans are rare. The animals are skittish, unless people have tried to tame them by feeding them every day. When the food is withdrawn they can get snappy, but they are far from being manhunters.

“At the Audubon Society, we tell people to keep coyotes wild,” Sallinger says. “Appreciate them from a distance, maintain the animals’ healthy fear of humans, for our sake and theirs.”

Urban sightings

“I knew about urban coyotes from my sister in Los Angeles, and about eight years ago I thought I saw one here,” says Liz Colie of Portland’s Irvington neighborhood. Her husband convinced her otherwise. But about two years ago she definitely did see one, and soon her neighbors were talking about seeing them, and kids at Alameda School were plotting sightings on a map. Parents talked about not being sure if the children were safe walking home from school because of the beasts.

“I didn’t see any this year until about November,” Colie says. “Then I saw a solitary coyote, three days in a row, just walking along. I guess it was looking for food.”

Colie sees them mainly at dawn and dusk. Sightings cause great excitement in her family.

Two years ago, Colie’s friend’s cat went missing. Nelson’s tail and hind paw were found on someone else’s porch a few days later. They concluded it was the work of a coyote.

“When I’m walking my two dogs and we see a coyote,” she says, “my dogs can sense it’s not a dog. They won’t cry to go over and meet it. Both my dogs stand still and stare.”

Liza Bear is a retired chef who has lived near West Burnside and Skyline, in Portland’s West Hills, for more than 50 years. She remembers when there were more woods than houses, and used to ride her horse where there are roads now.

“I think there are fewer coyotes than there used to be, because I hear them less now, crying at night,” she says. Bear walks a lot and sees them at dawn and dusk, crossing Burnside and in the Catholic cemetery.

She notes that the people who tell her that coyotes are on the increase usually haven’t lived in the West Hills very long.

“I don’t think coyotes are a problem at all. They should be left alone. I’ve got a neighbor who’s afraid of everything. Some people go, ‘Oh my God, they might be rabid!’ But I’ve never heard of anyone being attacked.”

Bear’s neighbor’s cat, which was allowed outside, didn’t return home one night and was found the next day. “The cat’s body was ravaged,” Bear says. “Coyotes go after cats, chickens and small dogs. They’d rather not. They’d rather go after smaller mammals. But they get plenty of pet food to eat, and go in the garbage cans like the raccoons and opossum.”

Maybe the coexistence message is getting through.

In September 2010, the

Ridgeview Homeowner Association near Portland’s Forest Park suggested limited trapping as a way to deal with the “higher incidence rate of coyotes wandering the neighborhood, occasionally with threatening behavior toward residents, and sadly more lost pets.”

The letter contained sage advice about covering trash cans, keeping cats inside at night and making sure fences are 6 feet high. It also suggested trapping a few coyotes to make the rest of them less bold.

“Soft-cushioned non-lethal neck snares will be used for trapping purposes,” the proposal stated. “Trapped coyotes will be euthanized immediately.”

In the end, the residents voted against the trapping program.

As for anyone thinking of keeping a coyote as a cool pet, Sallinger cautions against it. “They are illegal to hold in Oregon. And anyway, wild animals don’t make good pets.”