A coyote in the backyard of a home in Toronto. (Morgan Smietana)
When Vivienne Scott-Smietana got back last week from a trip to Los Angeles, she found a message from her neighbour: Did you know you have a coyote in your backyard? She and her husband rushed to the kitchen window and looked out. Sure enough there it was. Lying in her flowerbed as if it were the most natural thing in the world was a big coyote. “Our jaws just dropped. We could hardly believe it.”
It might have been different if she lived in the country, in a suburb bordering the country or even in a part of the city next to a ravine. Instead, she lives on a downtown residential street. A big park, Dufferin Grove, is steps away, but it’s a heavily used place with nowhere much for wildlife to hide. A big shopping mall stands just on the other side of the park. Hers is a very urban neighbourhood, in other words – the last place you would expect to find a big, shaggy beast making itself at home.
But, then, wild things seem to be encroaching on urban spaces. Countless deer have invaded suburban neighbourhoods to munch on the gardens. Foxes have become a common sight in London, ducking into yards, slinking down darkened shopping streets and even, in one famous incident, climbing the stairs to the top of a skyscraper that was under construction.
The coyote is the wiliest of urban infiltrators. Coyotes have turned up in big, busy cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles to Chicago. In New York a couple of years ago, one was photographed scampering across the roof of a Long Island bar. In Toronto’s east-end neighbourhood, the Beach, a coyote took up residence on a leafy street in a ravine, occasionally attacking small dogs.
What on earth can we do about this invasion from the wild side? Not much, in fact. It’s not even clear we ought to do something.
City experts say that coyotes are intelligent and highly adaptable animals that are thriving in urban environments all over North America. They will eat garbage, road kill, mice, rats, pet food – all plentiful in cities.
“When people see an animal like a coyote in a city like Toronto they think it doesn’t belong here,” Mary Lou Leiher of Toronto Animal Services says. “But they are part of our urban landscape now and they aren’t going anywhere. So the best thing to do is just to learn to live with them safely.”
She advises residents to store their garbage where animals can’t get it, avoid leaving pet food outdoors and keep an eye on their dogs and cats. Above all, they should fight any temptation to feed the coyotes. Some people who think they are being kind actually leave snacks out for the creatures. That only makes them stick around and lose their fear of humans.
If you come into contact with a coyote and it doesn’t flee – most will – then scare it away. As she puts it, “Be big and be loud.” The chance of coming to any harm is tiny. She knows of just one case in Toronto where a coyote bit a person. That was about 15 years back and the injured coyote was lame and starving.
None of this is very reassuring to Ms. Scott-Smietana. “This is a lost coyote,” she says. “It’s not meant to be here.” She has grandchildren and worries they won’t want to play in her yard. She worries about all the little dogs in the park, not all of them on leash. She wonders why Animal Services can’t at least remove coyotes from busy areas such as hers that seem a long way from the wild.
Instead, officials instructed her to scare the coyote away. She made a big noise. The coyote leaped onto the top of her big wooden fence, balanced there for a bit, then bounded like an Olympic hurdler over a series of back fences. The next day, it was back, lolling comfortably in the yard, occasionally stretching its limbs. Once, when a couple of unwise squirrels came near, the predator barely took notice. It looked healthy, bushy, robust and quite content.
A coyote asleep in the backyard is unusual. Coyotes in the city are not. Like them or not, they are part of city life now. Might as well get used to them.