May 14, 2012
In City Where Dogs Outnumber Children, Finding a Way for Coyotes to Coexist
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
SAN FRANCISCO — Almost all creatures, great and small, are welcome in the city of St. Francis, patron saint of animals, whose spirit imbues this place with a love and regard for our nonhuman friends. Take just one example gleaned from census and city data: Dogs outnumber children here, making already assertive dog owners an even more formidable political force.
But the emergence in recent years of coyotes in the city’s parks, and sometimes in its expensive backyards and picturesque streets, has raised doubts about whether that founding legacy can survive. Will the two animal worlds — the domesticated and the wild — be able to coexist? Might they even, as many in this liberal city hope, ultimately complement each other?
Taking no chances, city officials recently cordoned off trails and barricaded a restroom in an area of Golden Gate Park where reports of coyotes following dog owners and approaching unleashed dogs have been rising. The coyotes are believed to be protecting their den and newborns during the pup-rearing season, which lasts from April through August.
“Coyote alert” signboards and posters, as well as those warning dog owners to keep their pets on leash, have been put up in Golden Gate Park and other pockets where coyotes have been sighted.
Reports of coyotes killing dogs have come in, though none have been substantiated this season.
“Some of it, we don’t know how real it is and how much of it is people raising the hysteria level,” said Rebecca Katz, director of the city’s Animal Care and Control.
The other day, Ms. Katz said, someone called in a coyote attack on a pet pig. “We went out there. There was no pig, no coyote. So yeah.”
The barricades had also upset some people. “So it becomes more and more escalated that way,” she said.
Last week, Animal Care and Control sent out a stern written statement warning that “San Franciscans do not seem to be getting the message about how to coexist peacefully with local wildlife” because many dog owners were ignoring the law and letting their pets run loose. Animal Care posted a video on YouTube of an off-leash Rottweiler, filmed by his owner, harassing two coyotes apparently protecting a den.
Some dog lovers were left unconvinced by the city’s plea for coexistence.
“I’m not fond of wildlife. This is as wild as I want it to get,” said David Powers, who was walking Honda, a mix between a Rottweiler and German shepherd, near the barricaded restroom one recent afternoon. “This is a city. They belong in the country.”
“I’ve never seen any — thank God,” he said, about half an hour before a lone coyote appeared at that spot and lingered more than long enough to satisfy joggers who stopped to take pictures with their iPhones.
In San Francisco, a city of 805,000, there are 108,000 children, according to the 2010 census. And there are 180,000 dogs, and 10 coyotes, according to city estimates. The coyote population has grown nationwide, with an increasing number making forays into suburban and urban areas.
Coyotes arrived relatively late here, with the first sightings in 2004. Around that time, a coyote was videotaped crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into the city at night. Genetic tests later confirmed that the city’s coyotes share ties to those found to the north, on the other side of the bridge.
In 2007, the city had to call federal authorities to shoot two coyotes that had attacked a pair of dogs in Golden Gate Park. Since then, the city has emphasized coexistence.
“Usually, the knee-jerk response is, “Problem: wildlife. Let’s trap and kill,” said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, a private organization based in Marin County that has worked with several cities, including San Francisco, to educate people about coyotes. “San Francisco has been very proactive.”
Though some dog owners accepted the coyotes’ presence grudgingly, others embraced it.
In Glen Canyon Park, Matt Orrick said he walked his mutt, Lazlo, at least twice a day and regularly spotted coyotes at dusk. He had never experienced an encounter, though he kept Lazlo off leash.
“They’re doing their own thing,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. This is a big city, and there are wild animals.”