Fatal Coyote Attack


Taylor Mitchell, a young folk singer on tour in Nova Scotia, has been killed by coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This is the only case I know about of coyotes killing an adult, though others have bitten adults, and one killed a toddler a few years back.


The usual cause of coyote attacks on adults is rabies, but disease doesn't seem to be the case here. Instead, this looks like a predatory attack. Like many of the big cats, canids can go through a period of experimentation as they part from their parents and move into new territories. They need time to find out what sort of animals make suitable prey. During this experimental phase, they can become dangerous to people.


If they have discouraging encounters with humans, or simply don't encounter them, then they are unlikely to trouble people later in life. That's why the unsuccessful actions of police in this case may prove surprisingly effective. The attack didn't succeed in getting the animals a meal, but it did result in humans scaring the coyotes away and wounding one of them. Coyotes are social animals. They communicate fear of humans to other coyotes.


Public reaction in cases like this usually comes down to a debate between two points of view. Some folks would like to see the animals killed. That's apparently what the RCMP has in mind at this point. They've already killed a coyote, though they don't feel sure it's one of the attackers. If they do hunt down the attackers, they'll be undoing the good they've already accomplished in the initial skirmish. The attackers can't communicate the idea that humans are dangerous if they're dead.


Other folks prefer to see the animals left alone, believing that an animal acting according to its nature shouldn't be persecuted. Ms. Mitchell's mother has already said that her daughter, a lover of nature, wouldn't have wanted to see the coyotes killed. (Thanks to reader Carole N. for the news tip.) That alternative does nothing to discourage further attacks on people. Considering the perverse workings of human politics, the laissez-faire style of wildlife management may eventually result in mass cullings.


It's a brutal truth that terror is the probably the best answer to a problem like this. I realize that opinion isn't likely to please anyone, but to me, neither extermination nor further attacks on people is a good answer either. By scaring away predators and teaching them to avoid people, we save the lives of humans and animals. Scaring them might include such simple steps as making noise when one hikes. It might involve more brutal methods: wounding or killing animals that do attack. I used to see coyote carcasses draped across barbed wire fences. It was a way for farmers and ranchers to tell other coyotes where the danger zones lay. That primitive method is certain to repel city sensibilities. Its only virtue is that it seemed to work as a deterrent.


But why not work toward a more humane solution? The smell of dead animals can be bottled. The sensitive nose of a canid can detect it at a considerable distance. If we mark wildlife trails with the scent of dead coyotes, we may reduce the likelihood of attacks.


I should note that the coyotes of Eastern Canada and New England are sometimes considerably larger than the ones I knew on the Great Plains. The smaller coyotes in most parts of North America are less dangerous than the ones Ms. Mitchell encountered. Biologists suspect the Northeastern ones are hybrids of gray wolf and coyote. The coyote (Canis lupus latrans), like the domestic dog, is a subspecies of wolf, so they can interbreed.


Taylor Mitchell's music can be heard on MySpace. Her plays look to have tripled since yesterday, doubtless driven by news of her gruesome death.

Some nifty nature photos


Andrew L. pointed me to this amazing photo. It won the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for 2009. Here's the online gallery for the winners of this award in various categories.

A Chimpanzee Hunt



An 1870 entry in the journal of the Victorian explorer David Livingstone contains this interesting remark:
The soko kills the leopard occasionally, by seizing both paws, and biting them so as to disable them, he then goes up a tree, groans over his wounds, and sometimes recovers, while the leopard dies: at other times, both soko and leopard die.
The "soko" he's talking about is the animal now known as the chimpanzee. In recent years, pet chimps have bitten the hands or fingers off several Americans, including a Connecticut woman earlier this year. This behavior would seem to be a way of disabling the claws of enemies.

The picture is from Livingstone's Last Journals. It shows a hunt he witnessed, in which the local people killed four chimps. Here's his account:
An extensive grass-burning forced them out of their usual haunt, and coming on the plain they were speared. They often go erect, but place the hand on the head, as if to steady the body. When seen thus, the soko is an ungainly beast. The most sentimental young lady would not call him a "dear," but a bandy-legged, pot-bellied, low-looking villain, without a particle of the gentleman in him. Other animals, especially the antelopes, are graceful, and it is pleasant to see them, either at rest or in motion: the natives also are well made, lithe and comely to behold, but the soko, if large, would do well to stand for a picture of the Devil.

He takes away my appetite by his disgusting bestiality of appearance. His light-yellow face shows off his ugly whiskers, and faint apology for a beard; the forehead villainously low, with high ears, is well in the back-ground of the great dog-mouth; the teeth are slightly human, but the canines show the beast by their large development. The hands, or rather the fingers, are like those of the natives. The flesh of the feet is yellow, and the eagerness with which the Manyuema [the local people] devour it leaves the impression that eating sokos was the first stage by which they arrived at being cannibals; they say the flesh is delicious. The soko is represented by some to be extremely knowing, successfully stalking men and women while at their work, kidnapping children, and running up trees with them--he seems to be amused by the sight of the young native in his arms, but comes down when tempted by a bunch of bananas, and as he lifts that, drops the child: the young soko in such a case would cling closely to the armpit of the elder. One man was cutting out honey from a tree, and naked, when a soko suddenly appeared and caught him, then let him go: another man was hunting, and missed in his attempt to stab a soko: it seized the spear and broke it, then grappled with the man, who called to his companions, "Soko has caught me," the soko bit off the ends of his fingers and escaped unharmed. Both men are now alive at Bambarré.

The soko is so cunning, and has such sharp eyes, that no one can stalk him in front without being seen, hence, when shot, it is always in the back; when surrounded by men and nets, he is generally speared in the back too, otherwise he is not a very formidable beast: he is nothing, as compared in power of damaging his assailant, to a leopard or lion, but is more like a man unarmed, for it does not occur to him to use his canine teeth, which are long and formidable. Numbers of them come down in the forest, within a hundred yards of our camp, and would be unknown but for giving tongue like fox-hounds: this is their nearest approach to speech. A man hoeing was stalked by a soko, and seized; he roared out, but the soko giggled and grinned, and left him as if he had done it in play. A child caught up by a soko is often abused by being pinched and scratched, and let fall.

Grizzly Jumps Hunters


In British Columbia, a grizzly bear inflicted minor wounds on a couple of hunters. The men were sleeping in their tent when the bear attacked. After their skirmish, the men backtracked and discovered the bear had been stalking them for some time.

Most grizzly attacks don't start out predatory. They're more likely to happen when people surprise the bear or approach its cubs. That's why playing dead sometimes works: the bear isn't looking for a meal, it just wants to intimidate. Unfortunately, once the action starts, a grizzly sometimes decides to make a meal even if it didn't start out looking for one. That's why playing dead doesn't always work.

Alligator vs. Golfer


You've heard of hazards on golf courses? In South Carolina, a 77-year-old golfer trying to retrieve his ball lost his arm to an American alligator. Here's an article about the gator-versus-golfer issue. It mentions several other cases.

Discover Lichens


The November issue of Discover has an article of mine on the lichens of the Ozarks.

Black Bear Attack


A Pennsylvania woman was killed while cleaning the cage of an American black bear. Her children and others summoned a neighbor, who shot the bear to death, but the woman had already been mortally wounded. The woman and her husband apparently kept various exotic animals. Several news stories mention a Bengal tiger and a lion. Another mentions that they kept a jaguar and other exotic cats in the past, though it's not clear whether these are still on the premises.
[Thanks to Steve V. for the tip.]
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