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.


  1. this coyote attack is especially strange to me since I've lived around coyotes my whole life without any issues (in AZ) - they seem to be afraid of people

  2. My experience has been like yours, Gary. The differences between coyotes in different places is what they've learned from the people they meet. If people are aggressive toward them, they learn fear and teach their cubs to avoid us. Ms. Mitchell was on a nature trail, where people routinely walk without hurting the wildlife they see. No one ever taught these coyotes not to think of people as prey.

    The size matters, too. Wolf hybrids are big enough to take down adult humans.

  3. "It's a brutal truth that terror is the probably the best answer to a problem like this."

    In light of another attack by coyotes at the same national park (fortunately, this one was not fatal), I would have to agree with your original statement. The actions of Parks Canada/RCMP after the attack on Ms. Mitchell does not seem to have been much of a deterrent ...



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