Vancouver coyote experts use every tactic they can – short of catapults and dynamite – to try to solve the mystery of why the animals have attacked dozens of people in Stanley Park this year.
There may be as few as a dozen coyotes living in the four-square-mile Vancouver Park, but they have provincial and city staff chasing the tail for answers as to why the animals show such aggression.
At the same time, there is a growing call to free the park of coyotes after nearly 40 reported incidents in which animals have bitten or become aggressive with everyone from the elderly to toddlers since December 2020.
Paul Curtis, professor and wildlife specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has spent decades studying coyote aggression. His research in parks in New York 15 years ago found that people who fed the animals, which are territorial, drove most cases of aggression.
But Curtis said he could not think of any other example of dozens of coyote attacks within eight months. He’s also worried about video that appears to show a coyote near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park jumping and biting its back or tail repeatedly.
“Something happens to the animals that cause this behavior change, especially an animal that bites its tail. It’s a neurological behavior that indicates that something is really wrong,” Curtis said.
Some wildlife experts suspect that the aggressive behavior is related to food left behind by park users or photographers who lure raccoons to post on social media.
Others have darker theories about toxins, such as rodent poison. The wildest hypothesis is consumption of substances from human feces or a buried gem. Overnighters and party groups have left trash cans to be cleaned up.
Most of the Stanley Park attacks have been reported near Prospect Point, with a few on the sea wall and in other parts of the scattered wooded city park. Victims range in age from a two-year-old to a 69-year-old.
So far, six coyotes have been killed after the attacks, and two of the bodies were sent for autopsy. No signs of rabies were found.
Toxicology and genetic testing await, according to an email from the Ministry of Forests, Rural Areas, Natural Resources and Rural Development.
In January, on-site motion sensor cameras were set up on the trails to study coyotes.
Wildlife researchers are working with the Stanley Park Ecology Society to collect video, and conservation officers are measuring the teeth of captured coyotes to try to match them with known bites.
Coyotes pushed ‘over the edge’
Kristen Walker is a wildlife biologist with the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Soil and Food Systems who works with the Stanley Park Ecology Society.
She says some suspect that extra human traffic in the park during the pandemic is “pushing coyotes over the edge,” but so far the coyote population is not well enough understood to know if that is the case.
Walker and many others are in favor of better coexistence with animals rather than killing them.
Shelley Alexander, a professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in conserving coyotes and wolves, said she doubts it would be effective to “fog” or scare a coyote as aggressively as the animal or animals that are responsible for the attacks.
She said the behavior makes her suspect toxins or human abuse, as it is abnormal for coyotes to fall for no reason.
“Coyotes are a barometer. When this kind of thing goes wrong, they tell us that there really is something wrong in that situation,” said Alexander, who started the Calgary Coyote Project.
As for Cornell University’s Curtis, he said he is curious about what the toxicology reports will reveal, but he is in doubt whether coyotes would generate a drug bag. He said the animals generally avoid anything that is strange to them.
He also called for a look at how coyotes bite. If it’s on the neck and head, it’s predators, but if it bites the legs or back of a human, it’s aggression.
Given the behavior captured on video and described by victims, Curtis said rabies, canine distemper or another neurological disorder may be to blame for the abnormal number of attacks.
‘These coyotes are fed’
So far, people are ignoring calls from the BC Conservation Officer Service to avoid Stanley Park. Several people have started living in the park since the start of the pandemic, and others party there at night.
Meanwhile, the official response has been complicated by the fact that the Vancouver Park Board is on summer vacation.
Donnie Rosa, the park board general manager, said it is an “unprecedented” situation not seen in other parks.
The park board staff is trying to educate people and improve waste disposal.
“The biggest thing we can point to right now is human behavior. These coyotes are being fed,” Rosa said.