Beach coyote ‘elephant in room’ at meeting

Beach residents may be split on what to do about the coyote that fatally attacked a small dog here in February, but on one point nearly everyone agrees—don’t feed coyotes.

Lesley Sampson of Coyote Watch Canada
Lesley Sampson of Coyote Watch Canada answers residents’ questions at a coyote seminar in the Beaches Recreation Centre on March 19.

That was the key advice for about 60 residents who attended a public meeting led by four wildlife and conservation groups at the Beaches Recreation Centre on March 19.

“Every one of us had the same message on dealing with this,” said Robert Meerburg, an education officer with City of Toronto’s Animal Services (TAS), which hosted the meeting.

“Don’t feed it,” he said. “Haze it and move it on—make it uncomfortable.”

To organize those efforts, the newly formed Beach Coyote Coalition has set up a website where residents can report coyote sightings or coyote feeding. According to the site, people have already sent in reports about a neighbour who leaves raw chicken out for the animals.

Organizer Shannon Kornelson said the March 19 meeting shows residents are legitimately concerned, and that coyote feeding has to stop.

“What we need from here on out is for those same people who are concerned to become engaged in the process of helping these coyotes move on from our neighbourhoods,” she said.

As for calls to trap the coyote that attacked a dog, Kornelson said trapping it doesn’t address the root problem—the intentional or unintentional feeding of coyotes. And because coyotes tend to outsmart non-lethal traps, she said it’s nearly impossible to trap them humanely.

“There’s nothing worse than the sound of an animal caught in a trap, and to imagine that people are going to be comfortable with a neck snare or a leg hold in their backyard is highly unlikely,” she said.

Chris Peters is the Kingswood Road resident whose small Maltese dog was killed in February. He said he agrees completely with efforts to stop feeding coyotes, and welcomed the new Beach Coyote Coalition as the only real action at the March 19 meeting.

“It completely ignored the elephant in the room, which was the particular coyote, or coyotes, in our neighbourhood,” he said.

At the meeting, another resident from the Neville Park area who declined to give her name for this story said she has seen a coyote sit in her yard during the day, and although she has banged pots and yelled at it in a firm voice, it wasn’t scared away.

“He would get up, look at me, yawn, slowly jump over my fence, move away and come back,” she said. “There is no fear. I have little grandchildren who weigh less than 50 pounds—they don’t play in my backyard anymore.”

After a similar coyote attack on a dog in 2009, TAS hired a trapper to remove the coyote. Peters said that effort failed because they insisted on using a non-lethal trap that had little chance of success.

Although coyote attacks on pets or people are rare, Peters said Beach residents should be given more information about the risk from habituated coyotes, and that the City of Toronto should trap such problem animals.

“It’s not to create fear,” he said. “It’s just so people have a realistic appraisal of what they’re facing in their own backyards.”

Research on urban coyotes is scarce, said Ralph Toninger, who handles human-wildlife conflict at the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority.

“Usually it’s done in more rural settings because that’s where the property loss and the livestock loss really is the driver for it,” he said.

In 2011, Dr. Brent Patterson, a researcher with the Ministry of Natural Resources, led a pilot study of one radio-collared coyote on the Leslie Street Spit and five more around golf courses in Mississauga. Patterson and his colleagues are now planning for a larger study.

One of their first questions is how many coyotes live in Toronto. Speakers at the Beach coyote meeting cited estimates of 500 to 800, but Patterson said that range is likely taken from a coyote study done in Chicago and shouldn’t be applied here. As a rule of thumb, he said every Toronto-area golf course likely has a resident coyote family.

Another key question is what urban coyotes are eating.

“Generally, most of the animals seem to have a largely natural diet,” Patterson said, noting that they’ve found mice, voles and cottontail rabbits in the stomachs of coyotes found dead in Toronto.

“At the same time, our work has pointed to strong evidence of feeding,” he said.

One feature of urban coyotes is already clear—that even when restricted to road, rail and ravine corridors, they can travel up to 20 km a day.

Patterson said one GPS-collared adult female coyote would often bed in the daytime in the long grasses by the exit and entrance ramps of Highway 403, then move along it at night.

“You can imagine the level of background noise and disturbance that must be going on, but they seem able to just tune that out.”

Asked about the best way to deal with coyotes that come into conflict with people in big cities, Patterson said the evidence to date suggests targeted killing can be effective.

“There are times when a particular animal will have become habituated and may pose a threat to the safety of our pets,” he said. “And in those cases, unfortunately, I’m not aware of any other practical or viable solutions than removing that animal.

“But I always remind folks that in the meantime we always do everything can to prevent the situation from getting to that point.”

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