Wildlife experts: Get used to coyotes in the city

At a neighborhood meeting organized by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma in the Richmond District Friday, animal experts kept it simple: [Coyoe's are] here. There are more of them than ever. Get used to it.

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San Francisco -- Four years ago the city was in a tizzy over coyotes. It culminated with two of them getting shot and killed in Golden Gate Park.

Now the message is tamer. At a neighborhood meeting organized by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma in the Richmond District Friday, animal experts kept it simple: They're here. There are more of them than ever. Get used to it.

"The whole nation is having problems with coyotes," said Kent Smirl, a Department of Fish and Game lieutenant who has coordinated coyote-watch program in Southern California.

San Francisco is actually behind much of the rest of the country. Between April 2010 and July of this year there were 122 coyote "incidents," meaning some kind of physical interaction with humans, in Southern California and just 29 here in the north.

San Francisco may be late to develop a coyote population - Project Coyote director Camilla Fox says they've arrived in the last 10 years - but, as usual, we're way ahead in the range of reactions. It starts with whether you say KI-oat-ee or KI-oat and goes from there.

Pet fanciers are horrified that a predator is stalking the public parks. And, says Eric Covington, a district supervisor for USDA Wildlife Services, concerns about pets are not entirely misplaced.

"One of the indicators is looking at street signs and seeing lots of notices for missing cats and dogs," he said. "Somebody says Fluffy is missing and that's where he's gone."

Sgt. Larry Johnson of San Francisco Animal Care and Control says there have been at least two incidents in Glen Park where people were walking their small dogs and a coyote came out of the bush, snapped up the pup, and took off.

Conrad Jones, an associate wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, says one study, based in Malibu, found that 13.6 percent of coyote scat contained the cat remains. (Fox says other studies show a much lower percentage.)

So coyotes are definitely a threat to pets, particularly cats out wandering at night or off-leash dogs crashing through the underbrush in parks.

But as Smirl says, "We don't have a four-legged problem; we have a two-legged problem."

The coyotes first arrived in the Presidio, probably after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Since then they've spread through the city's parks and beyond. They are regular sights on golf courses and Johnson says he's seen them in Fisherman's Wharf.

The reason is simple. The city is a coyote buffet line.

As Jones says, "What's food for a coyote? Everything."

It's not just that food is readily available from unsecured garbage cans. There's also pet food left out in back yards and bird feeders. Worse yet are well-intentioned folks who think they are helping the situation by feeding the coyotes.

They are not only missing the point - coyotes self-restrict their population based on available food, so the feeders are actually increasing the number - but it is dangerous. Coyotes that become dependent on handouts lose their fear of humans.

In 2008 a coyote in the Presidio became so bold he not only threatened dogs and people, it ran at a man and grabbed his pant leg. That was the last straw and the coyote was killed.

The flip side of that situation is that some are so enamored of urban coyotes that they refuse to hear anything bad about them. Those are the people who say that the coyotes who were killed in Golden Gate Park just administered a light nip to a dog. Covington says it was more than that. The vet bill ran to thousands of dollars.

The debate is sure to continue. But as I was telling a colleague, they are in San Francisco to stay.

"Yep," she said. "Next they'll want to get married and smoke marijuana."