Beastly behavior: homo sapiens vs. canis latrans

Coyote sightings common in hills near Acalanes High School

As locals deal with dazed deer, rowdy raccoons, and ferocious, feral pigs, they now must welcome a new member to the Wildlife Gang: the courageous coyote.

Coyote sightings are common in the Briones hills near Acalanes High School, but the increase in coyote ventures to human-populated areas is a new occurrence.

The most recent series of attacks began on July 9 when a coyote bit a small child at the Moraga Commons Park. The coyote struck again around 6:30 a.m.on Dec. 4 during Moraga Resident Kenji Sytz’s morning workout at the Campolindo High School football field. 

“I went down to do some push-ups and I felt a sting that turned into an intense sharp pain. My initial reaction was that one of my friends behind me was doing something to my leg, but I turned and, in a push-up position, I looked back and there was a coyote latched onto my left calf,” Sytz said. “I tried to shake my left leg, and he didn’t come loose. I had to punch it with my left fist before [the coyote] released from my leg.” 

As an avid backpacker, Sytz is no stranger to wildlife. Sytz believes this particular coyote’s behavior was abnormal.

“I’ve encountered a lot of animals; bears, moose, all different things. When animals, especially coyotes, see a human, they typically back off,” Sytz said. “This coyote didn’t run away. It stood its ground. We had to yell at it and wave our arms for several seconds before it retreated”. 

The coyote’s behavior also shocked many Acalanes students. 

“I was surprised because I never thought coyotes were that bold. The ones I see usually keep their distance or run away,” senior Jasmine Toni said.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated whether the coyote incidents were related. Department officials took DNA samples from the July 9 and Dec. 4 attacks and confirmed that they came from the same coyote. While some were eager to blame the entire coyote population, Sytz points out that it may just be one crazy coyote.

“During the week of my incident and the confirming that they were connected, I had so many people tell me things like ‘I don’t even want to take my trash out’ or ‘I hate coyotes’ or ‘There are too many coyotes in this area now, it’s like the turkeys, we need to get rid of them.’ One coyote out there is being irregular from normal coyote behavior, and we shouldn’t hate coyotes because of this one,” Sytz said. 

The attacks come as a shock to most locals, but one Acalanes student believes history holds the answers.

The populations of herbivores were controlled and kept in balance by a large suite of predators like the famous California brown bear and cougars. When European settlers arrived, they were unable to coexist with these animals and set about hunting the brown bear, wolf, and cougar to near extinction,” senior Peter Caprio said, “Coyotes were able to spread across the US because of the lack of competition with larger animals and a lack of predation by humans.” 

Although coyotes did not threaten humans in the 1800s, human-coyote conflicts are increasing in large part to humans expanding into coyotes’ natural habitats. 

“Our expansion into other territories, such as building new houses over parks and open land space, will have an effect on the coyote population. As humans remove more and more resources with expansion, there is less and less to go around for the animals to share. This makes the interspecies and intraspecies competition much worse,” Acalanes science teacher Thomas McNamara said.

Another possible explanation for the coyote’s odd behavior is that coyotes are losing their fear of humans. 

“Coyotes are usually fearful and cautious around people — though as urban habitats grow and people are becoming more indifferent to their presence, some coyotes are becoming habituated to people and losing their natural and beneficial fear of them,” McNamara said.

Just when residents believed the wildlife antics were over, the coyote struck again by biting a Diablo Foods employee on Dec. 15. 

“I work at Diablo Foods. The coyote attacked one of our produce guys and bit him in the leg. My manager had to fight it off with an umbrella. I think it’s crazy. I had never heard of coyotes attacking humans before,” Acalanes senior Andrew Cusumano said.

While some residents believe it truly is just one crazy coyote, others believe there are more to come.

That one coyote is really just the beginning. Perhaps, that was the ‘bravest’ or ‘alpha male’ of a group – checking out the situation for the rest of the group, but my guess is that the coyote problem will get worse in the next few years,” McNamara said.

Many are pushing for the county to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Some students offer possible solutions after weighing both ethical and environmental concerns.

Some [national parks] have a three-strike system where every time a specific animal attacks a person, that animal is transported to a separate area, and after that happens three times the animal is put down. Hunting down all the coyotes would solve the problem of attacks, but it would seriously destabilize local ecosystems to remove a top predator, so we should try to avoid that,” Acalanes junior Katrina Ortman said.

As coyote attacks increase, many residents want to prepare. In the event of a coyote attack, McNamara recommends that one should run toward the coyote, make noise, and try to look as large and scary as possible. Perhaps most importantly, McNamara suggests ways to hinder the habituation of coyotes to humans. 

Don’t become indifferent … if you see a coyote in your yard or neighborhood always haze them away. Do so completely, and remind your neighbors of the importance of doing the same,” McNamara said.