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Why California officials are killing coyote, after coyote, after coyote

Coyote C145 walks near a construction site in the Silver Lake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday evening June 3rd. 

National Park Service Ecologist Justin Brown tracks coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday night June 3 and early Thursday morning June 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, CA. Some of the coyotes are fitted with radio collars.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
A coyote walks near a construction site in the Silver Lake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday evening June 3rd, 2015.

On Wednesday night, a 5-year-old boy was walking with his father on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles when a coyote came up from behind and bit him on the leg. The boy went to the hospital and likely received a rabies shot. But what happened to the coyote?

In California, coyotes have the same legal status as pigeons and rats. They’re considered “non-game animals,” which means anyone can kill as many of them as they want, at any time of year.  There are some restrictions: it's illegal to poison them or capture them with a leg-hold trap.

What happened next at Cal State LA on Wednesday night was perfectly legal: according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a university police officer fired his rifle at the coyote, after it was seen stalking a woman shortly after biting the boy. But the coyote got away.

Now, the search for the offending coyote has intensified. DFW officers took the pants of the boy who was bitten to a lab to attempt to get a DNA sample. Thursday night, after dark, they plan to set up traps all over the Cal State LA campus. Working with Wildlife Services, a federal agency whose mandate is to "resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist," they'll use animal calls to lure coyotes in. Because they're so difficult to trap, officials often end up shooting them instead.

It’s not something DFW Lt. J.C. Healy particularly enjoys.

“I don’t really enjoy killing animals,” he said. “It’s a challenge. Because they’re pretty saavy.”

After each coyote they kill, DFW officers and trappers take a saliva or tissue sample and look for a genetic match to the sample from the pants of the boy who was bitten.

“If it’s the first coyote we capture, we’ll cease operations,” said Healy. But if not, they’ll keep going. They can trap and kill up to half a dozen coyotes a time, looking for the culprit. “Sometimes it takes one, two, three nights.”

People vehemently disagree about whether this is the best approach to deal with aggressive coyotes.

In an interview with KPCC last April, Niamh Quinn, who studies coyote-human interaction at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Orange County, said killing coyotes does not reduce their overall number, because it creates a vacuum that other coyotes move in to fill. Rather, she said, the aim is to eliminate problem coyotes, and hope that whatever coyotes move in to an area next won’t be as aggressive.

“It does look like lethal control is a good short term option. But it’s not the long term solution,” she said. “The long term solution is making citizens aware of how to act in areas where coyotes are, because coyotes are not going anyway. They’re here to say. Coyotes are not coming from the hills anymore. We have urban coyotes.”

Lisa Lange, senior vice president for communications at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said the long-term solution is to prevent conflicts in the first place. She said people can eliminate the reasons why coyotes are hanging around populated areas in the first place: open garbage cans, food that is left out or even intentional feeding.

“We need to start ticketing people when they leave food out for wildlife. We need to fine people when they have a picnic and leave their trash out,” she told KPCC last May.

It's hard to tell whether human coyote conflicts are getting worse.  Many people feel that they are, thanks to posts on Nextdoor or Facebook, but data is lacking because there’s no single agency that tracks coyote attacks. California Department of Fish and Wildlife only keeps track of when the agency is called in to kill aggressive animals. And Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has a database of the number of county residents who received rabies shots for coyote bites. In 2012, three people got shots. That number jumped to 16 in 2016, but fell to 5 in 2017.

But anecdotally, public health experts say coyotes appear to be getting more aggressive.

“The way they’re interacting with people is just not the way we used to see things occurring,” Karen Ehnert, the chief veterinarian for county public health, told KPCC in May 2016. She said before, it seemed like coyote attacks on people happened when a coyote was going after a pet, and the person intervened to try to save the pet.

“Now we have people being attacked, and there’s no pet around. There’s no food. There’s really no reason for the coyote to attack the human. So it’s disturbing.”

So, what to do if you are stalked by a coyote, or one is eyeing your dog on a walk?

Experts say to try to frighten it away: get big, make a lot of noise, and throw rocks at it. Do this even if it isn’t stalking you, because this helps reinstall a fear of humans in coyotes that may have lost it. If it attacks you – which is very rare – don’t be afraid to fight back.

This story has been updated to clarify who California Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with to trap and kill coyotes.