3 Nov 2009, 5:54pm
by admin

Predicting Predator Attacks on Humans

by Val Geist

Note: Dr. Valerius Geist, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

In view of last week’s fatal attack on a 19-year-old woman by two coyotes in Cape Breton National Park [here], please allow me a commentary, which I ask you distribute to distribute to your affected colleagues.

1. Both coyotes and wolves have an identical manner of targeting alternative prey, and this process is drawn out and specific, so that one gets fair warning well ahead of the first attack by wolves or coyotes on people. This targeting process proceeds in steps (from Will Graves 2007 Russian Wolves. Anxiety through the Ages [here]):

Free-living wolves also follow the general habituation-exploration model… These circumstances are:

(a) Severe depletion of natural prey.

(b) Followed by wolves searching for alternative food sources among human habitations.

(c) The brazen behavior of wolves was due to the wolves being undeterred by and habituated to inefficiently armed humans (or ineffectual use of weapons or outright protection of wolves),

(d) Wolves shifted to preying on pets and livestock, especially on dogs. (In our neighborhood one or several wolves attacked dogs despite the physical intervention by their owners which the wolves more or less ignored).

(e) Wolves tested and killed livestock; the tests resulted in docked tails and ears of cattle.

(f) The wolves commenced deliberate, drawn-out exploration of humans be such on foot or on horseback, (this is not merely visual and olfactory, but included – weeks before these wolves attacked a human – the licking, nipping and tearing of clothing. Beatty 2000).

(g) This was followed by wolves confronting humans.

(h) Wolves attack humans.

According to interviews with hikers and Cape Breton National Park staff, coyotes in the park had reached stages f to h. In short, if you are aware of this targeting process you would have been highly alarmed by coyotes showing stage f behavior. The coyotes were, clearly, on the way to attacking humans. Also, the pattern of wounding as described by the press indicates that this attack was an exploratory one.

Note also this study regarding coyotes in suburban areas targeting children:

Robert M. Timm, Rex O. Baker, Joe R. Bennett, Craig C. Coolahan. 2004. Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem. IN Proc. 21st Vertebr. Pest Conf.(R. M. Timm and W. P. Gorenzel, Eds.), Hopland Research & Extension Center, Univ. of Calif., Davis. 2004. Pp. 47-57.


Coyote attacks on humans and pets have increased within the past 5 years in California. We discuss documented occurrences of coyote aggression and attacks on people, using data from USDA Wildlife Services, the California Department of Fish & Game, and other sources. Forty-eight such attacks on children and adults were verified from 1998 through 2003, compared to 41 attacks during the period 1988 through 1997; most incidents occurred in Southern California near the suburban-wildland interface. Attack incidents are typically preceded by a sequence of increasingly bold coyote behaviors, including: nighttime coyote attacks on pets; sightings of coyotes in neighborhoods at night; sightings of coyotes in morning and evening; attacks on pets during daylight hours; attacks on pets on leashes and chasing of joggers and bicyclists; and finally, mid-day sightings of coyotes in and around children’s play areas. In suburban areas, coyotes can lose their fear of humans as a result of coming to rely on ample food resources including increased numbers of rabbits and rodents, household refuse, pet food, available water from ponds and landscape irrigation run-off, and even intentional feeding of coyotes by residents. The safe environment provided by a wildlife-loving general public, who rarely display aggression toward coyotes, is also thought to be a major contributing factor. The termination or reduction of predator management programs adjacent to some urban areas has also served to contribute to coyotes’ loss of fear of humans and to a dependency on resources in the suburban environment. Corrective action can be effective if implemented before coyote attacks on pets become common. However, if environmental modification and changes in human behavior toward coyotes are delayed, then removal of offending predators by traps or shooting is required in order to resolve the threat to human safety. We note the failure of various non-lethal harassment techniques to correct the problem in situations where coyotes have become habituated to human-provided food resources. Coyote attacks on humans in suburbia are preventable, but the long-term solution of this conflict requires public education, changes in residents’ behavior, and in some situations, the means to effectively remove individual offending animals.


Based on an analysis of coyote attacks previously described, there is a predictable sequence of observed changes in coyote behavior that indicates an increasing risk to human safety (Baker and Timm 1998). We now define these changes, in order of their usual pattern of occurrence, as follows:

1) An increase in observance of coyotes on streets and in parks and yards at night

2) An increase in coyotes approaching adults and/or taking pets at night

3) Early morning and late afternoon daylight observance of coyotes on streets and in parks and yards

4) Daylight observance chasing or taking pets

5) Coyotes attacking and taking pets on leash or in close proximity to their owners; coyotes chasing joggers, bicyclists, and other adults

6) Coyotes seen in and around children’s play areas, school grounds, and parks in mid-day

7) Coyotes acting aggressively toward adults during mid-day. …


As far as we know, the first reported coyote attacks on humans in California not involving rabies-induced aggression occurred in the late 1970s, and we document a total of 89 attacks in the state between that time and December 2003. Approximately 79% of these have occurred in the last 10 years, indicating that this problem is increasing (Table 1, Figure 2). Of the persons suffering injury, more than half (55%) have been adults. …

Preventing Future Attacks

Once attacks on pets have become frequent, or if other neighborhood or public use area food sources have been used by coyotes for an extended period of time (i.e., for several months or more), lethal control techniques will likely be required to prevent continued attacks on pets or future attacks on children or adults. Following use of padded leghold traps (or other capture devices) and/or shooting, educational efforts must be emphasized in order to change the neighborhood habitat factors that have precipitated the problem, so as to prevent its reoccurrence. Such proactive coyote management to prevent human safety risks typically cannot be carried out until residents understand the problem and its causes, as well as understand the predictable consequences of inaction. Sadly, such understanding is sometimes not achieved until after an attack has occurred.

2. The coyotes in question were a colonizing, fringe population characterized by large size. This is a give-away informing that the coyotes in question have assumed the Dispersal phenotype, an epi-genetic adaptive syndrome of species during colonization. Such individuals are characterized by very bold assertive behavior and rapid learning. See:

* Chapter 6. How genes communicate with the environment - the biology of inequality. pp. 116-144. In Geist, V. 1978. Life Strategies, Human Evolution, Environmental Design. Springer Verlag, New York;

* Geist, V. 1989. Environmentally guided phenotype plasticity in mammals and some of its consequences to theoretical and applied biology. pp. 153 176. In M.N. Bruton (ed.) Alternative Life History Styles of Animals. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

* Or if you have my 1998 Deer of the World, please see pp. 3-8.

* Geist, V. 2007. When do wolves become dangerous to humans? [here]

3. I am all too keenly aware as a practising ethologist that North American biologists have hopelessly muddled the understanding of habituation and its consequences, in part by our Yellowstone colleagues in their “disneyfication” of wolves. And I am afraid that some of our Parks Canada colleagues may also be under that spell. You do not need feeding of coyotes to habituate them to people, although it certainly helps and hastens the process of the coyote exploring people. Habituation is unconsummated exploration.



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