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Their eerie howl wakes residents of cities as populous as New York and Chicago. They are known to tote away the neighbor’s cat for a midnight snack. And in rural areas, they enter pens and kill livestock. The human response has been expensive. Every year, half a million coyotes are trapped, poisoned, and snared, and aerial gunning with low-flying aircraft or helicopters has also been used, with much of the cost going to taxpayers, making coyotes the most outlawed native carnivore in the United States. Camilla Fox (CAS’91) believes she has a better solution.
Fox, who has seen the limitations of cash- and staff-strapped wildlife agencies and the carnage of coyote eradication, founded Project Coyote in 2008. The nonprofit aims to change the way coyotes and other wild carnivores are viewed and treated in this country.
The number of human-coyote encounters has risen over the last century for many reasons, but the main ones are the coyotes’ ascendance to the position of top predator following the near eradication of wolves, and the continuing encroachment of society into their forest habitat.
“Coyotes have learned to coexist with us because they are adaptable, resilient, and intelligent animals,” says Fox, who is executive director of the organization, based in Larkspur, Calif. “But we haven’t quite learned to do that yet with them.”
Fox grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and in Maine with a pet timber wolf named Tiny that had been rescued from a research facility by her father, a veterinarian, wild canid researcher, and former vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. While Fox doesn’t advocate wild animals as pets, she says the experience instilled in her a love for four-legged creatures.
At BU, Fox cofounded Boston University Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and after graduation she went to California to work for animal protection and environmental advocacy nonprofits. She later earned a master’s degree in environmental studies from Prescott College. In her work with conservation groups, she saw a need—and a better way—to protect carnivores. Fox says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services alone spends $160 million a year to kill close to 5 million animals, 80,000 to 90,000 of which are coyotes.
Project Coyote, which has 20 staff members and volunteers around the country, is often contacted by people who are dismayed to learn that their town is planning a campaign to trap and kill coyotes. The organization works with communities to develop coexistence plans to strategically “haze” coyotes—using deterrents to move an animal out of an area or to discourage undesirable behavior. Fox says the group’s more humane techniques can significantly reduce, if not eliminate, negative interactions between coyotes and humans. Her group also educates communities, urging people not to leave food and small pets outside, for example.
When contacted by communities, Project Coyote teaches them to haze the coyotes, which involves showing residents, animal control officers, and parks staff how to use consistent and persistent deterrents—making loud noises, for example, spraying the animals with water, shining bright lights, throwing objects, and even chasing the coyotes away. The maneuvers are intended to discourage coyotes from returning to the town to find food. And that, in turn, keeps them from being killed, Fox says.
She points to success stories like Marin County, Calif., which spent $60,000 annually to kill coyotes before officials there contacted her group. Now the county employs Project Coyote’s strategies, using llamas (which protect sheep by emitting a warning sound and kicking coyotes), guard dogs, and electric fencing to protect sheep and other animals on the coyote menu.
Project Coyote tailors plans to suit specific cities and towns, which have included San Francisco, Superior, Colo., and Davis, Calif. So far, Fox says, the feedback has been enthusiastic. “Communities get to see the positives of living with coyotes and other wildlife—essentially being a wildlife-friendly community,” she says, “and the positive media and PR they receive.”
Fox wants people to know that a healthy coyote population is vital in the food chain. Coyotes and other predators keep species like rodents and other pests in check. On the East Coast, they cull the deer population, which in turn lowers the prevalence of Lyme disease. And many scavenger animals, such as ravens and foxes, depend on the carcasses left behind by coyotes.
“For a lot of people, their first encounter with a predator species might be a coyote in their midst,” says Fox, who was honored in 2006 with the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Marin Humane Society and has received a Christine Stevens Wildlife Award from the Washington, D.C.–based Animal Welfare Institute. “So Project Coyote wants to help individuals and communities understand coyotes and understand the important ecological role that predators play in our ecosystem. Appreciate them or not, they are here to stay.”