I love traveling, dogs, and Steinbeck. So it will be no surprise that Travels with Charley is one of my favorite books. One scene in the book stands out especially strongly in my memory. Steinbeck and Charley are camping in the desert, and Steinbeck sees a coyote. He instinctively grabs a rifle and takes aim … and then, fortunately for this reader, doesn’t have the heart to pull the trigger. I’m not a fan of killing coyotes.
Coyotes are cool. They’re smart. They’re very adaptable. And they’re moving into a neighborhood near you — even if you live in a major city. And that’s the rub, because coyotes are also dangerous, especially for dog owners.
No longer considered vermin to be exterminated on sight, coyotes have figured out how to thrive in the presence of humans. Coyotes are omnivorous, and they are not picky. Humans provide ample sources of food including garbage, leftover picnics, bird food, pet food — and pets themselves. A coyote won’t hesitate to dine on an outdoor cat or a small, off-leash dog. And it turns out that they also might make a go for a large, on-leash dog and his owner.
My pal Buster has had two very close calls with coyotes in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
How did Coyotes get into a major park in the city with the nation’s second-densest human population? It must be difficult for a coyote to make its way through a city where buses and taxis seem to aim for pedestrians. But they are here nonetheless.
There are large, open areas north of the city in Marin County, but I rather doubt coyotes crossed the Golden Gate Bridge (although it’s not impossible to imagine) to get into the city. It’s more likely that they migrated from similarly large open areas south of the city in San Mateo County. I picture them walking north along the beach and straight into the park.
However, coyotes also have the wherewithal to hit the mean streets of the big city. Not long ago one was found on Capp Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. Nobody knows how the creature made its way to one of the most central, gritty, and infamously crime-ridden streets in town, but when she was caught she was bedraggled and delirious — just like many of the people one might find on Capp Street at night. (She has since been nursed back to health.)
My pal Buster’s first near-death experience with a coyote occurred several years ago. Denise (that’s Buster’s mom) was running with him in Golden Gate Park at sunset. He was off leash, and he spotted a coyote. Buster chased it, and the coyote tried to escape (Golden Gate Park coyotes were much more timid back in those days). Buster did not heed Denise’s calls, and he and his quarry disappeared over a hill. As Denise neared the crest of the hill she heard the squeal of tires on asphalt followed by a loud thud. She arrived in time to see the coyote limp away on three legs.
Buster was unhurt, but he permanently lost off-leash running privileges. The police and animal control were summoned, but the coyote was never found. A few days later signs went up in the area warning of the presence of coyotes.
Buster’s next coyote encounter would occur several years later. This time the tables would be turned.
I was in the throes of an especially busy and stressful night shift a few weeks ago. I came out of an appointment and was advised that Denise was bringing Buster in. The technician stated that Denise hadn’t said what was wrong, other than that there was an emergency involving Buster. You can imagine the effect this had on my stress level. I tried to call Denise but she didn’t answer.
Denise arrived with her sister Laurie and Buster a short while later. It turns out that nobody was hurt, although Denise and Laurie were still visibly shaken. They had been running in Golden Gate Park with Buster on leash. A coyote came out of a wooded area and began to stalk them. Laurie got away, but the coyote continued to stalk Denise and Buster. Denise tried to scare it off, but it was not afraid. Every time Denise moved, the coyote edged closer. It clearly planned to attack. Fortunately, two runners responded to Denise’s and Laurie’s pleas for help, and the four of them shooed the coyote back into the woods.
What was Buster’s reaction to the affair? He was initially oblivious. However, he picked up on Denise’s and Laurie’s stress, and responded by vomiting. Repeatedly. Hence the veterinary visit. By the time I saw him he was back to normal, although he did spend the night under veterinary supervision (which is to say, he hung out with me at work for the night).
I honestly don’t know whether the coyote was stalking Buster or Denise. Coyotes are nothing if not ambitious and ballsy. A lecturer at the 2012 Wilderness Medicine Conference at Squaw Valley mentioned that if a coyote is thwarted in its efforts to stalk a child in a yard, the coyote will make return visits to that yard until either the coyote or the child is eliminated.
Coyotes are dangerous, but they’re here to stay. Denise reported the most recent incident to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. The result: There are new signs in the spot, warning of the presence of coyotes, and also recommending against walking dogs in the area.
I hope that the unsafe area of Golden Gate Park remains small, but I rather doubt it will. Meanwhile, dog owners in the park should continue to be vigilant and use leashes — but even these steps might not offer full protection.
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(Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)