Saturday, December 16

When Animals Attack

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When Animals Attack

Last fall, I was shocked to hear that a young woman was killed by a pack of coyotes on my favorite hiking trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  19-year old up and coming folk singer and songwriter, Taylor Mitchell, a native of Toronto, was hiking alone on the popular Skyline Trail when the attack happened.

Locals and people right across the country were left wondering what could have triggered such a event.  Even the experts were left shaking their heads.  No one in Canada had ever been fatally mauled by coyotes.  There have been attacks and people have been bitten but no one has ever been killed.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again.  And it could happen anywhere.

It is somewhat of a mystery as to how the Eastern Coyote came about on Cape Breton Island.  I have read many conflicting reports about how they got here.  Some say they were introduced to the island as a way to cut down on the rabbit population.  Others say the animals, which are capable of adapting to any environment made their way here over time.  One thing is for sure, their appearance was first documented in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.  Since that time, they have adapted very well to the sometimes harsh environment and they can be found in every community on the island. They have even managed to make their way to the Island of Newfoundland via ice flows between the two islands.  This seems highly unlikely considering the distance but a possibility considering the animal’s ability to survive very harsh conditions. The Eastern Coyote is not the same as the Western Coyote that is found in Western North America.  The Eastern Coyote is much bigger and more adaptable.  It has been said that the Eastern Coyote is in fact a hybrid, part coyote, part wolf.  I have not been able to find any conclusive reports of this but that would certainly explain it’s size and it’s sometimes aggressive ways.  Although residents in the area may not be able to agree on some things about the Eastern Coyote’s history here, they can agree on one thing; the animals are causing a lot of problems and have become something of a pest.  There are numerous reports of garbage being ripped open and family pets disappearing.  The animals are so adaptable that the size of their litters coincides with the food supply available.  If there is a shortage of food, they will have small litters.  If there is an abundance of food, they will have large litters. Fortunately for the coyotes, this ensures their survival.  Unfortunately for everyone else, this means they are succeeding in taking over.  This has brought about action that saw laws passed that allow people to shoot coyotes all year round and without a license to try and bring the population under control even though it seems the more you try to get rid of them, more pop up. 

In the wake of last week’s attack, authorities are telling people that “this is a bold attack by a normally shy creature that tends to stay away from humans”.  This may be the experience most people have with these animals but it is certainly not the experience I have ever had with them.  Whenever I have come across coyotes both in the wild and in captivity, I saw a bold and sneaky animal with no problem approaching humans and no fear towards them.  Maybe they don’t find me threatening, maybe I just had the luck to only come across rabid or sick coyotes. 

My first experience with a coyote was at the Two Rivers Wildlife Park in Mira, Cape Breton.  The coyotes are held in a very large cage with big trees and bushes in it.  Upon first looking into the cage, I was unable to see anything but as I peered into the trees, I saw a figure moving quickly and inching closer to where I was standing.  As I watched the coyote get closer and closer, I noticed he was hiding behind the trees form time to time, stalking me until he reached me.  This behaviour indicated to me that had I been in the forest, he would have stalked me in the same way and who knows what might have transpired.  He seemed quite bold to me but I also passed it off to the fact that he was very used to humans being in the park.  My second experience with a coyote happened in 2007 at the Little Smokey Look-off in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, not far from where last week’s fatal attack occurred.  I pulled over at the look-off to throw a coffee cup in the garbage and as I was just about to exit the car, a coyote ran from the woods and straight towards my car.  I waited and grabbed my camera to take a picture.  I didn’t need to use my zoom because he came right up to my door and peaked into the car, so close that he left a nose print on the window.  This time, I was not at a wildlife park.  What was his excuse for being so bold and not afraid of me or my vehicle? The third close encounter I had with a coyote was just this past August at the Broad Cove Campground, again in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  I was in my tent reading and before turning over to go to sleep, I exited the tent to go to the washrooms.  I had only my head out of the tent when something caught my eye on the gravel road about twenty feet in front of me.  It was a coyote.  It caught my eye and I caught his and for about thirty seconds, I sat still with my head poking out of the tent, frozen in fear.  He did the same except he didn’t seem fearful.  When we were finished staring each other down, he started to run straight for the tent and than suddenly, ran into the woods behind my tent.  By that time, I was having second thoughts about going to the washrooms.  Coyotes travel in packs and somewhere, in those trees, a dozen of his friends were waiting for me to come out of that tent.  When I felt it was safe, I made a run for my car, drove to the bathrooms and than went for a long drive, giving the coyote a chance to forget about me.  The encounter was unnerving since I was spending the night alone in the tent and there were no other campers around me.  In terms of encountering coyotes on the Skyline Trail, the trail where the recent unfortunate event occurred, I have never seen any.  Moose are plentiful and rarely seem agitated, so there has never been any indication that there were even coyotes in the area any time I have been on that trail however, I did uncover an unnerving event that did occur on the trail back in 2002.  That summer, a young child was bitten by a coyote while hiking the trail with her parents.  The child survived but knowing that there have been other attacks on people in that immediate area makes me nervous to walk the trail alone anymore. 

Besides the close encounters I have had with coyotes, I have heard second-hand accounts of aggressive coyotes in Cape Breton.  One account I recall about a decade ago was particularly unnerving as it involved a coyote attacking someone in a wheelchair.  I don’t re call to much of the story but it was well-covered in local and national news at the time.  These other accounts I have heard come from close, reliable sources.  One account by my mom’s close friend was also unnerving and involved a family pet.  She put her small dog out one night to run around on the back porch and went into the other room to tend to something else thinking the dog would be safe.  A few minutes later, she heard her dog barking and acting very playful.  When she looked outside, a coyote was trying to gain access to the porch and was acting as if he wanted to play with the small dog.  She shooed the coyote away and as she did that, half a dozen coyotes came out of the woods and approached the porch.  It is well-known that coyotes travel in packs but to send one out and act as bait to lure unsuspecting victims into the woods where the rest of the pack wait is downright scary.  My mom’s friend never let the dog outside again unless she was supervised.  I have never seen a coyote in my backyard but I have certainly heard them and several of my beloved cats have disappeared without a trace.  I suspect they were taken by coyotes as around the time the cats disappeared is when people started hearing and seeing the coyotes in the area for the first time.  One experience that sends chills down my spine when I think about it happened a few years back at Broad Cove Campground in the Highlands Park.  My sister and I were in the tent and were not quite asleep when we started to hear loud screams coming from the woods.  To us, it sounded like a child being attacked by a wild animal.  We had heard coyotes howling nearby all evening and the first thing that came to our minds was that a child had been attacked.  We jumped in the car and tracked down the warden to tell him what we had heard.  He assured us that there was a good explanation for that and although it involved coyotes, it did not involve a child.  Apparently when coyotes attack a rabbit, the rabbit makes high pitch squeals like a human baby.  My dad, who is an avid woodsman and hunter, confirmed this as he had heard it many times in the woods.  In fact my dad has had the most encounters with coyotes than anyone I know as he comes across them from time to time while hunting.  While none of the animals he encountered showed aggressive behaviour, they did come close and they didn’t seem shy as we are being led to believe by the mass of newspaper articles that were put out following the recent tragic events. My dad also knows about the impact the Eastern Coyote is having on the deer population on the island.  Years ago, it was normal to see a dozen deer grazing in an open field along the highway.  Now, you are lucky to see one deer in an entire season.   As a child, my dad would often pull over on the side of the road in remote areas and start howling.  Every time, within minutes, the howls would come back and they always sounded very close.  During these experiments, a coyote never came out of the woods, but we knew they were there and they were nearby.  The sound of them howling always spooked me and my sisters.

Some people in Canada have not been so lucky in their encounters with coyotes.  Although there have been no fatalities until the attack last week, there have been some very close calls and most of them have involved young children even babies which solidifies the claim that they attack the weak and vulnerable first.  There have even been accounts of babies being hauled away while sleeping in a blanket while their parents were nearby.  Some of these attacks happened in front yards in the middle of cities.

I do have my opinions on this issue which some may disagree with.  I am an avid outdoors person and a lover of all living creatures, coyotes included.  When I enter the woods, I understand that I may be attacked at any time.  It could be by a bear, a cougar, a bobcat or a coyote.  After all, I am trespassing on their “property” and whether people want to realize it or not, humans are just as much a part of the food chain as every other living thing on the planet.  We are no better than them, and we are certainly not exempt from that very natural way of life on planet Earth.  Taylor Mitchell felt the same way according to her mother who claimed in a statement made days after her death.  She said that Taylor would not have wanted park officials to kill the animals responsible for her demise.  She was also a lover of nature and of animals and no doubt understood her place in the grand scheme of things.  These comments came about when news reports claimed that park authorities were on a mission to hunt down and kill every coyote in the vicinity, whether or not it was thought to be involved in the attack or not.  The thought of a massacre like this happening in a National Park appalled me and many others across the country.  In the news reports the following day, Parks Canada denied these allegations.  We will never know the truth but one thing we do know and have to accept is that animals attack.  They don’t know any better, it is their instinct to chase anything they think may be a source of food for them.  That being said, if I came face to face with a hungry animal in the forest and it tried to attack, I would try to defend myself in any way possible and it would do if I were attacking first.  I understand that animals who attack have the taste of human blood on their tongues and will possible attack again if not killed.  I also understand that the animals may have been rabid and they need to be put down in that case as well but if the massacre of every coyote in the vicinity of the Skyline Trail did indeed happen, I would have to say I am not happy with that and I think many others feel the same way, especially in a national park.  These parks are supposed to be there to protect these animals and it is their home and their territory.

Next summer I will return to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park as I do every summer and I will hike the Skyline trail as I always do.  I will also continue to recommend that others do the same.  As locals and any past visitor to Nova Scotia knows, this trail is a not-to-be-missed highlight of any trip around the Cabot Trail.  The first leg of the trail passes through heavy forest where you will see many moose and sometimes bear and other wildlife that has never bothered anyone on the trail in the past.  You may even see coyotes and chances are, they will not attack you.  As you keep walking, the ocean will come into view and than the mountains and than the most spectacular view in all of the highlands.  Whales frolic meters offshore and fishing boats dot the bay surrounding the headlands.  The trail has been voted the best in Eastern Canada and for good reason.  Thousands of locals and visitors alike hike it every year and sometimes the parking lot is so full, you have to park along the highway.  However, if you plan to hike the skyline trail or any trail for that matter or if you plan to spend any amount of time in the woods, you should take precautions as animals are unpredictable and no one really knows what may trigger the next attack.  Here are some things to consider when you are in the woods:

  • If Possible, do not venture into the woods alone.  If you must go alone, make sure to let someone know where you will be and what time to expect you back.  Also, it is a good idea to have cell phone with you.

  • Bring a whistle or similar device that makes a lot of noise that could scare an animal away.

  • Bring a stick that will double as a walking stick and weapon in case you do come across a hungry or angry animal.  Bear spray or pepper spray is also good to have with you.

  • If possible, do not carry any food, especially anything with a strong smell, in your knapsack as it will attract animals.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings.  Watch for fresh prints or droppings and listen for any sounds in the bushes that could indicate an animal is near. 

  • If you do come across an animal in the woods, stop, stay come and do not turn your back to it.  If necessary, wave your hands in the hair, make yourself look threatening to the animals and make noise to scare it away.  Never run away!  If you run, you are fair game!  An animals instinct is to chase it’s food and if you run, it’s instincts will be to run after you. 

  • If you see an animal in the distance, either turn back from the way you came or make a wide detour around the vicinity.  Do not do anything to agitate it and do not try to get its attention.  Taking a picture from a distance is one thing, creeping up to it and taking a close up to it’s face is another.

  • And finally and most importantly, if you come across a wild animal in the woods, so not ever feed it!  This will not only endanger you but it will also endanger the animal. It has been discovered that in most attacks, the animals involved were habitually fed by humans.  This causes the animal to loose it’s fear of humans, resulting in a bold and demanding animal who wants every human it sees to feed him.  An animals first instinct is to survive and they are very good at providing for themselves.  Feeding them helps them to loose that instinct and they will become dependent on humans for hand-outs.

Just because the possibility is there for you to be attacked by a wild animal while in the woods, don’t let this stop you from doing what you love.  After all, the danger is there to walk outside your house and get hit by a car too but you still leave the house.  It is possible for humans and animals to share the land and be comfortable with one another.  It is all about respect.  Have respect and you will get respect back. 

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