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Coyote attack on musician Taylor Mitchell puts critters in new perspective

October 30, 2009 |  2:20 pm

Coyote

One of my favorite day hikes is to a series of vast meadows atop Point Mugu State Park, at the north end of the Santa Monica Mountains.

I've preferred making this uphill sojourn in late afternoon, alone, when there are few or no people on the meadow trails, because that's when coyotes emerge from their daytime slumber. If you're stealthy enough, you might get close enough for a decent photo opportunity.

But after reading about the fatal mauling by coyotes of singer Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia, Canada, I probably will be more leery next time I make that trip, even if the coyotes there try their best to avoid people.

The first time I encountered one of the rangy critters was on a remote side trail surrounded by tall brush. I'd seen mountain lion tracks and was spooked when a coyote bolted from the brush across the trail 30 yards in front of me. It stopped and gazed at me, and I wondered whether it had companions hiding in the brush.

To see how it'd react, I took a few steps toward the predator. To my relief, it looped swiftly to the other side of the meadow, then turned and kept an eye on me.

The Mitchell incident was bizarre and unusual, but not unbelievable, given there are so many coyotes living in proximity to people.

"Coyotes are living amongst us in areas where we live and sleep and children play in our backyards," Valerius Geist, a Canadian biologist, told the Christian Science Monitor. "There is a general avoidance that goes on between them and humans."

Robert Crabtree, who has studied coyote behavior extensively in the western United States, said in the same story: "Those coyotes in Canada must have been very habituated to humans, very likely the result of them either having been fed by people or having close associations with hikers."

The suggestion is that areas in which coyotes have grown too accustomed to or comfortable with humans are where close interactions, even very rare attacks, are more likely to occur. That does not apply to the meadow trails atop Point Mugu State Park. The coyotes there do not typically emerge until people have left the park. You have to be sneaky just to spot one, and if you do it's usually just a fleeting glimpse.

And that's perfectly fine by me.

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: A curious coyote pauses in a meadow atop a trail in Point Mugu State Park. Credit: Pete Thomas / Los Angeles Times

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