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Public outcry follows killing of coyotes in Griffith Park

September 22, 2009 |  8:03 pm

Many Angelenos are outraged at the news that eight coyotes in Griffith Park were killed last week in response to two incidents in which members of the public were bitten by the animals.

At the heart of many animal lovers' complaints is the fact that wildlife officials acknowledged that they have no way of knowing whether any of the coyotes killed were actually responsible for either of the biting incidents. In both cases (one in late August and one last Wednesday), too much time had elapsed between the time of the bite and the time it was reported to wildlife authorities for DNA evidence to be salvaged from the victim. Had testing been conducted, it could potentially have identified the coyote attacker or attackers.

Incidents of coyotes biting humans are mercifully rare. "It's been a while since we've had a bite here in Southern California, which is good. That's the way we like to see things," Kevin Brennan, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, told our colleague Tony Barboza. "But almost every day someone's losing pets to coyotes." 

Indeed, one very high-profile instance of a pet being snatched happened just days before U.S. Department of Agriculture trappers began to kill Griffith Park's coyotes. Last Monday, pop singer Jessica Simpson took to Twitter to share the news that "a coyote took my precious Daisy right in front of our eyes. HORROR! We are searching. Hoping. Please help!"  Simpson posted a missing-dog poster offering a reward for the return of the little dog, a Maltese-poodle mix who was a gift from the singer's ex-husband, fellow pop singer Nick Lachey. But, unsurprisingly, no sign of Daisy has been found.

The timing of the coyote killings was not lost on many animal advocates who claimed that they were motivated by the desire to appease a celebrity. "We are deeply sympathetic for Ms. Simpson's loss," spcaLA President Madeline Bernstein said in a statement. But "her situation should not give credence to what is clearly overkill. Instead, we should focus on how to coexist with wildlife."  

California Department of Fish and Game spokesperson Kyle Orr insisted in an interview with the Associated Press that the killing of coyotes was not motivated by the incident with Simpson's dog.  Indeed, the agency's policy is that coyotes should be captured and killed only in the instance of an imminent threat to public safety. "Somebody getting bitten is an imminent threat," Brennan told The Times. (A dog being snatched, one is left to assume, is not.) The animals targeted by the trappers were those that appeared to be begging for food, Orr told The Times.

But even if the killings were motivated by an urge to protect the (human) public, is shooting coyotes without proof that they're responsible for incidents of aggression really the way to go about it? Our colleague Bob Pool spoke with many parkgoers Monday who didn't think so:

Park visitors blasted the hunt as overkill. They blamed the problem on people who illegally feed coyotes.

"I'm strictly opposed to killing them," said Dimitrios Gatsiounis, a Los Feliz resident who regularly brings his three children -- all younger than 5 -- to the park to play.

"Coyotes are part of the natural surroundings here that we all enjoy. They are reclusive animals unless people feed them. Lots of city dwellers have never seen wildlife before," Gatsiounis said.

Park regulars said they have seen visitors fling uneaten sandwiches and other food out of car windows in park pullouts and along Zoo Drive. One man regularly scatters bread. Some picnickers routinely toss scraps for coyotes to eat.

"We tell them, 'No! Don't do that! There are kids here!' and they look at us like they don't care," said Carolina Martinez, a Highland Park nanny who was there with the 2-year-old boy she watches.

Several concerned Unleashed readers echoed the sentiments of Gatsiounis and Martinez in comments submitted Monday. "The reason this is happening is because people are hand feeding these coyotes," Jim Leske wrote, "I have personally seen this on numerous occasions. ... Educating people on how big of a impact you have any time you interact with a wild animal is the way you will solve this problem!"

CoyoteReader Quench Rise agreed, calling shooting the coyotes "a completely pointless ignorant killing spree. I've got news for you Fish and Game," Quench added, "the coyote population in Griffith Park is unique as coyotes have DAILY exposure to humans and have become completely accustomed to humans. If you shot every coyote in Griffith Park who was not afraid of people YOU WOULD KILL EVERY ONE OF THEM."

Even the man who says a coyote bit his foot in the Wednesday incident told KTLA that he'd rather not see the animals killed. He was not seriously injured as a result of the bite, which occurred while he was napping near the park's Travel Town section. (See video of his KTLA interview above.)  

"When he woke up, the coyote was sitting there," Capt. Wendell Bowers of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services told Pool. "Coyotes nip at each other when they want to be fed. This one was waiting for something to eat. It wasn't trying to eat the man's foot. It nipped at him."

Following an incident last October in which a coyote bit a jogger near the Griffith Park carousel, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks noted that the animal's aggression may have been related to the lack of available food in the area, as a group of trash cans nearby had recently been emptied.  "The message is please don't feed them because they expect it and then it becomes a behavioral thing," the spokesperson told The Times.

If the problem with Griffith Park's coyotes is, indeed, that they've become too accustomed to close proximity with humans (and the food we supply them with), isn't it time to address that issue?  Karin Klein ponders that question on the Opinion L.A. blog, comparing the Griffith Park situation with one in the Orange County community of Yorba Linda, where city officials recently hired a trapper to kill coyotes that were entering backyards, making off with pets, and generally showing little to no fear of people.

"They'd be a lot less likely to do that sort of thing if people learned how to behave around them: make awful, loud noises if they approach, spray water if available, throw rocks, make the coyotes associate human contact with unpleasant and scary experiences," Klein writes. "Instead, communities build artificial lakes, like one in Yorba Linda, and then complain when in the driest months of a dry year, the coyotes are attracted to it. We tend to like the appearance of nature a lot more than we like nature."

Like Klein, many L.A. animal advocates are urging a more moderate approach to dealing with problem coyotes -- one heavy on common-sense advice (don't feed coyotes, keep small pets indoors, don't provide access to a water source like an uncovered swimming pool or a pet water bowl) and notably light on guns and traps.

RELATED:
Wildlife officials authorize killing of coyotes in Griffith Park after bite incidents

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video credit: KTLA

Photo: A coyote waits for a handout from a passing car in the Yosemite Valley. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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