By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Last spring one urban-coyote conflict came to a head when some angry Tucsonans who live downtown near that city's Reid Park demanded that Game and Fish biologists "remove" urban coyotes from their neighborhood. The coyotes were suspected of devouring several neighborhood pets.
Game and Fish officials defended the urban coyotes. Should the coyotes be captured, removed from the Reid Park area and released into the desert, two things would happen, they said. First, the urban coyotes would not be able to survive in the desert, which is already staked out as the territory of tougher, stronger coyotes. Second, a new bunch of urban coyotes would move into downtown Tucson to replace the ones that had been banished to the desert.
The truth is, there was absolutely nothing the Game and Fish people could do. The biological problem, as Loven puts it, has become a "political problem that is impossible for any agency to solve because there is no consensus among the public about what to do."
"These people felt coyotes didn't belong in the center of town," Glenn Frederick, a Tucson Game and Fish biologist, tells me of some Reid Park residents. "They felt they shouldn't have to go through extra precautions to save their pets. They thought the coyotes had switched their diet to household pets."
This sudden attention to urban coyotes does not surprise Don Moon Sr.
"I've always said people don't care about coyotes eating calves and lambs, but when they start eating Siamese cats and poodle dogs, we'll get a lot of people on our side," says Moon, a 64-year-old U.S. Department of Agriculture coyote trapper who has lived in Arizona since he was 3 years old.
Like most old-timers who are outdoorspeople, Moon respects the wild dogs for their cleverness, but nevertheless sees them as a menace to farmers and ranchers.
Moon tells me coyotes seem to like "town better than their old haunts," and has little else to add on the subject except to say that traps wouldn't work in the city because the traps are a hazard to pets and children.
Having spent my childhood on a cattle ranch, I can understand why Moon sees coyotes as pests. As a kid, I lost a couple of dogs to coyotes, and I saw what a hungry coyote could do to a baby calf or a goat.
But I'm a city dweller now, and I find my coyote neighbors endlessly fascinating. I confess I'm beginning to think like an "Easterner," which is what we used to call anyone who lived in the city and did not share the same view of land and animals as ranching families. Don Moon Sr. would not be considered an "Easterner--not by any stretch of the imagination.
These days, most Game and Fish officials would be "Easterners," because they learned of the land by getting master's degrees in ecology at places like the University of Michigan. University of Arizona professor William Shaw would also be considered an "Easterner." He studied ecology at the University of California--Berkeley, and ended up with a doctorate from the University of Michigan. He's conducting ongoing studies of urban coyotes, and has grown to admire them because they have withstood years of "relentless persecution" by ranchers and farmers. Now biologists like Shaw say the coyotes have another enemy--city dwellers who feed them. Shaw understands the natural attraction to the animals--they are intelligent, large and furry. Among biologists, coyotes are called "charismatic megafauna."
But the feeding of coyotes is creating a "time bomb waiting to explode," says Shaw. Feeding urban coyotes makes them lose their fear of man, which will make them bigger pests, which will create more human enemies in the long run.
All of this is an endless source of frustration for Game and Fish biologist Hildebrandt, who explains it to me this way: "You see a coyote hanging around, and you feed it, and he fattens up. Then a month later, you have three coyotes. Then a month later, you have 13. Then the cats disappear, and your dog is nervous all the time and then you call us. 'Come take these coyotes away, they're bothering me,' you say. You've created your own problem, and then you expect Game and Fish to bail you out."
Game and Fish officials say an urban coyote fed by humans actually killed a child in California a few years back, but they couldn't come up with any documentation. I wondered if this wasn't just another urban-coyote tale gone wild.
The urban-coyote population in east Tucson is considered to be one of the densest coyote populations in North America, Shaw tells me. There are probably ten coyotes per square mile there, compared with one coyote per square mile in the wild desert.
One of the reasons is that 11 percent of the residents in east Tucson feed the coyotes, according to a University of Arizona study.
Bob and Helen Burkholder are among the 11 percent. And to them, the idea that feeding coyotes is somehow wrong makes no real sense, as long as nobody tries to "tame" the coyotes by petting them or providing all of their food.