An unusually aggressive coyote roaming an eastern suburb of the San Francisco Bay has hikers and residents on edge after biting five people and sparking an urgent effort by police and wildlife officials to capture the elusive predator.
DNA taken from the victims’ bite wounds and clothing has linked all five attacks since last summer to a single coyote in a roughly two-mile radius in and around the East Bay cities of Moraga and Lafayette. The predator has bitten adults and kids, including children ages 2 and 3.
A man said he was bitten while doing his regular morning workout at a local high school football field. He was doing a push-up when he felt a sharp pain in his left leg. Attacks also have occurred at a playground and outside a grocery store. The latest last Friday was outside a Kwik Stop convenience store. All bite wound victims have recovered.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture and local police, are working to euthanize and then test the aggressive coyote for rabies.
That is, if they can capture it.
“We have a 24/7 operation happening right now in an attempt to catch the offending coyote via trapping,” says Capt. Patrick Foy with California Fish and Wildlife.
The mother of the 3-year-old attacked told a local CBS station the coyote seemed fearless, persistent and aggressive.
“I had a stroller with the baby and I heard her scream! I turned around, she was right next to me and there was a coyote biting her,” said a woman identified only as Jackie. “I screamed and yelled and the coyote retreated but it didn’t go far. I kept screaming and yelling, waving a blanket. It would come right back at us, leave and come right back at us and it was not scared off by me at all!”
So far, baited traps have not worked. The series of attacks has some locals a little nervous. Hikers are carrying noisemakers and some parents with small children are sticking close to home.
In December, a wildlife sniper tried to take the animal down and missed. If traps continue to fail, officials say they’ll try the sniper again, if they can do so safely in a bustling suburban setting.
But it’s not always that easy, Capt. Foy says. “You’ve got to worry about ricochet and what’s behind your shot.”
All tests on bite victims have, so far, come up negative for rabies. “So the movie Cujo, you know, where the animal is salivating at the mouth, we have no evidence to suggest any of those characteristics are occurring,” he says.
Wildlife experts and advocates say this kind of bold behavior is highly unusual for coyotes. Though it’s not uncommon to see coyotes in populated areas, the animals are typically wary of people, keep their distance and avoid conflict with humans.
“This is very aberrant behavior,” says Camilla Fox the executive director of the group Project Coyote, a California-based national non-profit that promotes conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife. “We’re in a state where there are thousands of coyotes and most of the time they want to have nothing to do with us.”
During the pandemic California and several states, however, are seeing an unusual uptick in wild animal attacks and encounters, according to officials and anecdotal evidence.
Capt. Foy, a 25 year veteran of Fish and Wildlife, notes that attacks were pretty uncommon before the pandemic. Maybe he’d see one or two mountain lion or bear attacks a year.
“And then get to 2020, we have had three validated mountain lion attacks,” Foy says. “We’ve had somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a dozen bear attacks and somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen coyote attacks.”
There’s speculation that more people exercising and recreating outdoors due to shuttered gyms is driving the increase.
Fox, of the non-profit conservation group agrees with that working theory, while underscoring that such encounters are still relatively rare. “We’re in a state where there are mountain lions and bears and coyotes and really the number of conflicts are few and far between.”
In addition to the pandemic, continued housing and development expansion into what’s known as the “wildland urban interface,” or WUI, means more potential encounters and conflict with wildlife.
“It’s very important to recognize that particularly in a state like California, there is increasing habitat loss encroachment into wildlife habitat,” Fox says. “And so encounters are going to be inevitable.”
Officials encourage residents to help avoid potentially dangerous run-ins with coyotes, who are omnivores, by better securing garbage, food and fallen fruit from backyard trees. Household pets, too.
“They will regularly prey upon cats,” Capt. Foy says. “A lot of people don’t like to hear that but that is, in fact, a very preferred prey source for urban rural interface coyotes.”
Experts say if you encounter a coyote it’s best to shout, wave your arms and perhaps throw something at the animal. Do not run away.