By Michael Howie
It was a sunny, spring afternoon on the trails of a Toronto suburb. A woman was walking her Sheltie, enjoying the freshly budded trees and the songs of returning birds.
That’s when it happened.
From the darkness of a bush, a massive animal – sharp teeth gleaming, yellow eyes glaring – leapt upon her dog. The sounds were ferocious, the terror horrendous. Time dragged on slower than possible while her little Sheltie defended against the advancing attack. With a yip and a hop, the Sheltie broke free of the melee and escaped the clutches of death, running toward home and safety.
The woman had hot tears streaming down her face as chased behind her beloved pet, wondering how severe the injuries would be, if this would be the last time her Sheltie ever walked down a favourite path.
I was sitting at my desk reading this exchange. At the time, I was a newspaper editor. A competing paper had run the story of this harrowing event and struck fear into the heart of the community: coyotes were coming and they were bloodthirsty.
For most of my career I had covered crime: the police beat. Bank robberies, organized crime, gang violence and murder investigations were my award-winning specialities. Perhaps it was because of this background, or simply because I was a dog lover who had a simple understanding of canine behaviour, that the story hit me funny.
I called the woman whose dog was ‘attacked’ and interviewed her myself. I contacted the government agency responsible for wildlife. Then I went a step further than the other media outlets that covered the story: I contacted animal behaviour specialists, biologists who study coyotes and non-profit organizations that protect wildlife.
What I found is that little-known piece of news known as the truth.
Looking solely at facts – and not hyperbolic assumptions of a rightly frightened witness – I discovered that the Sheltie was off leash; he had wandered into bushes off the pathway; there was a great deal of snapping, snarling and yipping, but the coyote had not left a scratch on him; and the coyote did not give chase when the Sheltie or the woman ran.
If I removed the word ‘coyote’ and replaced it with ‘dog,’ suddenly the story wasn’t frightening at all. In fact, it was entirely typical. A dog went snuffling, surprised another dog, they made noises and postured, then both went their separate ways. This happened daily at dog parks. Why then, was this news causing fear in the community?
Simply because we didn’t understand coyotes.
I interviewed numerous experts in my search for understanding of human perceptions. One biologist taught me that it is the stories of our childhoods (the big bad wolf), coupled with an evolutionary fear of animals with sharp teeth, that lead to our strange fear of coyotes. World-renowned animal ethologist, Dr. Marc Bekoff, taught me that as a quick reference tool we can take what we know of dog behaviour to understand coyote behaviour. And a cognitive therapist taught me that the power of words is so strong, when someone reads a frightening story in their newspaper they can feel the fear of the person interviewed.
I learned that there are numerous organizations – APFA, Coyote Watch Canada, Project Coyote – that assist communities in implementing education and by-laws that virtually eliminate the danger of negative interactions.
I think the most important lesson I learned, however, was that it is our responsibility as humans to understand the natural world around us; to know how and why nature responds to us and our ways of life; and to not fear nature, for we – and our pets – are a part of it.
About the Author: Michael Howie is a former international award-winning journalist and managing editor of a community newspaper. He now works as the Director of Digital Content and Special Projects for The Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals (APFA – www.FurBearerDefenders.com) and is the host of the podcast Defender Radio (http://www.furbearerdefenders.com/blogs/defender-radio).