San Francisco is changing, and not everyone is happy about it. Many long-term residents feel pushed out by the city’s flood of high-tech jobs and start-up cash, a situation that caused The Washington Post to proclaim that the “city of love” had broken America’s heart.
It’s not the first such story. Locals have penned their own defenses, but no one doubts the cultural bedrock — not to mention the actual landscape — beneath San Francisco is shifting.
Does this affect more than just the city’s human residents? Amateur naturalist Janet Kessler has kept a close eye on one slice of the city’s wildlife — its coyotes, which returned to the area in 2002 after being wiped out in the mid-1900s.
It hasn’t always been a happy reunion. Coyotes have been blamed for the deaths of a handful of dogs and cats, prompting concern from some residents.
Can that situation turn around? Kessler thinks it can. For the past 12 years she’s been photo-documenting coyote behavior and family life — building a case for the coexistence of the city’s growing populations of both urban residents and wild canids.
She admits she’s drawn in by the drama of it — getting to know the coyote families, watching the youngsters set off for new territories, seeing rivalries and partnerships develop. It’s something akin to a wildlife soap opera. And she tunes in day after day.
Coyotes, she’s found, don’t have much trouble figuring out how to navigate a changing urban landscape. In San Francisco, despite the high-rises looming ever taller and new condos filling empty lots, coyotes are finding space.
And that’s true across the country. These days you can find coyotes in most cities in the United States, according to the Urban Coyote Initiative.
Kessler says public opinion of coyotes has improved in recent years, but that’s come with another set of problems. We talked with her about what she’s learned, how San Francisco’s coyotes are coping with a changing city, and the value of making space for wildlife in urban areas.
What’s captivated you about coyotes to devote so much time to getting to know them?
I met my first coyote up on Twin Peaks 12 years ago. I didn’t know about coyotes and I was overwhelmed by what I saw in a wild animal. This little coyote got up and danced and was curious, intelligent, had emotions and personality. That’s what pulled me in. I went away needing to find out more.
From then on I always carried a camera. I would watch whenever I saw that coyote appear. After that I started expanding more. Every day, I’ll spend anywhere from 2 to 4 or more hours watching. If they’re there, I’ll stay, get myself in the distance and I just watch to see what happens.
If it’s not immediately obvious what they’re doing, I’ll keep watching to understand; it’s a saga, a thrilling story with cliffhangers and all. By slowly getting to know more and more, you get into it and you become part of what it is.
What have you learned about them?
All my initial impressions have been confirmed repeatedly during my observations. These animals are social: they communicate and interact with each other all the time. They are always doing something and always aware of what the others are doing and each other’s moods. They communicate in various ways — using body language, facial expressions, their eyes, their vocalizations.
They are known to live in nuclear families that sometimes check on family members over distances. They mate for life and both parents help raise the young. But every coyote situation, just like every coyote, is different, and they actually live in a variety of situations. I’ve seen some that live as loners and even siblings that formed a “family” on a territory.
I feel like I can relate to them — their jealousies, their angers, their curiosities — and it helps me connect with them, but I also want other people to see these things so that they will connect and not be so fearful and negative toward them.
What’s the biggest threat to urban coyotes?
I think human fears, because of what that can lead to. If people don’t know about coyote behavior they will report [what appears to be] aggressive behavior when that’s not really what’s going on. Often people confuse defensive or even playful behavior with aggressive behavior.
Both misunderstanding and misinformation are threats to coyotes.
And the opposite is true. Loving them too much is also dangerous. We’ve had people feeding them from cars, which leads to them chasing cars and getting killed.
I was asked to help at one park where people were leaving food for a coyote — I found 4-pound bags of meat and whole chickens. One woman was releasing live mice. It took two years to get that coyote to stop chasing cars. Cars are the biggest coyote killers in the city.
San Francisco has changed a lot in the past decade — the number of people and number of cars has grown. Are changing demographics affecting urban wildlife like coyotes?
Yes, 15 years ago I could go to bigger parks and not see anyone — that’s not true anymore. There’s just more people. Also our parks used to have wild areas that were not very manicured and now they are more and more manicured and that means that coyotes are more visible.
Most importantly is that our dog population has grown, and dogs are coyotes’ biggest nemesis. Dogs chase coyotes, and coyotes may see a small pet as prey or feel territorially competitive with any size dog. If you’re walking your dog and you see a coyote you need to leash your dog and walk in the opposite direction. Always keep your distance. It’s so easy but some people don’t know this.
But also the population of coyotes has grown since 2002. They used to be in only the biggest parks, but those territories are now all taken, so you have coyotes owning fragmented territories made of small parks and pockets of green space and they move between them usually during the darker hours.
The big thing I’ve noticed is more territorial fights. Does this mean the area has reached a coyote population saturation point and they have to fight for their territories? An ecologist at the Presidio has found that when radio-collared coyotes from the Presidio disperse they move south and out of the city. Maybe coyotes from other parts of the city do the same. The Presidio, which is part of the federally run national parks program, puts tracking collars on coyotes that live there and those that pass through the park.
What is the value of having wildlife like coyotes in our urban parks?
Without them, you’re missing a lot. The people I know who have met coyotes and even those who see them regularly are thrilled — there is something that is fulfilled that they’re not getting from living in a concrete building.
When people ask me where they can see coyotes in San Francisco I tell them that I don’t reveal locations, but they should take a walk, enjoy nature and they might come across a coyote. It’s thrilling.