Telegraph Hill’s Frequently Sighted Coyote Can Teach Us a Lesson

On Monday, a KPIX reporter published a sighting that many Telegraph Hill residents have been familiar with for a few months now: A coyote roaming around Coit Tower, seemingly not intimidated by human presence.

Coyotes have been present on Telegraph hill even before this healthy looking young female appeared, but sightings were rare. Coyotes are naturally wary of people and when they share an environment with us they are mostly active at dusk and dawn. They are masters at laying low and when they hide during the day you simply don’t get to see them.

Coyote in front of Coit Tower

Surveying her domain in front of Coit Tower

I have photographed coyotes in San Francisco for a few years, and even though their numbers are estimated at over a hundred, it has always been a challenge to locate them. When one tiny rare migrating bird is spotted in the city I can go to its reported location and spot it. When I know a family of coyotes lives in a certain spot, it is far from guaranteed that I’ll get so much as a glimpse. Even when I finally get a clear view they tend to disappear as soon as they notice I’m paying attention to them. While this can be very frustrating to me, it’s exactly the kind of behavior you would want from a coyote.

That is not to say encounters between coyotes and the public are unheard of. Unfortunately, the City has seen some recent unpleasant encounters, notably in Glen Park and Stern Grove, where coyotes attacked small dogs. In parks, especially when signs are posted that coyotes are present, it’s always recommended to keep all dogs leashed, and small dogs on a short leash. While those actions will prevent harm to your dogs, prevention of coyote attacks should start even earlier and involves changing human behavior to keep these normally timid canids wild. The behavior of the ballsy Telegraph Hill coyote is a great case study of how things turn awry, and what can be done about it.

Earlier this summer, I went to Telegraph Hill at dusk on a whim. I knew coyotes were present there and I was hoping to catch a glimpse. I was excited to get a whole lot more than that. When a young female coyote popped up on one of the trails I initially patted myself on the back for my superb ability to stealthily approach this coyote without startling it. While the coyote sat on the hill slope I kept her in my peripheral and I slowly maneuvered myself behind a tree to take some shots. Things turned rather embarrassing when a man with a large dog passed by me, stopped a few feet in front of the coyote, took out his iPhone and started snapping some shots with the coyote staring right back at him.

Sitting in a more natural setting.

I sent some of my shots to Jaymi Heimbuch, co-founder of the The Natural History of the Urban Coyote Project. Later that week she visited the location at dawn and witnessed what was happening to make this coyote so accustomed to people. It was a disturbing pattern of people doing all the things that can actively turn a coyote into a potential threat to dogs, people, itself and eventually the reputation of urban coyotes as a whole. Over the last few months we have visited the location repeatedly not only to photograph this beautiful coyote, but to chronicle how the people living at and visiting Telegraph Hill have changed the behavior of this coyote for the worse.

Every morning, before dawn, several people climb Telegraph Hill to enjoy their morning workouts while watching the magnificent view of the sun rising over the Bay. One of these people would emerge each morning with the coyote following at a short distance, as if she were his dog. At times, he would drop small snacks for her to eat. He would do his workout routine with her patiently waiting by his side until it was time to leave. Then she would get the bulk of her morning snacks, practically hand-fed to her. Once her morning provider was gone, she could rely on some potato salad or a sandwich left by the local homeless camper, ironically right next to a sign warning not to feed coyotes.

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    A man puts down a sandwich to feed the coyote.
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    The coyote eats the sandwich.
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    The coyote waits for her morning snack.
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Apart from the fact that it’s illegal, it should be obvious that feeding wildlife, especially larger predators, is harmful. When I confront people feeding raccoons in Golden Gate Park the answer I get most is that they are not feeding them anything unhealthy. While not sticking to the animal’s dietary restrictions sure is a concern, it’s only part of the problem. Animals that are fed by people start relying on people as their source of food. They stop hunting or foraging the natural way and learn to approach people to get their fix and, depending on the individual coyote, they may do so assertively. In addition to losing their fear of humans, feeding encourages animals to stay in areas that normally would not be able to sustain a population or even one individual. Recent conflicts in Stern Grove, for example, were likely due to coyotes defending an artificial source of food from unsuspecting dogs.

I didn’t realize that apart from feeding, there are more ways to encourage coyotes to interact with people, but the Telegraph Hill morning routine provided some more examples. As in any neighborhood, Telegraph Hill residents take their dogs for a walk in the early morning. Coyotes tend to be curious about dogs. I’ve observed them in Golden Gate Park looking at people walking their dogs from a safe distance, fixated on the dog, like they are puzzled to see such an oddly shaped coyote. The coyote on Telegraph Hill was a little more than just curious; she would closely follow even the largest leashed dogs, sometimes startling their owners. There was a notable culprit causing this behavior: the man who would encourage his dog to engage in play fighting with the coyote every morning. Just like the morning snacks, the roughhousing was a daily routine eagerly anticipated by the coyote. Miraculously both the dog and the coyote only managed to exchange growls and air bites, but it was a matter of millimeters.

As with feeding, it should be obvious that encouraging a coyote to play with your dog is harmful and will lead to even more harmful behavior. Not only do you risk injury to your dog or the coyote, but the coyote will also learn that dogs make great playmates and it will end up scaring or attacking other dogs and their unsuspecting owners. When coyotes behave aggressively around dogs, or even attack them, emotions can run pretty high, leading residents and dog owners to blame coyotes or the city or park’s policy around them. While this is understandable, the cause of coyotes behaving aggressively is often the behavior of other humans not following city or park regulations and ignoring common sense. Luckily, there is a cure, both for changing human and coyote behavior.

I reported my findings to Project Coyote, an organization that, among many other conservation efforts, promotes understanding of and coexistence with coyotes. They are familiar with coyote-human conflicts in both rural and urban settings and know exactly what it takes to keep urban coyotes wild, safe and harmless. Unsurprisingly, keeping coyotes wild requires some changes in people’s behavior, especially in an area where it’s apparent the opposite is happening.

Project Coyote’s volunteers placed signs in the area and provided educational materials to the local residents in September. Together with Animal Care and Control they approached the worst offenders in an attempt to turn things around. Recent visits to the area have showed me that indeed, things are changing for the better. Some of the harmful behavior has stopped and the coyote, while still too close at times, appears to be more skittish. That is not to say things are perfect. The hand feeding appears to have stopped, but people still leave food out. Most notably, last Thursday there was a large opened can of beef, with the sharp lid still attached placed next to the sign warning about coyotes (I removed it).

Can of Beef

A can of beef left out next to the coyote sign.

Stopping harmful human behavior alone is not enough to save this coyote. She needs to be “rewilded” or “hazed” to reacquire her natural wariness of humans. Project Coyote shows in detail how to go about this on their website (pdf). If you visit the area and see this coyote, or any coyote that isn’t scared of you, you should follow Project Coyote’s instructions and scare it away. As a wildlife spotter and photographer I understand how counterintuitive this is. Disturbing wildlife is the last thing I want to do, especially knowing how hard it is to observe an undisturbed coyote under normal circumstances. But as much as I hate to do it, I don’t want to see this coyote harmed, harming someone or their pet and further diminishing the reputation of coyotes in our city because of some people behaving badly.

Time will tell if rescue came on time and will prove to be successful for this coyote. Follow me on Facebook to stay up to date about this coyote and other wildlife in and around San Francisco.

If you see anyone feeding or otherwise engaging with coyotes, call San Francisco Animal Care & Control at 415-554-9400. I would also encourage anyone to check out Project Coyote and the The Natural History of the Urban Coyote’s websites to learn what you can do to make sure we can live alongside these beautiful animals without risking harm to them, ourselves and our pets.

Check out the gallery below to see some more of the photos I took of the coyote at Telegraph Hill. (Please note that all close up photos were either taken with a long telephoto lens or using a remote trigger, without actively approaching the coyote within close range.)

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    A dog owner lets his dog play with the coyote.
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    The coyote tries to engage with a leashed dog.
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