During the recent legislative session, state lawmakers passed two bills regarding "nuisance" animals, bills that were quickly signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The laws, which go into effect Aug. 15, make it legal for licensed hunters to shoot "outlaw quadrupeds and nuisance animals" after dark from March through August, as long as the parish sheriff's office is given 24-hour advance notice. Among the animals that can be hunted: armadillos, feral hogs, nutria, beaver — and a wild animal much on the mind of New Orleanians these days: the coyote.
Coyote sightings have spiked in the metro area lately (see our recent cover story, "Wild in the Streets," May 17), with animals spotted all over the city, from Uptown to Lakeview, from eastern New Orleans to Belle Chasse. But the wild canines aren't newcomers to Louisiana; they're found in 49 states (Hawaii is the exception), and spread rapidly during the 20th century when one of their main predators, the gray wolf, nearly went extinct as a result of hunting. Combine that with a nationwide reduction in forests and it's clear coyotes didn't "invade" cities. They simply had nowhere else to go.
A 2001 study found Chicagoans thought coyotes were the wildlife species that posed the single biggest threat to humans — yet coyote attacks on humans are rare, and attacks resulting in life-threatening injuries rarer still. According to National Geographic, there's been only one confirmed human fatality from a coyote attack in the entire state of California, despite the fact that the animals have been present in urban and suburban settings there for decades — and developers continue to build farther and farther into the animals' natural habitat. The coyote's reputation as a stealthy and dangerous predator looms larger than the reality of an often-scrawny 25-pound canine. As Rick Atkinson, curator of the swamp exhibit at the Audubon Zoo, puts it, "Coyotes tend to be the kind of animals that, you know, 'Get the alarm sounded! Hunt for Frankenstein!'"
The problem with coyotes when it comes to people, though, isn't that coyotes prefer to eat meat. Truth is they're omnivores, opportunistic predators that devour the most readily available meal, whether it's from an unsecured garbage can or an unsupervised small pet. The fact that they're opportunistic, though, gives people the upper hand. A coyote that can't easily find food, or which is challenged or threatened by a human, is likely to move on to easier pickings.
With coyote sightings on the rise, the Louisiana SPCA has issued safety tips for pet owners, including carrying an air horn or walking stick when taking small dogs for a walk, and always using a leash (which New Orleans law requires). The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries also has tips on its website, including making loud noises if a coyote begins to follow a person or a pet, and throwing objects at the animal if it persists. Though no coyote rabies cases have been reported locally, rabid coyotes have been found elsewhere in the United States. If you encounter a coyote that behaves strangely or seems to have no fear whatsoever, get to safety and call 911. If a coyote returns repeatedly to one location, it may be time to call in a private wildlife trapper. (The Audubon Zoo does not respond to coyote calls.)
After the 1981 death of a 3-year-old who was attacked by a coyote in her family's driveway, the Los Angeles County agriculture commissioner embarked on a coyote-eradication program that involved not just bullets, but common sense: "employing selective removal of aggressive coyotes in problem areas, educating homeowners to eliminate readily available food sources by improved household garbage containment, removing of outdoor pet foods and water, practicing rodent control and discontinuing the feeding of wild animals by well-meaning residents."
Those five steps — along with not allowing small children and pets to be outside unsupervised in areas where coyotes have been sighted — will probably do more to keep the pests away from your backyard than a shotgun. As is often the case with wild animals, coyotes have more to fear from humans than the other way around.