Vancouver coyotes attack people in Stanley Park, bite their own tail, and biologists don't understand why
Vancouver coyote experts are using every possible tactic - not counting catapults and dynamite - to try to unravel the mystery of why these animals attacked dozens of people in Stanley Park this year.
There may be no more than a dozen coyotes living in Vancouver's four-square-kilometer park, but they keep provincial and city officials chasing their tails in search of an answer to the question of why animals are so aggressive.
At the same time, the call to rid the park of coyotes is growing louder after almost 40 cases of animals biting or showing aggression towards everyone from the elderly to toddlers have been reported since December 2020.
Paul Curtis, professor and wildlife specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has spent decades studying coyote aggression. His research in New York City parks 15 years ago showed that people feeding animals that are territorial cause the majority of aggression.
Unprecedented number of attacks and strange behavior of animals
But Curtis said he couldn't remember any other example of dozens of coyote attacks over the course of eight months.
He is also concerned about video footage showing a coyote near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park jumping and repeatedly biting its back or tail.
"Something is happening to these animals that causes such a change in behavior, especially when the animal bites its own tail. This is a neurological behavior that indicates that something is really wrong," Curtis said.
Some wildlife experts suspect the aggressive behavior is related to food left behind by park users or photographers who lure raccoons to post on social media.
Others have darker theories about toxins like rodent poison. The wildest hypothesis is the use of drugs from human feces or a buried cache. Tourists staying overnight and party-goers leave behind heaps of garbage that have to be cleaned up.
Most of the attacks in Stanley Park were recorded in the Prospect Point area, with a few on the sea rampart and other parts of the sprawling wooded city park. Victims range in age from two to 69 years.
To date, six coyotes have been euthanized following the attacks, and two carcasses have been sent for obituary examination. No signs of rabies were found.
Toxicological and genetic analyzes have not yet been completed, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development said in an email.
In January, ground cameras with motion sensors were installed on the trails to study coyotes.
Wildlife researchers are working with the Stanley Park Ecological Society to collect videos, and conservation officials measure the teeth of captured coyotes to try to match them with known bites.
Coyotes crossed the line
Kristen Walker is a wildlife biologist with the Department of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia and is affiliated with the Stanley Park Ecological Society.
She says some suspect the increased number of people in the park during the pandemic is "pushing coyotes over the edge," but so far the coyote population is not well understood to know if this is the case.
Coyotes in Vancouver's Stanley Park attacked 3 people this week
Walker and many others advocate for a better coexistence with animals, not for their destruction.
Shelley Alexander, a professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in coyotes and wolves conservation, said she doubted the effectiveness of "intimidating" a coyote as aggressive as the animal or animals responsible for the attacks.
This behavior makes her suspicious of toxins or human abuse, she said, as it is not normal for coyotes to lunge for no reason.
"Coyotes are a barometer. When things like this happen, they tell us that something really isn't right in a given situation," said Alexander, who launched the Coyote Calgary project.
As for Curtis of Cornell University, he said he was interested in what the toxicology reports would show, but doubted that the coyotes would bother with the drug cache. According to him, animals usually avoid everything that is alien to them.
He also called for attention to how coyotes bite:
If it is a neck and a head, then it is a predator.
If they bite a person's legs or back, then this is aggression.
Given the behavior captured on the video and described by the victims, Curtis said rabies, canine distemper, or another neurological disorder could be to blame for the abnormal number of attacks.
'These coyotes are being fed'
So far, people have ignored calls from the British Columbia Conservancy to avoid Stanley Park. Since the start of the pandemic, more people have lived in the park, and others are throwing nightly parties there.
Meanwhile, the official backlash is complicated by the fact that the Vancouver Parks Council is on summer hiatus.
Donnie Rosa, CEO of the Parks Council, said this is an "unprecedented" situation not seen in other parks.
Parks councilors are trying to educate people and improve garbage collection.
“The biggest thing we can point to right now is human behavior. These coyotes are being fed,” says Rosa.