"Wild animal attacks on humans are rare but as our residential and commercial developments merge with wildlife habitat, and we continue camping and hiking in this habitat, more incidents are likely to occur," says Utah State University professor Robert Schmidt. "The question is – are we paying attention to our wild neighbors and taking steps to prevent conflict?"
Schmidt, a professor in the College of Natural Resources' Department of Environment and Society, likens co-existence among humans and wildlife to a line drawn in the sand.
Unfortunately, animals don't recognize the boundaries of our tolerance.
Schmidt’s research focuses on conflicts between large predators and people. In one of his current projects, he notes that coyotes are living in increasingly close proximity to humans. He and colleague Robert Timm, a wildlife specialist with the University of California, recently presented "Bad Dogs: Why Do Coyotes and Other Canids Become Unruly?" at the 12th Wildlife Damage Management Conference held in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"Coyote attacks on humans are occurring with disturbing regularity in certain areas," says Schmidt, who was recently appointed to the USDA's National Wildlife Services Advisory Committee. In their study, he and Timm refer to a list of behavioral stages for monitoring coyote aggression toward humans. The guidelines, originally developed by their colleague Rex Baker of California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, offer communities recommended steps to prevent conflicts.
"Most coyotes are timid animals that don't suddenly start biting people," Timm says. "Rather, when living around humans, they often exhibit a gradual escalation of aggressive or predatory behaviors prior to attacks."
The key for residents and management officials, Schmidt and Timm say, is watching for warning signs and taking action – such as discouraging feeding, posting warnings and, if necessary, coyote removal – before the behavior escalates into a problem.
Early warning signs include increased sightings of coyotes wandering the community's streets and yards at night and nighttime incidences of coyotes approaching adults or attacking pets. Further warning signs include increased daytime sightings of coyotes, and coyotes chasing joggers or bicyclists and being unafraid of approaching adults. At this point, Schmidt says, wildlife officials should be notified.
"Coyote activity during the day and increased boldness on the part of the animals in approaching humans and attacking pets is a conflict waiting to happen," he says. "From this point the animals are more likely to attack children."
Knowing what to do when encountering a coyote is problematic.
He encourages parents living in coyote-prone areas to show photos of coyotes to their children to help them recognize the animals. He further recommends that parents practice the appropriate response to the canines when coyotes are observed in a neighborhood.
"Becoming aware of our wild neighbors and preparing for encounters are our best lines of defense," Schmidt says. "When conflicts occur, it's too late – and the incidents often end in tragedy for both the human and the animal."