Coyote Peninsula – The thriving, wild animals of Palos Verdes
by Mark McDermott
First in a series
One day last June, Sheri Hastings heard a telltale sound as she was shoveling out the muck in the horse stalls at her property on Portuguese Bend in Rancho Palos Verdes. Her dog, Blue, was baying, and he was doing so with such insistence that it could only mean one thing. The coyote had returned.
A month earlier, Blue had been attacked by a coyote. Blue is a big dog, an 80-pound Catahoula, a Native American hound dog originally from Louisiana who is adept at all the things hounds tend to be good at — particularly herding and hunting. In Louisiana, Catahoulas were traditionally used to hunt wild boars. In that June encounter with the coyote, Blue had been defending his old friend, a big but decidedly docile 16-year-old labrador named Gracie who’d been sleeping under a tree when the coyote attacked.
“She’s kind of a coward,” Hastings said. “But Blue, he’s actually the brave soul that goes out there, and this coyote didn’t run off. She charged, and got him.”
Though coyotes are typically 15 to 40 pounds, this one appeared larger. Though extremely lean, Hastings said, it was as tall as her hound dog. Blue did not fare well in this fight. He suffered a gash in his neck and lost part of his ear. He was fortunate to survive.
“I heard the commotion, and ran out and shooed it away,” Hastings said. “They shoo away pretty fast. Everybody I know back here has lost a dog or a cat.”
And so in July, when Hastings heard Blue baying, she grabbed a rake and ran. She found Blue and the coyote squared off, the coyote baring its teeth and crouching, preparing to lunge. Hastings grew up on a ranch in Kentucky, and is well acquainted with creatures of the wild. She’s good with a gun, and knows the rules of dominance. She waved the rake over her head, but the coyote, instead of fleeing, charged her.
“She turned and jumped at me, about maybe four feet from me, maybe a little less,” Hastings said. “I whacked it as hard as I could with that metal rake, on the nose, and that knocked her back. And then she started to come again. I knocked her on the head, and then she took off.”
Hastings, who has lived at Portuguese Bend for 35 years, has grown accustomed to living with coyotes. They began to appear in greater numbers about 28 years ago, she said, to the point where she’d see a coyote a few times a month. Their presence steadily increased, and in the last few years became downright prevalent.
“You just come here and sit for 24 hours you’ll see two or three coyotes,” she said. “My neighbors can tell you, we hear them every night. It’s not normally a problem. But there was something wrong with that coyote.”
A Los Angeles County trapper was called out, and that coyote was eventually shot. It turned out the coyote was still nursing, so its behavior could possibly be explained by it protecting her young.
Aggressive interactions with humans are not common among the coyote population of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. But coyote attacks on cats and dogs have become increasingly common.
Last month, Tom and Abbi Ryan encountered a grisly scene at their home in Lunada Bay. The Ryans’ property includes a little backyard bungalow that they rent to Abbi’s sister, who had two dogs, a French bulldog (known as a “Frenchie”), and a poodle. It was a Sunday night and she was gone, so the Ryans were looking after her dogs. They’d left a sliding glass door open so the dogs could go out in the yard overnight, in case they needed to relieve themselves.
After Tom went to check on the dogs the next morning, he called to his wife, “Don’t come up here. You don’t want to see this.”
The Frenchie lay gutted in the backyard, and the inside of the house was smeared everywhere with blood. The poodle was inside, bleeding but still alive.
“What we pieced together was that the coyotes hopped the fence, and attacked the Frenchie. I think the French actually fought them off and kept them from killing the poodle,” Ryan said. “The poodle had bite marks on his neck and bites on his side. Fortunately, they didn’t puncture any organs. But there was a bunch of blood inside the house. The poodle walked all through the house, and though it was super traumatized, it somehow survived.”
Though accounts on NextDoor the following week claimed the coyotes had entered the house, the Ryans believe the blood inside was from the poodle’s wounds. Their property sits beside an access road that coyotes frequent, and on the same night, a neighbor also lost a cat.
Though there is no definitive count, the Frenchie, and cat from Lunada Bay are among dozens and possibly hundreds of pets who have been killed by coyotes on the Peninsula in recent years. The City of Rancho Palos Verdes has been at the forefront of the area’s response, establishing the first coyote management plan on the Peninsula in 2013, establishing a coyote “dashboard” to keep track of coyote activities in 2016, and in 2020 launching a Peninsula-wide coyote sighting app. Over the course of 2021, nearly 1,000 coyote sightings were reported on the app. So far in 2022, 991 sightings have been reported, 3.3 percent of which included a coyote approaching a person and 2.4 percent entering a yard, and killing a pet.
The four cities on the Peninsula have differing response plans, but each emphasizes education, providing residents with information on the best practices for not attracting coyotes — such as not allowing cats outdoors unattended, keeping trash bins secured, not allowing fallen fruit to remain on the ground — as well as instructions on how to “haze” a coyote if one is encountered, basically aggressively shooing it away and never turning to run and thus triggering its predatory instincts.
In cases where aggressive interactions or predations on pets occur, each city has recourse to a trapper employed by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner Weights & Measures Department, who either sets traps and euthanizes coyotes who are caught, or in some cases, shoots them. Three of the cities, RPV, Palos Verdes Estates, and Rolling Hills have retained private trappers, who tend to be more aggressive in their pursuit of coyotes.
A movement has sprung up, called Evict Coyotes PVP. Members are calling for a more aggressive form of coyote management — a “culling” of the population, which would not only target coyotes who have exhibited aggressive behavior, but seek to reduce the overall population. Its founder, Lisa Turek, points to the attack on a 2-year-old girl by a coyote in Huntington Beach in April. She argues that if a more aggressive approach is not taken, a child or a frail elderly person will inevitably become coyote prey on the Peninsula.
“These coyotes can train their pups, which has been going on now for at least six generations that I know of, to go ahead, and hunt in people’s yards,” Turek said. “This is now an imprinted behavior. We believe that the cities need to cull, in addition to education and managing human behavior.”
Coyote attacks on humans are rare. A Canadian study last year found that two to three people are attacked each year by coyotes, while 180 people are struck by lightning. A study conducted by two American coyote researchers based in California documented 367 coyote attacks on humans in the U.S. between 1977 and 2015, two of which resulted in fatalities (one was a three-year-old girl in Glendale). Sixty percent of the victims were adults, and 40 percent were children. Interestingly, 165 of those 367 attacks occurred in California.
Michelle Lute, a biologist for Project Coyote, a national nonprofit that advocates against lethal coyote measures and for better “coexistence” measures, says that in areas such as Palos Verdes where coyote populations are increasingly visible, the perceived threat is often far greater than the actual chance of someone being harmed by a coyote.
“An attack on a human is really rare, and really only happens when we see problems with habituation, which is on the human side,” Lute said. “So when folks are intentionally or unintentionally feeding coyotes, they’re creating situations in which you could have higher risks. But normally, that risk is really low.”
The key in Palos Verdes, Lute said, is making sure everyone has information on how best to not attract coyotes.
“You don’t have to have special tools, you don’t have to have special degrees or knowledge,” she said. “It’s just making sure everybody knows how to prevent unintentional feeding situations, which are unsecured composts or garbage, or bird feeders, which also attract mice to people’s yards, that sort of thing. Pets unattended are another situation to avoid, particularly when coyotes are breeding and want to defend their spaces from perceived threats by other dogs.”
Turek, of Evict Coyotes PVP, believes that Project Coyote and other advocacy organizations, which include Native American groups, and the National Humane Society, have a larger agenda.
“These coyotes are going to continue to multiply, and that is part of what some of these people want,” she said. “They want to ‘re-wild’ the planet. That’s one of their talking points: they want more animals.”
Turek began her activism on this issue seven years ago, after one neighbor’s dog was killed by coyotes, and other neighbors, an elderly couple, lost a cat, and a dog to coyotes. Turek’s Evict Coyotes PVP has nearly 500 members, and from these residents, she has collected an array of horror stories — coyotes lunging into a children’s backyard party, a young boy witnessing the devouring of his pet dog. Too many people on the Peninsula, she said, are living in fear because of coyotes’ increasingly bold and prevalent presence.
“The average cost of a home on the Peninsula is $2.5 million, and you chose it for the safety and security that the Peninsula offers, and the quality of life,” she said “It’s the Southern California dream, living outdoors, let’s get in the pool — that’s the kind of lifestyle. And instead, you are feeling trapped in your house, especially if you are a mother with a child, or older people who can’t walk their dog without feeling there is a problem. I have residents telling me, ‘I only walk my child and dog at the mall.’ That is not the quality of life that we pay for, and the problem has increased to the point where something more has to be done.”
The coexistence of humans and coyotes has a long and often nettlesome history, one that for the last century has been defined by an almost militaristic attempt at coyote eradication, a campaign that has resulted in an estimated 500,000 coyotes killed each year. But somehow, it has done nothing to reduce coyotes’ increasing presence in our midst. In fact, coyotes, who are native to the prairie, have now spread to every state but Hawaii, as well as across Canada, Mexico, and Central America (biologists believe migration to South America is underway). A Utah State University study in 2015 found coyotes in 96 out of the 105 U.S. urban areas surveyed.
“The coyote has been the most persecuted animal in North America,” Kevin Brennan, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game told the LA Times. “Every predator control method known to man — aerial gunning, poisoning, trapping, shooting — they’ve survived them all.”
RPV resident Noah Park last year handed out copies of the book Coyote America, by author Don Flores, to the City Council. The book examines the long history of human and coyote coexistence and the United States government’s determined but failed effort to wipe out coyote populations.
“Mr. Flores’ book chronicles the history of a federal agency called Wildlife Services, which I believe is under the Department of Agriculture, which has been around for almost 100 years. Their job is to kill predators, basically, in the service of the livestock industry,” Park said. “They have spent tens of millions of dollars, and they have killed hundreds of thousands of coyotes…The result is that today, 100 years later, there are at least as many coyotes in the United States as there were when they started. And when they started, there were no coyotes east of the Mississippi River and they’re now found from Maine to Florida. So culling, a euphemism for killing, is not the answer. We’re raised from birth to fear and probably hate apex predators, wolves and bears and coyotes and mountain lions. ‘Oh my god, they’re going to get us and they’re going to bite us and they’re going to kill our kids.’ But that’s not borne out by history.”
Sheri Hastings spoke at the same meeting, which occurred only weeks after she was attacked by a coyote. “I am not sure what would have happened if my grandson had been there,” she said of the attack. She argued that targeted killing made sense.
“I agree that killing them, from the science I have read, doesn’t stop them,” she said. “But what does happen…They do stay away from the neighborhood. I’ve tagged them with paintballs myself, and I’ve seen that the same ones come back again and again. It’s not new coyotes. So I don’t like killing anything, but the ones that are coming into the neighborhood and being aggressive do need to be killed.”
Such science informs most coyote policy, including that employed by the state, the county, and the cities of the Peninsula. Many cities in the U.S., including Los Angeles, do not employ lethal means of coyote management for the simple reason that killing coyotes has thus far not proven effective at curtailing coyote populations.
Ken Pellman, a spokesperson for the County of Los Angeles Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures Department, said many of the same qualities that attract people to Palos Verdes also attract coyotes.
“The Peninsula is a beautiful place,” Pellman said. “You’ve got all this natural beauty, so a lot of people want to live there, and a lot of coyotes — those pristine conditions contribute to the area being a nice habitat for coyotes. Coyotes can live just about anywhere. They can live in downtown L.A. But it’s going to be easier when they have a place where they’re likely to find fruit, rodents, and other easy meals. Coyotes are going to be there.”
This is not to say, Pellman emphasizes, that little can be done about the increasingly uneasy relationship between coyotes and Peninsula residents and particularly their pets.
“We can understand when somebody loses a pet, it’s heartbreaking,” Pellman said. “There might be a solution in trapping a particularly aggressive coyote. And if there are a lot of pets that are going missing in a particular area, that could be a sign of a coyote who is no longer afraid of approaching people. But the solution is not to get rid of every coyote that someone sees. Just seeing a coyote is not a problem.”
Rancho Palos Verdes has tried to thread the needle between the concerns of residents who want more aggressive action, and science, which indicates coexisting with coyotes is essentially the only option. The Peninsula’s geography — rich with food sources, both domestic and wild, and with green spaces for building dens — is almost the perfect habitat for an urban coyote.
RPV City Manager Ari Mihranian said the City’s plan stresses coexistence, but last year added increased lethal measures to ensure aggressive coyotes are removed.
“As one of the original authors of the coyote management plan, it’s intended to provide residents with information on how to coexist with coyotes, and how to determine whether a coyote sighting should elevate to a higher level (i.e. observing an aggressive coyote, or an attack),” Mihranian said, via email. “In cases where an aggressive coyote is observed, residents call code enforcement, who then coordinate with the County to conduct yard audits with a neighborhood. The yard audits by the County determine if trapping is warranted.”
Such trapping is always accompanied by euthanization because there is no practical way to relocate coyotes. Since employing private trapper Jimmy Rizzo late last year, RPV has trapped and killed six coyotes. And while this has pleased groups like Evict Coyotes PVP, who believe that this keeps coyotes away from an area for 12 to 18 months, nobody believes it will keep them away forever. Some biologists, in fact, believe coyote trapping in some instances could cause coyote populations to increase. This is because coyote packs are led by a male and a female, and the female leader is the only one of the pack who reproduces, even if there are younger females. And so the instability that occurs when either a male or female pack leader is killed might result in a dispersal in which multiple females begin reproducing, or in an older female leader who is beyond reproductive age being replaced by a young female who will reproduce. Coyote litters typically range from four to seven pups. Coyotes who are reproductive have one litter a year, always in the spring, when food is typically most abundant. The other aspect is that coyotes are extremely territorial, and very flexible in establishing those territories, which range from four to 15 miles. And so if a territory is controlled by one pack, or sometimes even a solitary coyote (along with human beings, coyotes are somewhat unusual in that they function both in social groups, yet sometimes lead solitary lives) and a pack leader is killed, it can result in more coyotes appearing.
“Typically, a healthy stable coyote population is a series of strong family units across the landscape,” Lute said. “And what is so problematic about these trapping programs, and other lethal controls that we exert on coyotes is that they disrupt those natural family structures, where everyone’s taking care of each other, eating healthy, native prey. When you start disrupting the stable pack structures, you have impacts across the landscape. You get, basically, teenage moms when you kill the breeding female. Other females can go into heat. You could have multiple litters in the pack for a while after you’ve killed coyotes…Then, within as quickly as eight months, you’ve got a potentially bigger coyote population. These culling programs don’t prevent conflicts. They come in after conflict has already occurred, and all they do is result in a dead coyote, and a vacant territory for another coyote to fill. That is what we have found. They’re so resilient because of this reproductive strategy that’s so flexible.”
Lute said there is a local saying in several areas where she has studied coyotes: “You kill a coyote, and two show up at her funeral.”
University of California biologist Niamh Quinn, who led a tagging program in which coyotes were trapped and released with high-tech collars that transmitted a variety of information, came across another saying that has stuck with her.
“The only sure thing about a coyote,” she said, “is that it will make a fool out of you every time.”
Next: Cats, history, myths, and following coyotes.