Mill Valley Herald

Big Ears no longer hears the call of the wild

August 14, 2008
Jessica Mullins, Staff Writer/Editor

One day at Fort Cronkite a coyote approached hiker Susan Fletcher. “I was amazed seeing a coyote so habituated and friendly.”

The coyote, named Big Ears, is amiable as a result of human interaction with wildlife – contact wildlife officials strongly oppose. People feeding Big Ears have led her astray from her habits, including hunting, running from cars and avoiding humans. The coyote faces dangers and a possible lethal removal (another term for killing).

Many are waiting in anticipation for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to make a decision to lethally remove or send Big Ears to a sanctuary. Fletcher is concerned the GGNRA will kill the animal: “I feel so strongly because I go down there all the time and I see this coyote,” the Sausalito resident said. “My vote is to send Big Ears to live in the sanctuary and educate people about coyotes.”

Big Ears visits housing areas, trails and roads. She begs on the roadside and approaches people and cars expecting food. Park visitors often try to take pictures with the animal.

In February the Marin Wild Care Center asked Mary Paglieri, a consultant with the nonprofit Little Blue Society, to de-habituate Big Ears. Paglieri, a behaviorist and human-animal conflict consultant, uses non-aggressive methods to change animal behavior. The young female coyote is not aggressive, Paglieri said, and acts more like a “scaredy cat,” staying at least 10 feet away from people. She said people, including park personnel, maintenance staff and visitors, have fed Big Ears since she was a pup. “She became very dependent on people.” Cars hit and killed the coyote’s two habituated siblings.

The Marin Humane Society and the GGPNRA preliminary behavior-correction efforts of harassing the coyote and shooting her with rubber bullets didn’t work. Instead, Big Ears learned to avoid people in uniforms. Paglieri’s behavior correction initially worked, keeping the coyote out of dangerous areas. But the animal eventually reverted.

Paglieri has monitored Big Ears for more than five months, hoping to prevent injury or human contact. Big Ears can no longer remain at the Headlands, Paglieri said. “Something needs to be done – for them to be thinking about leaving her in the park is completely inhumane. As long as she is visible during the daylight, people will always approach her, feed her and interact with her.” She said eventually someone will be aggressive and Big Ears will bite or scratch, giving the GGNRA the green light to kill her. The coyote is also in danger of being hit by a car.

Paglieri had Big Ears accepted into a sanctuary in Texas, a natural habitat not open to the public. “Her life circumstances would improve 200 percent – she would never go hungry and never have to beg.” She is waiting to hear if the park agrees with the sanctuary proposal submitted at the end of March. The Little Blue Society will pay for the trapping and the Marin WildCare Center will provide the transportation to fly the coyote to Texas. “It won’t cost the parks anything,” Paglieri said. Big Ears has 6-month-old pups that have begun hunting on their own.

Paglieri said the park has dragged its feet making a decision for Big Ears. Bill Merkle, GGNRA wildlife ecologist, said the parks are not ready to fully debate the options -removing an animal from the park is a difficult decision. “We are going to continue to observe and monitor the situation.”

Merkle said there is hesitation about putting a wild animal in a confined sanctuary setting. Also, he is concerned Big Ears wouldn’t know how to survive somewhere else. “The coyote is so heavily conditioned by people and food, it’s not behaving like a wild animal anymore.”

Merkle said coyotes are an important part of the ecosystem. “Our goal is really to keep these animals wild and keep them on the landscape as part of our ecosystem.” He said the GGNRA worked with staff and trash management to improve chances the coyote could return to a more natural state. “It’s been pretty highly conditioned to seek food from people. There’s a question of whether we’re going to be able to alter that behavior or not.”
Rich Weideman, a GGNRA spokesperson, said the GGNRA wants to find the best solution for all involved. “We want to make sure the animal isn’t hit and we want to make sure the public is protected. It’s a wait-and-see period for us right now. Whatever we do, we want to do what’s right for the animal and right for the park.”

Paglieri said she suspects the parks don’t want to set a precedent, leading to always sending away habituated coyotes. It should be on a case-by-case basis; a sanctuary option is not always available. Similarly, Merkle said the GGNRA doesn’t want to be locked in to the idea that sending coyotes away is the default solution.