The San Francisco Chronicle

Coyote gets too comfy with humans (

September 13, 2008
Jerry George, Staff Writer

They call her Big Ears. You can see why.
But cute as the name and the coyote may be, and she is a charmer, there’s a problem.

She’s too comfortable around humans and too used to eating scraps tossed her way by visitors to the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Her name, Big Ears, is the tip-off. Once a wild animal is familiar enough to be tagged with a name by human observers, it’s too familiar for its own good.
I know I’m beating an old tattered drum, but coyotes are not going away.

I’ve watched the wily ones for a long time. They are the boldest and maybe the cleverest members of the dog family. It is in the coyote’s nature to be confident, sometimes defiantly so, within closer range of humans than many pet dogs.

I’ve had them walk up to me within a couple of feet in their casual, balletic way, only to sniff and turn aside as if offended by whatever they smelled. Coyotes just seem to know how close they can come and still dance out of your grasp if you make a move.

It’s what coyotes do

I’ve also read too many stories of coyotes inserting themselves into human activities to think that what we’re seeing is beyond normal. But Big Ears’ story has unfolded in a very popular national park and is thus is public with an exclamation point.

And personal. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I used to manage the property where Big Ears’ pups were born before it became part of the park.
The land is an amazing bit of real estate, where you can see more migrating hawks and peregrine falcons than nearly anywhere else while at the same time peering across the Golden Gate to a fog-shrouded major city. Once dairy pasture, the land is again nearly native.

Yet across the beach road lies an old coastal defense battery and Nike missile site now filled with activities that attract thousands of visitors every year. Because there are no stores, many of those visitors carry food – and, unfortunately, some share their food with the cute, big-eared coyote.

Apparently, Big Ears got used to humans as a pup. She was one of three in her birth litter, and both of her siblings were lost to cars. Learning the easy way of begging from humans when she should have been honing her rodent and rabbit hunting skills, Big Ears appears to have never developed her “wild coyoteness.”

Now, she has two pups of her own in a shared-custody arrangement with their wild father. Interestingly, Big Ears has carefully kept her probably now self-sufficient pups away from humans.

Marin Humane Society folks, working with the Park Service, have tried to “reprogram” Big Ears through various harassment techniques, but it seems she has learned more about the type of vehicles they drive and their uniforms, both of which she now avoids, than about the risks of being near humans. Soon enough she is back at the roadside looking for handouts.

The Park Service is left with a dilemma. Big Ears won’t be harassed away, so she must be removed some other way. She can be shot, euphemistically referred to as lethal removal, or she can be trapped and transported to a nonpublic sanctuary in Texas that has agreed to take her, where she will be placed with other coyotes in a multi-acre enclosure in a wild setting.

Marin WildCare Center, which worked with the Humane Society in its unsuccessful harassment efforts, has agreed to provide transportation to the Texas sanctuary. But the decision is not up to it. Big Ears has been begging on national park property, and park Superintendent Brian O’Neill must decide how Big Ears is to be removed from the park.

Attempts have failed

Now, before you go jumping on O’Neill, consider that the Park Service and Marin Humane Society have tried to find a non-removal solution to the habituation challenge of Big Ears. They have spread the word about how to relate to wild animals and changed garbage cans to more secure containers. But Big Ears’ appetite for sandwiches and corn chips has been too much for them.

Maybe a group of trained, uniformed volunteers like the ones they use in Yellowstone to “educate” visitors while sheltering wildlife might have helped, but that’s second-guessing.

We do have to get better at how we deal with coyotes. Killing them is not the answer. We will only have to kill the ones that follow.