By Daniel Ritz
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, Skie Bender, an Education Outreach Specialist from Wolf Haven International, will be the featured guest speaker at the Doheny State Beach campfire program. Bender has been a staff member at the nonprofit wolf sanctuary in Washington since 2006. Wolf Haven International largely focuses on wolves, but also houses a couple of coyotes.
Coyote sightings have been reported throughout Dana Point, but residents are claiming (and sharing photo and video of) a dramatic increase in Capistrano Beach. Dana Point Times reached out to speak with Bender about how this could be happening, what to do, and what her program, “Wolves, Coyotes and Wildlife Education,” will include.
DPT: What is your personal and professional background with canids?
SB: I’ve always been deeply intrigued by canids. There is no ‘wolf school’, I have no ‘wolf degree’, I simply started volunteering at Wolf Haven in 2004. I was hired on as a staff member in 2006 and really just learned a lot in the sanctuary by being still and quiet, watching, smelling and listening; observing the wolves body language, postures, interactions, tonal vocalizations, signs of stress and calmness. I’m a huge advocate for experiential learning.
DPT: Can you explain your educational program – and how it relates to the South Orange County residents?
SB: The “Wolves, Coyotes and Wildlife Education” program takes a close look at the differences and similarities between wolf and coyote biology, behavior, social structure, historical and current ranges, and ecosystem roles. We also look at how our domesticated dogs compare and contrast with these wild canids. The program is specific to South Orange County residents because of the rapid development and human population growth in recent years in South County has driven coyotes out of their homes. Coyotes, though technically a carnivore are habitat generalists, are extremely adaptable opportunists and very smart, so that they learn to survive in urban environments.
DPT: In terms of urbanization/human interaction, can you compare wolf and coyote behavior?
SB: Generally speaking, human confrontations with wolves are pretty rare in an urban environment because wolves live in forested habitats and retain a fear of humans, hereas coyotes have learned to survive close to humans because we provide them with a food source – whether intentionally or unintentionally. This could mean our garbage cans, compost bins, fruit trees, as well as the rodents that are attracted to these things, and yes, sadly our pet cats and small dogs. In sum, habituated coyotes are much more brazen, which can result in more human-coyote conflict in an urban environment.
DPT: Can you explain what a resident should do if they encounter a wild coyote in an urban environment?
All predators chase things that run. It is hard-wired in their DNA. Look at our domesticated canids – our dogs – what do they love to do? Chase balls! So first and foremost, if you encounter a wolf or a coyote in any environment (wild or urban) stand still, strong and calm. Have a confident “predatory” posture, by making yourself large. Wave your arms, yell at the animals. Show them you are a top predator and you are not afraid. Focusing on coyotes in an urban environment, we call it hazing. We must re-instill fear back into these habituated animals. Wild animals are born with a fear of humans- but rapidly lose that fear once we deliberately or inadvertently feed them. We also must be proactive about maintaining an undesirable home for coyotes i.e. no water source, no food source.
DPT: Can you give some of the reasons that wolves and coyotes may be driven to urban environments. What can people do personally, or as social groups to manage this?
SB: Coyotes on the other hand can be driven to urban environments due to habitat loss, droughts, food source. Again, though they are biologically carnivores. They are highly adaptable habitat generalists.
People can manage coyote problems in their communities by being proactive: securing meat and dairy compost, fencing off animal enclosures, feeding and watering pets indoors, keeping cats and small dogs indoors when not supervised, keeping yards free from thick brush, enclose porches and decks, eliminating fallen fruit and standing water, teaching your children to be still and yell (get off their bike, skateboard) and remember predators chase things that run! This does not mean the coyote wants to eat you, it is simply curious about the chase.
Skie Bender is available for educational outreach programming for schools, scouts, seniors, libraries, nature centers, conservation groups, the wildlife society and private groups. She can be reached personally at 714.336.5798 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.