“If anything happens, go in that room and close the door,” Ashley Kinney warns her visitor, pulling on thick black gloves and preparing to approach a young, malnourished coyote.
Kinney is the assistant director of animal care at the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley and a predatory mammal specialist. Every day she cares for injured, sick and abandoned wild animals, and increasingly she attributes their injuries to humans encroaching on nature: opossums hit by cars, red-tailed hawks struck by planes and, in this case, a coyote that likely became malnourished because as more homes were built in rural areas its prey sources — other wildlife — grew scarce.
On this recent afternoon, Kinney enters the small space where the coyote has been recovering for several days. Her goal is to transport the animal to an outdoor simulated-habitat enclosure; once there, it will have to prove to her staff that it can hunt live prey and is healthy enough to return to the wild.
The coyote peers defensively from a windowsill as Kinney steps slowly across a soiled floor, points her “catch pole” at the 7-month-old and slips the cord around its neck. The coyote jerks, jumps and falls to the blanketed floor, all while Kinney maintains a tight grip so the predator stays at arm’s length.
Keeping predators at arm’s length is part of Kinney’s wider mission: to reduce coyote attacks by educating people about ways they can protect themselves without harming wildlife. This year, there have been 11 reported coyote attacks in Santa Clara County, compared with an average of 4.75 reports a year between 2002 and 2009. The reports are centered around Saratoga and Los Gatos, many of them involving attacks or near-attacks on family pets.
Kinney says she understands why people are upset, but she believes a few tips can help prevent future attacks. Coyotes are not pets, she points out, and shouldn’t be fed or shown affection. They are drawn to food that’s been left exposed. And simple fencing and lighting can help keep a safe distance between the wild animals and the family home.
“I don’t want people to be afraid of these animals,” says Kinney, who has been doing hands-on work with wildlife in the Silicon Valley for nearly eight years. “I want them to appreciate (wildlife) like I do. But also keep a safe distance and know your boundaries and know that you do, as a pet owner and even as a parent, need to take preventative measures.”
The rise in reported attacks can be attributed to various factors, including housing developments sprouting in once-rural areas, media coverage that tends to put people on edge and, because of competition for limited prey, adult coyotes drive the smaller, hungry pups away from more wild areas and into neighborhoods, according to Noor Tietze, a manager for Santa Clara County Vector Control, which deals with pest and wildlife control issues.
Many residents who reported attacks or close calls have asked the county to use “depredation” — trapping and euthanizing the animals. Almost unanimously, organizations such as the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the county’s Animal Protective Services say depredation is not the answer. Learning to coexist is. The Department of Fish and Game has launched a Keep Me Wild program as an educational resource, declaring, “It’s a people problem, not a wildlife problem.”
The way to combat territorial disputes, Kinney says, is to educate the public on preventative measures. She has developed materials for schools, tailored to each grade level. She hosts tours of the center to demonstrate its commitment to wildlife rehabilitation and co-existence, sets up informational booths at community events, and answers phone calls from residents who are fearful or angry about the presence of wildlife.
“We used to do a lot more depredation,” Tietze says. “We used to have a guy to reduce coyotes that were going after livestock.” A major step came three years ago, when the Department of Fish and Game implemented a policy that no longer allows the trapping or euthanizing of predatory mammals unless they pose an imminent threat to public safety.