Repeated sightings of mountain lions in the canyons of Cal Poly? A black bear found climbing the craggy flanks of Morro Rock? Goodness, Toto, can tigers be far behind? Maybe, maybe not, but coyotes sure are.
Los Osos resident Kathy Van De Vanter lives on a street that dead-ends at the community’s singularly fine Elfin Forest. Earlier this month she had an encounter of the coyote kind that gave her a howling case of goosebumps after the animal first stalked, then chased her from the forest.
As is the rest of the community, the Elfin Forest sits on a 60,000-year-old sand dune and is home to pygmy oaks and any number of brushy, flowering plants and shrubs.
A California Conservation Corps-built boardwalk winds through the undeveloped acreage, delivering visitors to sweeping vistas of the estuary, distant sand spit, golf course, masts of marina-moored sailboats and Morro Rock. The place is a treasure — and also home to the above-mentioned coyotes, as Van De Vanter well knows.
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She and her 92-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever have made early morning forest walks a regular part of their lives. As such, it’s not an altogether rare experience for her to see a coyote or two padding along at a distance.
Still, although she’s had to dissuade a curious coyote from closing the gap of her comfort zone on occasion, this recent close encounter was different.
“I was chased by a coyote, a very large coyote I might add,” she says of the confrontation. “I run across a couple every now and again, but they are much smaller.
“I have a stun gun that makes a loud noise that usually chases the coyotes away. When I made the zap sound, the coyote ran behind the trees and then kept coming after my dog and me. I was a little scared at how close he kept getting to us because of how big my dog is.”
With the batteries in her stun dying, and the coyote beginning to stalk her in a trot, she grabbed a stick out of a bush and started yelling at him; he kept advancing as she began to start running backwards, keeping her eye on her stalker. The animal ran after Van De Vanter and her dog until she reached 13th Street, at which point the predator gave up the chase.
The reason she brought her story to light is twofold: “It scared the daylights out of me, but also there are many elderly people with little dogs and lots of young children/families that go out there. I thought this might be something that people should be aware of.”
Although Van De Vanter didn’t see any other coyotes other than the big one giving chase, it’s possible, according to those who study urban coyotes, that they were in hiding and the alpha male was trying to separate dog from owner so a pack could pounce on the retriever.
Another possibility is that it’s currently litter and pupping season and the coyote was establishing and protecting territorial parameters. That it may have been sizing up Van De Vanter for an attack isn’t impossible, just highly unlikely.
One study found that between 1960 and 2006 there were only 159 reported cases across North America of coyotes biting humans. In contrast, dog bites number in the millions each year.
Nonetheless, it’s disconcerting to find yourself in the sights of an animal that looks like a cross between a German shepherd and a wolf.
In actuality, coyotes do a pretty good job of keeping rodent populations in check; however, they’ll also wipe out a neighborhood of pet dogs and cats — which happened in a Los Osos neighborhood adjacent to the community’s mid-town park — if those pets are left out over night. Windfall fruit left on the ground, or pet food left outside in bowls will also lure these animals. (Of course that’ll bring in the raccoons, too).
A final thought: As a county, we love our open spaces and what that means in the quality of our lives. If part of the bargain is to share our wild places with lions, coyotes and bears, why, that just sweetens the biota. Just keep fresh batteries in your stun guns, campers.