Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim is the title of a 1980 compendium of unintended double-entendre headlines collected by the Columbia Journalism Review. It illustrates the power of tiny punctuation flubs — in this case, a missing hyphen — to radically alter meaning. Readers also have to chuckle in wonderment over how small a town must be for the local newspaper to deem dog bites newsworthy.
When the dog is a coyote, however, and the person bitten is a 16-year-old girl in a National Park where a 19-year-old woman was killed by coyotes 10 months ago, there’s no doubt about newsworthiness. Still, consider how differently two daily newspapers reported the story:
“Coyote bites sleeping teen in head,” was the Cape Breton Post‘s accurate but subdued headline.
INGONISH — A teenage girl was bitten by a coyote early Monday morning in the same national park in Cape Breton where a woman was killed by the animals last year.
“Coyote attacks girl in Highlands,” screamed the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in a headline that spanned the top of page one.
A second vicious coyote attack on a visitor at Cape Breton Highlands National Park prompted park wardens to start setting traps early Monday morning.
A photo of a sinister, prowling coyote illustrated the Herald story, together with a graphic showing a second coyote posing triumphantly astride a map of the Cape Breton Highlands. Lines connected the posing coyote to the sites of the two incidents, which took place 40 kilometres apart, separated by the least hospitable terrain in the Maritimes.
The two stories, both written by competent, journeymen reporters, agreed on the relatively benign facts of the case — a couple of bites to the back of the head, requiring a few stitches at outpatients. The Post’s overall treatment of the event was consistent with these facts. The Herald, by contrast, contrived to hype the story and frighten readers with lurid adjectives, illustrations, and headlines. I’m curious to know whether the unwarranted “vicious” was composed by the reporter, or added later by the desk.
The Herald has long had an outsized appetite for bad news from Cape Breton. Whether staff reductions have contributed to its recent drift into sensationalism (see examples here, here, here, and here) is a topic for another day. For now, it’s enough to point out the striking differences in the two papers’ treatment of a coyote bite.
Hat tip: SP.
Contrarian reader Denis Falvey writes:
A decision that flies in the face of one fact of science does not necessarily constitute ignorance. A bounty may not eradicate coyotes, it may not even lower their numbers appreciably, but it will change their habits. Coyotes live in an ecological niche; like any other animal, they will multiply to fill that niche. I would prefer that the limits on their ecological niche not include my doorstep, and the only way to achieve that is for the animals to be wary of coming near my doorstep. That’s not going to happen with my singing Kumbayah’. It’s going to happen when animals get used to the idea that my doorstep is not their hunting ground, it’s where they are in danger.
My grandfather would have laughed in dismissal at the thought that vegetables could not be grown in the fields because the deer eat them, or that children can’t play in the woods for fear of coyotes. He was a quiet and peaceful man, but any deer eating the food off his family’s fields would have quickly joined the food on the table, and threats to his children were controlled when necessary. He had a better grasp of living with animals than do a lot of the voices raised against controlling the coyotes. Facts and experience are both important for knowledge, but doing nothing is usually a mistake.
Perhaps we should shift the focus by asking those opposed to support for the trapping industry in this instance what their solution might be. Ignoring the problem, or minimizing it is not an option. Live and let live works about as well with coyotes in the country as it does with gang activity in the city.
I do not advocate doing nothing. Minister MacDonell is a politician. He has to contend with the possibility that a coyote might maul some child, and he cannot be seen to have “done nothing.”
But the action he takes should be based on evidence, and the evidence in Nova Scotia and elsewhere is unequivocal that a bounty will neither reduce coyote numbers, nor change the behavior of the small minority of problem coyotes. Mr. MacDonell’s planned bounty does not target problem animals, or Mr. Falvey’s doorstep. It will not condition coyotes to be wary. You could argue that a general bounty might drive coyotes toward doorsteps, since regulations restrict hunting and trapping near dwellings. Doorsteps will be relatively safe places.
As retired DNR wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft has pointed out, a general bounty targets all coyotes, the vast majority of whom exhibit no problem behavior. This makes the bounty particularly reckless: it uses public funds to target innocent animals with measures that will not impact the few who cause problems.
What might work? MacDonell’s program to train elite trappers to go after problem coyotes is an idea worth trying. The province should consider complementing this with an program to haze animals near populated areas. A dead animal can’t teach pack mates anything, but a coyote that has been frightened or hit by a rubber bullet could increase wariness in a whole pack—particularly if the program were begun now, while coyotes are rearing pups, not delayed until next fall like the useless bounty. The public education program to encourage sensible precautions when interacting with wildlife is also a good idea. We share this planet with other creatures, and that’s a good thing.
But the senseless bounty at the centre of the government’s response represents a flight from evidence-based decisions in favor of pandering to ignorant prejudice.
I suspect the unusually bold behavior we have seen in recent months reflects some change in the food cycle. A surge in coyote numbers may have overtaxed food supplies, so coyotes are hungry, and in a few cases, emboldened. If that’s the case, litter sizes will decrease this spring, the population will fall, food will be less scarce, and problem behavior may ease with or without human intervention.
Last word to Mr. Falvey:
On a lighter note, one solution might be to hand control of the coyotes and deer over to the DFO. They don’t have much to do anymore, and they did rid the oceans of cod in a generation.
Experts say a bounty won’t lessen human encounters with aggressive coyotes, and might make matters worse. They base this conclusion, in part, on experience in Nova Scotia, where a $50 bounty in the 1980s failed to reduce coyote numbers.
They say it on the Department of Natural Resources website—or they used to, until inconvenient scientific information was expunged just in time for Minister John MacDonell’s flight from evidence-based decision making.
The Winston Smiths assigned to expunge the historical record missed a few spots. They failed to delete wildlife director Barry Sabean’s 1989 and 1991 declarations that “The $50 bounty [worth $109 today] in Nova Scotia from November 1982 to June 1986 did little, if anything, to slow their population growth.” They left in place a March 2010 news release quoting DNR wildlife biologist Mike Smith as saying, “Bounties have been tried across North America, however they have always been unsuccessful in reducing coyote populations. A bounty was initiated in Nova Scotia in 1982 and was removed in 1986 when it was determined to have no impact on population.”
Poor Mr. Smith was dragged out yesterday to support his minister’s theory that trapping would somehow make surviving coyotes more wary and less likely to interact with humans. The only other support for this crackpot notion came from the trappers who will receive the $20 bounty.
Dalhousie University animal behavior expert Simon Gadbois points out that a dead coyote cannot instill fear in fellow pack members, but a frightened coyote might. He suggests the province consider rubber bullets as a way to condition coyotes to avoid humans.
The problem is that as their numbers fall, coyotes have more frequent litters and larger litters. So culling adults can have the ironic result of increasing overall numbers.
The minister’s excuse for doing something he knows won’t work? People are upset.
Of course they are. Folksinger Taylor Mitchell suffered a gruesome death last fall in a freak attack by a rogue coyote. The incident has heightened public sensibilities to the point that every coyote sighting is elevated to a “close call”—and to front-page prominence. People who know nothing about wildlife, let alone coyote population dynamics, demand action, and slaughtering coyotes is the first thing that comes to mind.
It. Won’t. Work.
This is another case of: “Something must be done.” “This is something.” “Therefore we will do this .”
Forced to chose between decisions based on evidence, and pandering to sincere but ignorant constituents, MacDonell went with ignorance.
Friday’s Globe and Mail carries an extraordinarily brave and wise letter from Emily Mitchell, mother of Taylor Mitchell, the talented 19-year-old folksinger who died Wednesday Morning from injuries sustained in an extremely unusual coywolf attack on the Skyline Trail.
This passage bears special note:
I’ve noticed that the media have often mentioned that Taylor was hiking alone when the coyote attack occurred. I want people to know that Taylor was a seasoned naturalist and well versed in wilderness camping. She loved the woods and had a deep affinity for their beauty and serenity. Tragically it was her time to be taken from us so soon.
We take a calculated risk when spending time in nature’s fold—it’s the wildlife’s terrain. When the decision had been made to kill the pack of coyotes, I clearly heard Taylor’s voice say, “please don’t, this is their space”. She wouldn’t have wanted their demise, especially as a result of her own. She was passionate about animals, was an environmentalist, and was also planning to volunteer at the Toronto Wildlife Centre in the coming months.
Now we have a little insight into some of the influences that helped make Taylor an exceptional young woman.