Is Pelham a haven for carnivorous cats and canines?

Revered American writer and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) had a lot of sympathy for the lowly coyote.

“The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede,” he wrote. (In case you born after 1880, a velocipede is better known today as a “bicycle.”)

Clemens would no doubt be pleased to learn that the numbers of Canis latrans, the scientific name for the local canine species of Eastern Coyote, which shares the genus with foxes and wolves, are reportedly growing in Niagara. But his enthusiasm would likely not be shared by some peninsula residents, who fear for their personal safety and that of their pets. Just ask the farm worker who was bitten by a coyote in June 2021 on a grape farm near Virgil.

Coyote sightings in Niagara have always been a relatively common event, but in recent years there has been an increase in both observations and human-coyote interactions.

According to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), coyotes are thriving across Southern Ontario, with robust populations that can withstand high levels of harvest without negative population impacts.

Members of local community groups on Facebook describe numerous sightings of coyotes and foxes throughout Pelham, both in rural and urban areas. Those who don’t see the coyotes often report hearing their yips and howls at night.

Eric Jolin, a wildlife technician for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests, in Guelph, told the Voice that coyotes have adapted well to urban environments. They typically average under 40 pounds in weight, and are considered to be monogamous once they pair and have offspring, called kits.

“Coyotes are usually wary of humans, but bold behaviour has been documented in a small proportion of coyotes,” said Jolin. “In almost all cases, such behaviour is the result of habituation, the process through which coyotes lose their fear of people after repeated access to human food sources.”

People should never feed coyotes, either intentionally or unintentionally, he warned. If a wild animal poses an immediate threat to public safety, he advises calling 911. Some municipalities have passed bylaws making it illegal to knowingly feed coyotes, enforceable by fines.

If confronted by a coyote, Jolin said you should not turn and run, because this triggers a prey pursuit response in the animal. Instead, he advises backing away slowly, standing tall and waving your arms, and making noise, which will probably scare the coyote off. Carrying a flashlight at night will warn coyotes of your presence. They are most active between the hours of dusk and dawn.

Coyote hunting is open year-round to licensed small-game hunters in Ontario, and there is no limit on the number that can be taken.

Fenwick resident Sharlene Barrett took this photo of a fox living with its family (called a “skulk”) in a culvert in North Pelham off of Cream Street. SHARLENE BARRETT

Simon Gadbois, an ethologist at Dalhousie University who has studied wild canines for 30 years, told Yahoo Canada News recently that there has only been one verified death ever reported in Canada due to coyotes, that involving a 19-year-old who was hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in 2009 and was attacked by a pack of the animals.

Gadbois said most people associate coyotes with wolves, but a better comparison would be with the scavenging behaviour of raccoons. Coyotes are omnivores, and have been seen climbing trees to eat apples.

“They are prolific dumpster divers, and public garbage bins with no lids are ideal places for coyotes to scavenge for food, which leads to their increased comfort around people,” said Gadbois.

Culling coyotes through hunting has been proven to be an ineffective means of controlling coyote populations, noted Gadbois, and can actually make the problem worse.

“It gives a big chance for their prey populations to grow,” he said. “The following year, the few that are around have more food availability, and less competition. Bouncing back of the population is common in less than two years.”

Gadbois added that transient coyotes will quickly take up the space of culled coyotes, and their offspring will have a lower mortality rate due to the increase in available prey resulting from a cull.

Foxes are also plentiful in Niagara, according to NiagaraBrucetrail.org. The Red Fox, or genus Vulpes vulpes, is the prevalent species in the region, and, like the coyote, has adapted well to urban conditions. Their predators include humans, wolves, coyotes, dogs, hawks, and owls. They are omnivores, with a diet that consists of small rodents, frogs, insects, birds, snakes, corn, fruits, and berries. They have an excellent sense of sight, smell, and hearing, and run at close to 50 kilometres per hour in bursts.

Foxes are not dangerous to humans, except when they are rabid (which is rare) or when they are captured or cornered. Even then, a fox’s natural tendency is to flee rather than fight.

And what of the reports of big cats roaming free in Niagara?

The Guelph MNR office has not received any recent reports of cougar sightings in the Niagara area, and confirmed cougar sightings in Ontario are rare, said Jolin, but in July of 2020, a cougar, aka mountain lion (scientific genus puma concolor) was allegedly spotted by one Facebook contributor near Wellandport, while other sightings have been reported in Grimsby along the Bruce Trail, Queenston, in west St. Catharines near Ridley College, Fort Erie, and the Wainfleet Bog.

Cougars are opportunistic creatures, usually hunting alone from dusk to dawn, and taking their prey (primarily deer) from behind. They also dine on coyotes, raccoons, rodents, elk, wild hogs, and even porcupines. Jolin said that there is no hunting season for cougars in Ontario, and that they are considered a species at risk in Ontario.

Naturalists are unsure whether Niagara’s cougars are a legitimate wild population that has migrated into the area, or are exotic former pets released into the countryside. Cougars lead very stealthy lives, and given the abundance of deer and small animals in the region, they have no need to wander into urban areas.

To avoid an encounter with a cougar, it’s recommended to hike or run in groups, keep children close to adults, and keep dogs on a leash. If confronted, you should stay calm and back away slowly, facing the animal, and standing upright. Most cougars will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

Never run from a cougar, for the same reason you shouldn’t run from a coyote: it will stimulate the predator’s instinct to chase suspected prey. If a cougar acts aggressively, wave your arms, clap your hands, yell in a loud voice, and make yourself appear intimidating. Throwing stones at the animal has proven to be effective, as has the use of pepper spray.

Authorities suggest that homeowners should take steps to “wildlife-proof” their properties through a variety of measures.

If you put food out, a coyote will go for it. That’s what they’re conditioned to do. In areas of coyote activity, responsible pet owners don’t leave exposed pet food or water bowls in the yard. They also keep their dogs on a leash or inside a fenced enclosure, and their cats inside the house. Letting cats roam freely can actually attract coyotes to the area.

Sealing up wooden decks discourages wildlife from making a home underneath. Trash cans should be kept covered, and garbage should be moved to the curb the morning of collection, rather than the night before. Fruit trees in the yard should be picked when the fruit is ripe, and rotted fallen fruit on the ground should be discarded. Bird seed should not be spread over the lawn or garden, since it not only attracts birds, but also rabbits, squirrels, and rodents, which are all prey for coyotes.

Feeding wild animals tends to make them dependent on artificial food sources, and impacts their natural foraging and hunting behaviours. Closer proximity to people can lead to increased tolerance, which can have unfortunate results both for the animal, and humans.