The Coyote Champion

A conversation with compassionate conservationist Camilla Fox

Camilla Fox is a force of nature conservation. She and I first crossed trails in Denali National Park while traveling as strangers on a shuttle bus, where we casually struck up a conversation about our shared passion for animals and their protection. Fast forward two decades and Fox is now founding executive director of Project Coyote, a lean and highly effective nonprofit that promotes coexistence between people and wildlife — especially North America’s most maligned and persecuted native carnivores.

photo of Camilla Fox
Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Earth Island Institute's Project Coyote, talks wildlife killing contents, peaceful coexistence with predators, and the similarities between our domestic canines and wild coyotes. Photo by Joshua Asel.

Fox frequently speaks about coexistence at conferences and other public events and has written about this topic for dozens of periodicals and two co-authored books. She has been widely recognized for her contributions on behalf of wildlife conservation; in 2014, she received the Conservationist of the Year Award from the John Muir Association, and in 2016, the Fund for Wild Nature honored her with the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award. Fox’s first film, Cull of the Wild: The Truth Behind Trapping, examined the history of trapping in America and argued for putting an end to this legacy. She is currently traveling around the country with her new documentary, Killing Games: Wildlife in the Crosshairs, which recently won a prestigious award at the 2018 Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City.

Fox and I spoke about her film and work by telephone in September 2018.

Your new documentary, Killing Games: Wildlife in the Crosshairs, has already received multiple awards and honors. Can you provide some brief background on this film and why you made it?

Part of the impetus to produce the film came out of our victory in California that closed loopholes in killing contests targeting furbearing and nongame mammals, including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and raccoons. Groups and individuals came to us and asked: How did you do it, how can we implement a similar campaign in our state? That spawned my decision to invest the time and resources to make the film happen, and we did it on a very tight budget.

We produced a 10-minute and a 30-minute version. The goal was to expose this brutal practice and show people that killing contests occur in almost every state — with the exception now of California and Vermont—and to remind viewers that every person has a voice to speak out against them. Since releasing the film, we have formed a national coalition aimed at ending wildlife killing contests, and we have more than 30 national and state organizations that are taking part. The coalition uses this pivotal tool to raise public awareness and inspire action to end the practice.

I assume most people walk away from Killing Games in opposition to these contests. Do you think some also leave with more compassion for coyotes in their own communities?

I would hope so. The film exposes the horrific ways in which we mistreat coyotes and other carnivores, and the fact that our states don’t protect them in any way. I think people leave the film understanding why these killing contests are ethically indefensible and ecologically unsound, and they are hopefully inspired to join our growing national campaign.

We also inform viewers that there are a multitude of unprotected species targeted in these kill-fests, including bobcats, foxes, mountain lions, and even wolves in some states where they’re no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act. The first such contest we uncovered was a coyote killing contest in Chandler, Arizona, in 1957. From there, they started to spread — particularly across the West — and coyotes were by far the most targeted species. Some killing contests allow participants to lure coyotes into point-blank range with calling devices that play sounds of distressed young and wounded prey.

Does the film contain much graphic violence?

We really worked hard to convey the horrors of killing contests without overdoing the blood and gore. There’s only one scene where you see a coyote shot. That’s hard to see for sure, and there are some graphic images of stacked coyote bodies that are the end result of killing contests. But we also balance the film with beautiful images and footage — not only of coyotes, but also of many different animals that are targeted. So we give the viewer breathing space to take in and appreciate the beauty that still exists out there.

Is there a way for people to see Killing Games without attending one of the festivals?

On our website, visitors can learn more about the film and watch the trailer, but we are still in the film festival circuit so we are not releasing it online at this time. We list screenings on the website, too, and we provide a form for people to fill out if they’re interested in organizing or cosponsoring a screening event.

Are audience members surprised that killing contests are taking place in their home states?

People are absolutely shocked and outraged to learn that these contests are happening near them — sometimes in their own backyards — and that they are perfectly legal in most states [except California and Vermont]. The more we dig into this issue, the more we find contests going on all across the country. For example, we learned that the California State Varmint Callers Association was meeting in Irwindale the second Tuesday of each month to organize around coyote killing contests. The person who killed the most or the largest coyote got the grand prize — there, I believe it was cash. Sometimes it’s a rifle, or a belt buckle.

When we ask our state wildlife agencies how many of these contests take place and how many animals are killed, they have no idea because they don’t monitor them. Most state wildlife agencies offer no protections whatsoever for these animals and allow them to be killed in barbaric ways. So we also expose the bigger picture of mismanagement of our wildlife, and in particular native predators.

Have you had any situations where someone from a state wildlife agency has viewed the documentary and approached you afterward to discuss it?

Absolutely. And that’s the heartening part of it. What we find is that our state legislators, and even our fish and game commissioners, often don’t know these contests are going on — or the extent to which they’re going on. This was certainly the case in California and Vermont. Some of the legislators who reached out to us were horrified to learn that they were happening. That’s why the film is so critical.

photo of Camilla Fox
Project Coyote wants our wildlife agencies to move away from the whole idea of predator management and toward predator stewardship and trusteeship. Photo by Daniel Dietrich.

How do hunters respond to the film and the contests?

There have been people who have acknowledged that they have hunted coyotes and decided they no longer wanted to do that for whatever reason, whether it was an ethical decision, which it often is, or learning about the ecological importance of these animals — that they’re part of a healthy ecosystem.

At the recent Wildlife for All conference in Albuquerque, which was focused on state wildlife agency reform, one of the issues we raised is that we really want to get away from this whole idea of predator management — that it should be predator stewardship and trusteeship.

After I addressed the audience and showed Killing Games, a New Mexico resident and hunter came up to me and said, “I really admire what you’re doing. I think there’s a big distinction between subsistence hunting and killing contests, particularly targeting predators.” We discussed the fact that there is no sport or fair-chase in killing contests; this is gratuitous slaughter for fun and prizes. Even the Boone and Crockett Club — one of the oldest sportsmen’s clubs in the United States — condemns wildlife killing contests, bounties, and derbies on ethical grounds.

Many people seem to have particularly harsh perceptions of coyotes versus other wild animals that have adapted to living in close proximity to humans. Do you have any thoughts as to why this might be?

Sometimes hearing or seeing a coyote is a person’s first experience of a wild predator. Many people have a visceral fear of predators, so if they see or hear one in their midst — in their backyard or their community — they’re often terrified and think there’s something wrong and unnatural with a predator being in an urban or suburban area. This gets back to why we believe education is so vital in our mission to promote coexistence between people and wildlife.

We live in a nation where most people go gaga for dogs — and I’m definitely included in that category — but then tolerate the killing of half a million coyotes per year. Do you find this difficult to reconcile?

Yes, I think it’s a huge disconnect and one we try to use in our messaging: We love and adore our domestic canines and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on them every year, yet vilify and persecute their wild cousins. In the “Coyotes and Dogs” section of our website, we make this very point. There’s such a strong connection between these two species. In fact, they’re so genetically similar that they can interbreed — though this isn’t very common.

I’m often asked why we didn’t choose one of the more charismatic megafauna species, like wolves or mountain lions or bears, as our flagship species for the organization since we also work to protect them from cruelty and persecution. My response to that is three-fold:

First, the coyote is unique to North America and is our native Song Dog. Unlike wolves and foxes, coyotes exist only on this continent.

Also, many Native American tribes revere the coyote, and some tribes ascribe characteristics like trickster, ancestor, or creator to these animals.

And finally, because the coyote is the most persecuted native carnivore in North America, we truly believe that if we can shift the way we view and treat coyotes, we can shift the way we view and treat all predators.

How do you work with communities to promote tolerance and maybe even affection for coyotes if they’re coming from a place of fear?

Dealing with people’s visceral fears is one of the hardest components of this work. But I also think it’s one of the more exciting challenges because we see how we have successfully shifted not only individual people’s perspectives on coyotes, but also whole communities.

A good example is Calabasas, California, where they used to spend upwards of $30,000 a year to hire a so-called pest control trapper to set snares and remove coyotes from the community. A local resident learned about this snaring, and she and her husband were appalled. She contacted Project Coyote and asked: What can we do to stop this cruelty and waste of our tax dollars? I met with her and realized she was absolutely committed to helping, so we worked out a strategic plan for how we would try to shift the community.

We sat down with the city manager and city council members — and various other influential people in the community — and got a resolution before the city council to stop any city funds from going toward snaring and killing coyotes. We ended up working with the city manager and the city council to draft a community coexistence plan, which they formally adopted. Since then, they’ve started to embrace living with predators. They’ve actually put money into identifying and protecting corridors for cougars, and they’ve invested in broadcasting PSAs about living with coyotes on their local TV station. Now the city considers itself a wildlife-friendly community — a sea change from just a few years ago when killing was the mantra.

At our first meeting with the city officials, I recall they had very little knowledge about coyote ecology and the effects of lethal control on coyote populations but they were open to receiving scientifically accurate information. I think they started to realize the killing was just draining their coffers and wasn’t actually effective — maybe it was keeping the local pest control company in business, but it wasn’t resolving any core conflicts. Conflicts primarily centered around people’s fears and misperceptions; there really weren’t many documented cases of pet attacks or negative encounters. So we addressed some of the problems around intentional and unintentional wildlife feeding, which of course can attract coyotes, and got at those key issues that sometimes precipitate real or perceived conflicts.

In addition, the Calabasas resident who first approached me about this issue, Randi Feilich, became Project Coyote’s Southern California Representative and has worked to effectively ban traps in Los Angeles, as well as rodenticides — which pose a significant threat to native predators — in several jurisdictions. Randi also works to promote our mission of coexistence throughout Southern California.

There are those very rare cases when coyotes do come into conflict with people or pets. How do you answer to calls for killing a so-called problem coyote to address the particular threat he or she presents, or to appease public concerns?

If there’s anything I’ve learned in this field of work, it’s that human-wildlife conflicts are incredibly contextual and site-specific. When we’re asked if a particular coyote should be removed as a result of a conflict, whether it was with a person or a domestic animal, our response is to examine as best we can the realities on the ground that led to that conflict. Very often we discover previously missing information about what may have precipitated the negative encounter, which helps inform us and the community about the most effective mitigation approach.

As I alluded to above, what we often see as a core cause of conflict in urban areas is the intentional or unintentional feeding of wildlife: someone is feeding wild animals — maybe not coyotes directly, but other animals — and then coyotes are attracted to the food. Frequently, it’s food being fed to feral cats that draws in coyotes, as well as other animals like raccoons, skunks, and rats. We try to address such situations with the community. Sometimes this entails passing an ordinance against wildlife feeding to enable law enforcement to crack down on repeat offenders.

Another common cause of conflicts is off-leash, unsupervised dogs, particularly during coyote pupping season. So again, that comes down to looking at what’s the context of the conflict; what’s really happening? Are off-leash dogs coming into conflict with a particular coyote family in their den with their young — and if so, what are the ways in which we can address that?

In Marin County and the San Francisco Bay Area, where Project Coyote is based, we have implemented our Coyote Friendly Communities program with a coalition of organizations united in providing consistent education, messaging, and response protocols in handling calls and concerns about coyotes. We encountered a couple of conflicts with specific coyotes in late spring, and we found off-leash dogs in an area where dogs were supposed to be on-leash. We worked with our partnering organizations and agencies to post signage informing people that while coyotes were raising their young in these areas — from April until the end of August — these particular trails would be closed. This successfully mitigated the conflicts.

photo of Coyote pup
During coyote pupping season, unsupervised off-leash dogs sometimes come into conflict with coyote families. Photo by Larry Lampsa.

Very often, there are steps that can be taken before an animal needs to be removed, and we try to exhaust those options. But if a coyote physically attacks a person, then generally the state health department requires that the coyote be killed and tested for rabies.

Does hazing effectively deter particularly bold coyotes from approaching people and pets?

If properly administered, coyote hazing can be effective. We offer a field guide to hazing that outlines the when and where and how for hazing. If you’re out on a trail and your proximity to a coyote feels threatening or dangerous, or the coyote is exhibiting bold behavior, we suggest aversive conditioning — also known as hazing — which basically means being big, bad, and loud to encourage that coyote to exit the situation. There’s no cookie-cutter answer to hazing; it’s contextual. When coyotes get so habituated that hazing is necessary, this generally points to other issues. Most of the time, coyotes want nothing to do with us and avoid human disturbance.

In your mind’s eye, what does a peaceful coexistence between people and coyotes look like?

Again, so much of this is contextual — it’s hard to give a black and white answer to what coexistence looks like. In one circumstance, a coyote walking down the middle of the road or on the other side of the street might be just cruising through the neighborhood and trying to get to the next green space — in which case, coexistence is letting that animal move through. Then there’s the situation of that coyote lingering; you’re walking your dog and there’s a potential for conflict — what do you do? So much of this is about understanding canine behavior and recognizing that the coyote’s behavior is not terribly dissimilar from that of a dog’s. Both animals are often curious, and curiosity can be misperceived as bold or aggressive behavior.

Our overarching message about coexistence is this: Appreciate coyotes at a distance and keep them wild and wary. When we habituate coyotes — whether through intentional or unintentional feeding — they lose their natural wariness of people, which may result in conflicts. Living safely and peacefully with coyotes necessitates active coexistence, which requires individuals and communities to recognize that we share our urban and rural landscapes with wildlife, and we must modify our behavior to minimize conflicts.

Several years ago we brought our science advisory board members together in Yellowstone National Park to discuss how we could advance our mission of promoting coexistence between people and wildlife through science, education, ethics, and advocacy. We discussed and debated the term coexistence and what it means when we’re talking about how humans and native carnivores coexist. Here’s what we came up with:

Coexistence is a mutually beneficial living arrangement that meets vital needs of both people and large carnivores. This arrangement embodies the idea that humans have an ethical responsibility to ensure that other species thrive. It is self-evident that humans are expanding their control at a pace and scale that continues to degrade the environment of all species including ours. To reverse this trend will require restraint, as is necessary in any community. Conflicts resulting from sharing nature with large carnivores need to be resolved equitably and without acrimony while recognizing the important role of large carnivores in enhancing biodiversity in nature. This arrangement includes the need to designate areas of appropriate scale where nature is self-willed.*

*The above statement is written as articulated by members of Project Coyote’s Science Advisory Board, Yellowstone National Park, October 2014. You can watch a video of this discussion on Project Coyote’s website.

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