The Woman Who Follows San Francisco’s Urban Coyotes

With the animal making a comeback in many US cities, enthusiasts have become both educators and defenders

San Francisco’s resident Coyote Lady met her first coyote early one cool June morning on Twin Peaks, one of the city’s tallest hills.

photo of coyote in San Francisco
Across North America, more and more coyotes appear to be making their homes in urban hubs like San Francisco. Photo by Calvin Cardenas.

The coyote was a curious little thing, prancing here and there, dashing up the hill, and then down, all the while watching this strange creature and her dog. “She ran this way, she ran that way, she was so excited, like, ‘What’s going on? What are you doing?’” said Janet Kessler, 69.

In other words, it was as if Kessler met herself that day in 2007. Describing her first magical encounter, Kessler jumped up from her table at a local cafe to show how that coyote danced and played. Skittering back and forth, she demonstrated that the coyote was more than just an animal, more than the predator feared by small-dog owners, more than just the vermin that so many in rural areas still consider these creatures to be.

“She had a personality,” Kessler said. “She was interested. She was intelligent. She obviously had emotions. She was reaching beyond her species.”

From that first meeting, Kessler was hooked, becoming part of a growing fascination over coyotes that has swept the United States over the past decade. This fascination — and the subsequent research borne from it — has centered in particular on coyotes that inhabit cities, as more and more coyotes appear to be making their homes in urban hubs across North America.

Coyotes once considered many of these cities their native habitats, but were driven out throughout the 20th century. Within the last two decades, however, they quietly began making their way back. They’re trotting through the parks. They’re crossing streets. They’re hopping on the roof of bars.

While there’s no official count (though some organizations have estimates for specific cities) coyotes have been spotted living in Chicago, Denver, Washington, DC, and New York in addition to San Francisco, as well as in Madison, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon.

And as coyotes become more visible, coyote enthusiasts nationwide have found themselves stepping into the role of both coyote defender and educator, fighting the very human instinct to shun what is unfamiliar and encouraging instead the concept of coexistence.

“Seeing something that seems so wild, a really standard response is to say they have no place in an urban setting,” said Jaymi Heimbuch, director of the Urban Coyote Initiative. “But coyotes used to be here before San Francisco was ever built. Now they’re back, and they’re not going away. How do we deal with it? How do we minimize conflict?”

In general, conflict is already minimal. Coyotes tend to keep to themselves and shy away from humans. They are known to sometimes exhibit defensive behavior around dogs — and sometimes prey on small unattended pets — but the average coyote is only 45 pounds, said Mark Weckel, one of the co-founders of the Gotham Coyote Project in New York.

“There’s always concern, but for the most part, coyotes don’t pose a threat to humans,” Weckel said. “Coyotes do so well in urban areas because they do so well in avoiding us.”

The last reported negative coyote-human interaction in New York occurred in 1995, Weckel noted, before anyone realized that coyotes were making their way back into urban spaces. The best course of action should anyone come across a coyote in an urban setting is to just walk away.

This push in coyote research comes almost out of necessity. Yes, researchers say, coyotes are apex predators that sometimes have a taste for small dogs — but they also mate for life. They form social relationships. They play and explore and make their homes in places no one expects them to be.

Anthropomorphizing — projecting human traits to animals — is typically frowned upon in the scientific world. But when humans and animals live in such close proximity to one another, it’s hard not to make that connection.

“One of the reasons why I love coyotes is that they are so much like us,” Heimbuch said. “We are just like, ‘Oh, this place looks good. Well, this is home now. Look no further.’ I think that’s awesome.”

But at a certain point, there’s anthropomorphizing and then there’s just observation. In the 12 years that San Francisco’s Coyote Lady, Janet Kessler, has spent photographing, tracking, and writing about the city’s coyotes on her website, she has observed enough to know that coyotes live full lives, sometimes without anyone noticing.

“It takes time,” Kessler said. “You can’t just go to a park and pick it up. Spend years in that park and you’ll find out who’s Dad, who’s Mom, the pups that are last year’s, the pups that are this year’s, who likes each other, who gets along, who is sort of shy and withdrawn and who doesn’t mind being seen. It all comes out.”

Almost every day Kessler goes to a city park where the coyotes are known to frequent, usually once early in the morning and once just before dusk, with her waist-length hair pulled back low and her heavy gear strapped around her waist. On one recent afternoon, Kessler made her way onto a narrow path on a hill in a San Francisco park, navigating her lean frame over the uneven ground with ease. She let out a breath at the telltale sight of a dark brown pile. “Coyote scat,” she said with a smile. “We found their trail.”

When asked how she knew it was coyote scat and not dog poop, she went into detail about the musty smell, the ropey look of the feces, the seeds, the fur. “You just know after a while,” she said.

This was how Kessler knew the puffs of fur in another part of the park belonged to a dog, not a coyote. It was how she knew the little paw prints in the mud were not made by coyotes (“Coyotes have more elongated paws,” she explained, “and their two middle fingers point inward.”)

It was how, out of the farthest possible corner of her eye, nearly 400 feet away, she spotted a coyote that she referred to as Big Red.

‘“There! There!” she said, scrambling down a hillside. “Coyote, first coyote sighting!”

Kessler kept one whole other bramble-filled slope between her and the rust-tinged animal before she began to snap her photos, but even from that distance, she could recognize him as one half of the breeding pair that frequented that area. She recognized him in the same way she can recognize all the other coyotes she has documented — by their faces, by their gaits, by their personalities. “I study them as individuals because that’s what they are,” Kessler said.

“Every coyote is different,” she said. “Every coyote has its own personality. I tell you, it’s not so different from watching humans.”

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