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Return of the trickster: Coyotes are making their presence known on the Toronto Islands

Raccoons prowl our backyard fences; peregrine falcons nest atop the towers of the financial district, and in late 2009 Toronto Police captured an errant doe near Bay and Dundas. Torontonians are used to sharing their space with wild creatures, but none more intimately than the residents of the Toronto Islands. Increased encounters with members of the species Canis latrans—AKA coyote—has some Islanders anxious, while others are thrilled.
The least happy—justifiably—are those who have lost pet cats in a rash of about 20 disappearances over the past year, a phenomenon generally blamed on the coyotes. However, the coyotes aren't new to the area. "They've always been around, but like a lot of species they kind of come and go. The only difference now is that they're around the community," says photographer and island resident Sean Tamblyn.
"As far as I can tell, we have anywhere from two to four on the island, but in the past I've heard easily a half dozen when they're being loud," he says. Although our strain of coyotes is rumoured to have some wolf DNA, "They don't howl," says Tamblyn, who has posted a recording of the characteristic "yipping bark" on his website Lagoon Report, where he documents the activities of local wildlife.
"Certainly they've been here for a very long time," confirms Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre. Perhaps ironically, she explains, human habitation has made the Toronto area more, rather than less, hospitable to coyotes. "Before Toronto was here, there were wolves in this area. Wolves don't tolerate urbanization at all, so they moved further north, and the coyotes were able to establish themselves here more strongly. Coyotes are more tenacious or resilient or adaptable; they can actually live in areas where there is a lot of human presence."
This is partly because they are adept at passing unnoticed among us. "They're absolute masters at hiding; the fact that we've seen them so rarely illustrates just how wily they are," says Tamblyn. "They're ghosts. Almost any other animals on the island, I can find them; I can figure out where they are; I can photograph them, but the coyotes are impossible." In fact, he has only spotted them "fleetingly, once." His best photographs to date were taken with an automatic remote camera.
Artist and island resident Laura Shepherd has twice spotted coyotes, including one on Christmas Day of 2010. "We crossed paths and looked at each other very steadily, and I felt no fear," she says. "He or she was beautiful, much bigger than a fox and more golden coloured, and he was going on his way. He checked me out and I checked him out. That was kind of a treat for me to see that."
Toronto Animal Services, which estimates that Toronto has about one coyote per 13 square kilometres, calls them "curious animals who are non-confrontational by nature," and who normally confine their hunting to small creatures like rodents, birds, frogs and fish. Vancouver's Stanley Park Ecology Society, which conducts a very successful program to help people live with coyotes, suggests that "pets make up less than 2 per cent of an urban coyote's diet" (a statistic that will be of little comfort, however, to the owners of those few cats or small dogs that have been preyed upon.)
"We have a city that's filled with all kinds of green spaces and all kinds of wildlife, and we can't pick and choose among them," says Karvonen. "The coyotes are very beneficial to ecosystems; they eat huge numbers of rodents: mice and rats and squirrels, and rabies is almost nonexistent in coyotes."
"And the coyotes aren't always the best hunters," Tamblyn points out; he has followed the story of tracks in the snow where coyotes have tried to chase down the wild turkeys that also inhabit the islands, but "so as far as I've found, the coyotes never get the turkeys."
Nonetheless, these nimble canines inspire caution. Last month, residents in the Beach were unnerved by persistent coyote sightings. In January, Halton regional police shot and killed a coyote after a girl was bitten, though they're uncertain the coyote that was killed was the one that did the biting.

Although Shepherd says she feels "privileged to be living so close to nature," she also admits she's become "more wary of jogging alone after dusk." According to the Stanley Park Ecology Society, there's little risk to animals weighing more than 15 pounds, and for humans, says Karvonen, "a normal-acting coyote is nothing to worry about at all, [although] it is very important to avoid feeding them intentionally or unintentionally."
Like the people who live near Vancouver's Stanley Park, Toronto's High Park and east-end ravines, island residents probably have little choice other than to learn how to live with the coyotes, for better and worse.
"We're very close to the natural ecosystem here and the ebb and flow of the animals coming through," says Tamblyn. "It's important to remember we aren't always masters of our environment."

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book is We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.

The second photo on this page is a compilation photograph showing two coyotes over time.
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