Karl sat at the top of the stairs in a hilly park one recent afternoon, appearing to watch the humans below as much as they were watching him.
“Look, his ears are up,” said Janet Kessler, known locally as the “Coyote Lady,” standing a safe distance away. Usually, she said, they are out to the side like airplane wings. But Karl, watchful yet relaxed, was “habituated” to people. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Kessler has spent up to six hours a day the past decade watching and photographing coyotes in the city’s parks, where the species is so entrenched that people in many neighborhoods refer to them by name. She runs a website, Coyote Yipps, collaborates on two others, and shares information with anyone curious about coyotes now living in every major park.
Coyotes returned to San Francisco in the early 2000s after a long absence. They inhabit rural, suburban and some urban areas around the state, but coyotes in this densely populated, dog-centric city face different challenges.
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One sighting – at a park where Karl is often seen – quickly drew more than 300 comments to a neighborhood website, including that coyotes “can totally snatch dogs” and “should be no more welcome here than bobcats or bears.”
“A coyote is an unleashed predatory canine,” one person wrote. “I simply don’t understand why we have to surrender the peacefulness of our little neighborhood park to a wild dog.”
“It’s like walking on eggshells sometimes,” said Jonathan Young, an ecologist with the Presidio Trust who is running a pilot study of coyotes in the Presidio, two and a half square acres of national park land along the northern tip of the city.
He hears from people on both sides: those who want them relocated – which is illegal – and those who object to them being collared. As part of the Presidio study, researchers have put colored ear tags on coyotes so they can be identified and monitored by cameras. Young said he hopes the study will help replace myths and fear with data and acceptance.
“People see them in the middle of the day and think they must be rabid,” said Young. “No, they are not trying to hunt you, and there are not 300 of them, and they are not rabid.”
Coyotes might act aggressively toward dogs to protect pups and usually keep their distance from people, he said. Serious attacks on dogs are rare, but signs throughout the Presidio alert visitors to minimize contact.
Young said seven coyotes have lived there, but now there are five, including a breeding pair that this season prompted closure of two popular trails to dog walkers. In a city where anything dog-related is controversial, some weren’t happy.
The city, home to anywhere from 50 to 100 other coyotes, has its own plan to foster co-existence, said Virginia Donohue, executive director of Animal Care and Control. Last year residents emailed 235 sightings to the agency. It meets monthly with park and Presidio officials to discuss problem areas or attacks – at least one dog was killed last year – and has held neighborhood meetings, put up signs and brought in experts from Project Coyote, a national organization based in Marin County.
But few residents have spent as much time as Kessler observing coyotes that roam city parks. Most days she heads out in the morning and afternoon, sometimes taking as many as 600 photos.
She’s the first to admit she is self-trained, more ambassador than official animal behaviorist. Her background is eclectic – a master’s degree in art history and jobs as an editorial assistant at a news magazine and a legal assistant while raising two kids with her husband in San Francisco.
She was focused on playing the pedal harp, practicing hours every day, when she injured her hand a little over a decade ago. To take her mind off recuperation, she hiked. It was on one of those hikes that she first saw a coyote.
Fascinated, she threw herself into coyote watching with the same intensity she’d pursued music. She researched coyotes and photographed the lone female she called Myca as she hunted, bounded and sat in the brush, and eventually published a booklet about her.
Now she recognizes coyotes living at Lands End, Coit Tower, Lake Merced, Bernal Heights and Twin Peaks. She knows their scars and coats. She doesn’t identify their exact locations because she doesn’t want to create more interactions. She only posts what she personally sees, she says, to avoid passing on rumors.
“I hear one of the coyotes here ate a rat and died,” said Melody Knight, a hiker in the park frequented by Karl.
“No,” said Kessler. “There is just one coyote here, and he’s fine. It’s a male who looks young.”
Actually, she said, a female coyote in another park died after eating a poisoned rat. She knew, she said, because she’d taken the animal for a necropsy.
Farther down the hill she passed another hiker carrying a sack of dog food.
“Oh no,” she said.
“But he seems young and thin,” said the hiker, who added that the day before she’d thrown him a leftover sausage.
Kessler explained why feeding the coyote was a bad idea – that it would condition him to approach humans. A coyote across town is so used to being fed that it chases cars, she said, so she’s been trying to get people there not to toss it food.
The woman wondered if Karl was too tame. Perhaps he wasn’t finding enough to eat in the park. Kessler said the coyote should be left to fend for itself. Coyotes mate for life and are territorial, she said, and will keep out other coyotes, naturally limiting the population. She wishes they could be free from collaring and park fences, though she gets the reason for those.
At 67, Kessler is petite and lithe from walking the trails – not unlike a coyote, she jokes. She talked about coyote intelligence and messages they send through posture and ear movement. She moved fast, stopping as Karl – no one’s sure who bestowed the name – appeared at the stairs and then moved down the hill, staring at a screeching jay.
A man stopped to watch. Kessler suggested he leash his dog, which he did, but said he’s seen people refuse, complaining they pay taxes and the coyote doesn’t.
“I’m definitely pro coyote,” he said.
The Coyote Lady said she wished more people were and passed him her card.
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.