In late September 2014, the California city of Seal Beach ignited a controversy by adopting a proposal to trap and kill coyotes. To date several coyotes have been killed with many more to follow. The argument advanced by the city was that lethal control was the best way to solve a perceived threat to people’s pets. In fact, however, lethal management of coyotes is rarely an effective strategy. For this reason, Dr. William Lynn and Dr. Eric Strauss of CURes penned this statement about the ethics and science of coyote management. The statement was recently read at a Westchester Neighbourhood Council and is the subject of an upcoming presentation by Dr. Strauss to the Council on 4 November 2014. Details of this presentation to be announced.
We can certainly understand how distressing coyote attacks are on the companion animals of Seal Beach. The vast majority of people love their pets and consider them part of the family. We do too and if a coyote attacked our cats or dogs, it would upset us as well.
Even so, we suspect Seal Beach’s decision to trap and kill coyotes is based on bad policy advice. Both the science and ethics of human-coyote management is clear on this account.
On the science side, trapping and killing coyotes is ineffective and makes the problem worse with two basic outcomes.
First, the remaining coyotes start to breed at a younger age, have larger litters, and their population grows. The evidence for this is both historical and from the field — for over a hundred years some federal and state agencies have sought to exterminate coyotes from the West by hunting, trapping, poisoning, and burning pups alive in their dens. Yet the range and population of coyotes continues to grow. They are extremely intelligent wild canids well adapted to wild, rural and urban environments.
Second, coyote packs are disrupted by the killing. Territories formerly patrolled by a pack are now open. The result is a greater number of coyotes moving into the area from which they are being removed. With more coyotes sharing a common landscape, the available habitat is carved up into smaller territories. This in turn creates conflicts as coyotes look to pets, pet food and garbage to subsidize the inadequate resources of their range. The moral of the story? To keep coyote populations in check keep packs intact and stable.
Yet it is the ethics of managing coyotes that troubles us most.
Killing wildlife can be justified in the most serious of cases. But in the main, we cannot kill our way to conservation. Lethal management of wildlife as a first recourse is part of an outdated paradigm. The killing rarely solves a wildlife problem. Instead it treats the symptoms and not the underlying condition.
Lethal management of coyotes also serves to transfer public funds into ineffective predator control operations run by private contractors. In other words, public resources subsidize private interests with little or no benefit to society. This is especially troubling when there are more effective non-lethal options. Predator proof fencing, exclosures for pets, guard dogs, coyote hazing, and removing garbage and other food sources are all part of a sensible public policy, one that seeks to educate communities and put resources into solutions that work.
Instead of wasting resources on ineffective lethal controls, Seal Beach would be better served by contacting the Project Coyote (www.projectcoyote.org). Project Coyote specializes in community-specific and non-lethal management of coyotes and other predators.
Finally, there is the moral fact that animals, wild or domestic, are not simply a resource for people. They are not just biological machines, parts of ecosystems, or commodities for our use and abuse. Instead they are living, feeling and sometimes thinking creatures with their own moral value. This is ethics-talk for why people and animals matter, and accords with our best ethical and scientific thinking about intelligent species like ourselves and coyotes.
The fact that people and animals matter is an indispensable reason why we love our families, adore our pets, believe in social justice, and ought to coexist with urban wildlife. Our environmental policies should reflect these insights, and strive to manage urban ecosystems on the basis of ethics and science. Seal Beach and it’s coyotes is a great place to start.
William Lynn, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow for Ethics and Public Policy in the Center for Urban Resilience at Loyola Marymount University, and former Director of the Masters in Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University. His research and teaching focus on ethics and public policy, with an emphasis on animals, the environment and sustainability.
Eric Strauss, Ph.D., is Presidents Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Urban Resilience at Loyola Marymount University. His work focuses on urban ecology, urban predators, science education, and the resilience of cities in the face of environmental change.