by Beryl Gorbman
Lake Forest Park is a bedroom community, just over the north Seattle city line. There are pockets of the town, like where relatives of mine live, that are pastoral – large lush yards, tall trees, undeveloped hillsides. This makes the neighborhoods appealing to all kinds of wildlife – racoons, owls, possums, mountain beaver, fox, and most notably, coyotes, a controversial neighbor.
A few weeks ago in LFP, a pack of coyotes killed one of my brother’s sheep. Yes, sheep.
My brother and my sister-in-law have always been inclined toward odd pets – before this it was emus. Recently, they had bought a male and female Babydoll Southdown sheep, a small, unusually adorable breed with dark wool. A few days after the Babydolls arrival, the female sheep had a baby.
Eric, my bro, was grazing the male sheep, Fat Boy, on the lot next to his house in a fenced area. Fat Boy was in the company of a larger sheep, Sugar. One morning in broad daylight, the coyotes cornered Fat Boy, tore out his throat, ripped open his abdominal cavity and scooped out everything inside. The sight of the remaining hide, fur, bones and head is chilling.
Fat Boy leaves to mourn, his life partner, Sadie, and their daughter, Pearl.
After the deadly attack, my sister-in-law, Nancy, called Washington State Fish and Wildlife and the the US Department of Agriculture, who sent “wildlife biologists” with guns up to the neighborhood and that same night they killed two of the coyotes.
To date, they have killed four including most recently, a “large, dominant male.”
The killings prompted an animal activist, Michelle, who lives up the street to call in what my sister Leila calls “outside agitators,” a group of women with signs crying out for coyote rights, who marched up the quiet block. There were only nine of them, but Michelle had called one of the network affiliates which sent a crew over to cover the event.
Leila, who lives two doors from Eric and Nancy, watched the whole thing with concern and amusement. She has two little yippy dogs who are prime coyote bait. They aren’t allowed outside alone.
Cats and chickens are in grave danger and in fact, many have disappeared.
And a guy up the street was playing outside the other day with his two-year-old and noticed a couple of coyotes about twenty feet away, watching patiently. His kid can’t play outside.
Neighbors are strongly conflicted about whose survival is more iimportant – theirs or the coyotes’.
Who is right? Do the coyotes have a right to exist? Have humans encroached so completely on their habitat that they have to stalk animals and kids in neighborhoods?
Should residents be forbidden to keep animals like sheep on their property because they attract predators? Is it okay for the biologists to murder the coyotes, many of them pups?
All of these questions were addressed last night at the City of Lake Forest Park city council meeting. About 100 citizens gathered to listen to two men – one from Fish & Wildlife and the other from the USDA. The comments from the neighborhood included anger at Eric and Nancy for leaving the sheep outside, intense anger at whomever has been feeding the sheep, and a genuine fear of the men with guns who, without notification, went into the bush around their homes with weapons and killed wild animals.
Representatives from government agencies were there to make a presentation, and the LFP police chief stood at attention in the front of the room, watching every move made by the attendees for the entire length of the hearing. LFP is known for its aggressive enforcement policies on everything from petty crime to traffic violations and the chief’s unsmiling, hyper-vigilant presence made me nervous.
Kim Chandler from Fish and Wildlife told the crowd that coyotes are among the most intelligent animals on earth and that it’s impossible to trap them. “They are so smart, they will probably be the last creatures left on the earth,” he said. Other urban wildlife, like bears, don’t hold a candle. “Coyotes know people are their meal ticket,” he said. “When you leave garbage and pet food outside (not to mention small animals), they see opportunity.” He said ordinary fences mean little to a coyote.
“Coyotes live in every urban area of Washington,” Chandler continued. “The responsibility has to reside with the pet owner.”
Then we heard fro Matt Stevens of the USDA. An ominous Rambo type, Stevens told us that what was happening “isn’t a coyote problem – it’s a people problem. The coyotes in Lake Forest Park have lost their fear of people because you are feeding them,” he said. “I found two twenty-pound bags of dog food set out for them next to the road. This creates a lose-lose situation. I removed a large male in the early hours of the morning and when I did a necropsy, he was full of dog food.”
I resented the way he used the word “remove.” He meant kill.
Stevens went on to analyze the coyotes’ behavior. “These coyotes have crossed the line. They are no longer afraid of people.” And according to him, once the line has been crossed, there is no going back and the animals become a danger to the community.
In answer to questions, Stevens said that he had used thermal imaging to locate the animals and used a rifle with bullets that shatter on impact, avoiding ricochet that could injure people.
Michelle the animal person was one of the first community speakers. She deplored the killings and said that the murder of the coyotes was “the most emotionally devastating” thing that had happened in her entire life. Oh, please, Michelle.
Eileen, a sweet little lady in lavender asked the hunters how they knew for a fact that the coyote had killed Fat Boy. “Maybe he was dead already and the coyotes just ate him,” she said hopefully. She asked Stevens whether he had autopsied the dead sheep and I was surprised to hear him say yes, because the carcass was still in the back of Eric and Nancy’s property.
An uninformed man from the community stood up and vented anger at my brother and his wife for tethering their sheep, making them helpless and unable to dodge the coyotes. After he finished, my sister Leila shouted, “They weren’t tethered!” The mayor banged his gavel and told her she was out of order. For a moment, she was afraid of being arrested by the police chief.
A lot of blame was thrown around, much of it at Eric and Nancy, who have had sheep in LFP for over 15 years without a problem. Everyone agreed that the neighborhood coyotes had changed in the last six months, becoming more aggressive. By the end of the meeting, I think everyone understood that the cause of the problem was that someone had been feeding them.
When a councilman asked the men whether there was a defined process they followed before killing animals, they said that their decision was based on their judgement and that they often found it necessary to strike immediately, as they did in this case.
“We try to get in and solve the problem and get out quickly,” said Stevens. “We do not inform people because they will harass me, which is inefficient. I’m just there to do a job.”
As the gentle souls of Lake Forest Park listened to the purposeful armed men, the USDA guy in a T-shirt with USDA emblazoned on the back (part of his hunting outfit apparently) you could see them shrinking back. Me included. He seemed overly enthusiastic about the killing of the animals. I was told that Rambo (Stevens) drove a tricked out truck, as if determined to boost his image as an avenger.
Rambo (Stevens) said, “It’s hard to get through to people. If you feed them, I am going to kill them. A fed coyote is a dead coyote.” This statement endeared him to the audience.
A council member asked the hunters for the legal basis from which they were operating. Stevens said there was a federal mission statement referring to such situations, but that he couldn’t remember exactly what it was. He explained that what he had done was to follow policy which is not coded into law. He said he “notified” the LFP police before shooting. No wonder everyone loves feds.
In fact, that was the part that bothered me the most. I can understand that neighbors feeding the coyotes caused them to lose their fear of people and therefore become dangerous, but what I couldn’t understand was the way the federal officers quietly and quickly went into the properties and fired weapons, overriding local jurisdictions and laws. I could understand why the neighborhood was so alarmed.
And the USDA needs to teach their agents some PR skills and suggest they wear respectful clothing to citizen meetings. They might also want to tone down their language. Rambo made a point of telling us he had trained with SWAT teams. A biologist with a unique specialty.
The focus of the meeting might have been better served if it concerned making the situation better in the future. This is a bucolic neighborhood, full of children and domestic animals. The people down the street keep goats and there are also chickens, ducks and geese. Up until now, everyone has loved the sheep, who are often loaned out to neighbors to clear their lots without unpleasant buzz saws. But now that one was dead, some of the folks were blaming the owners for attracting coyotes.
The legality of the USDA process needs to be spelled out. People need to stop feeding wild creatures. That is the only way to co-exist with them. If no one had been feeding dog food to the wild creatures, this wouldn’t have happened.
This past week, there was a feel-good news item about a different kind of coyote incident. In the city of Kent, just south of Seattle, people spotted a young coyote who was walking around with a plastic jar stuck on his head. Animal control officers couldn’t find him, and finally two men caught him and removed the jar, setting him free.
Addendum: A few weeks ago, baby Pearl (the small black sheep) was attacked and killed in my brother’s yard. Only Sadie and Sugar are left. He has built an electronic fence, which is activated at night.