CANADA - The Taylor Mitchell Attack
In 2009, a woman was attacked by eastern coyotes while hiking on a trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. This was the first and, so far, only case of an adult human fatality as a result of a coyote attack. Taylor Mitchell was a 19-year-old aspiring musician from Toronto, Ontario, on a tour to promote her first CD. She was hiking alone on the Skyline Trail and there were no witnesses to the attack, but there were witnesses that saw Taylor and the coyotes prior to, and following, the attack.
The Skyline Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park, easily accessible and experiences 20,000 to 25,000 visitors annually. Coyotes arrived on Cape Breton Island in 1978 and following their arrival, deer were depleted by the late 1980′s. During June 2010, Dr. Gehrt was invited by National Geographic and Parks Canada to visit the sites and interview the people involved with the incident, in an attempt to determine why the attack occurred.
Our work was done in close collaboration with Taylor Mitchell’s mother, Emily. Indeed, some of the witnesses had not talked about their experience in any great detail out of respect for Emily, and they spoke to us only after Emily asked them to do so. National Geographic arranged to have some come to Nova Scotia for interviews.
Details of this work will be reported elsewhere out of respect for Taylor's family. However, here is a brief overview of what we know:
Taylor arrived at the Skyline Trail parking lot on the afternoon of October 27, 2009, dressed appropriately for the cold weather, wearing no backpack and carrying no food. Taylor was attacked in the middle of that afternoon by at least two coyotes, and possibly more. She was found by four hikers a short time following the attack. The hikers had to scare coyotes away from her and she was left critically wounded. Despite the tremendous efforts by medical teams, she passed away later that evening. Removal efforts were undertaken by Parks Canada immediately following the incident and six coyotes were collected at the scene or during the following weeks. Two of the coyotes were positively linked to the scene, and another was indirectly linked. All coyotes were necropsied and genetically tested. Necropsy results indicate no sign of disease, coyotes were in excellent physical condition, and natural foods were present in their gastrointestinal tract.
Evidence at the scene and by her injuries strongly suggest this was a predatory event. There was no evidence of food provisioning prior to the attack but for some unknown reason, these coyotes altered their behavior to show a lack of fear toward people. There were no reports of problems with coyotes in the park earlier (although there had been some conflicts in previous years). The coyotes were extremely healthy, so disease or physical condition were not factors.
Genetic analysis confirmed that these were eastern coyotes, meaning that they were actually a type of coyote with a wolf-gene influence. Some lines of research suggest that eastern coyotes are more likely to hunt in packs and are therefore more likely to kill and consume larger prey, when compared to typical coyotes. To what extent this genetic variant played a role in the Taylor Mitchell incident is unknown. There is no evidence yet that eastern coyotes are more aggressive than western coyotes. Parks Canada has initiated intensive research projects to hopefully identify what led to the change in coyote behavior and to evaluate the effectiveness of different management strategies.
At this point, we do not know if this attack was an isolated event that is unlikely to ever happen again, or if there is a risk to be concerned with.
Emily Mitchell has created a foundation in Taylor’s name, that people can contribute to: www.taylormitchell.ca
Dr. Stan Gehrt is also involved in a study investigating movements and influence of coyotes on white-tailed deer populations. A group of researchers teamed up to produce this study focusing on wildlife populations with Cleveland Metroparks. As one of the largest landholders of the Cleveland metropolitan area, Cleveland Metroparks manages more than 22,000 acres of land in 18 distinct reservations. The Park District (Cleveland Metroparks) is responsible for deer management in a variety of habitats within these reservations where botanical studies have shown deer numbers have exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the land. Cleveland Metroparks implements a population model to estimate local deer densities and develop goal numbers for management efforts. Two elements of local deer populations that influence model estimates are fawn survival and immigration/emigration; however, these variables are probably the least understood elements of the population model.
Furthermore, the extent to which coyotes influence deer dynamics is unknown for this area — previous studies in other regions have shown widely variable results. Besides directly studying deer, current research explores the role of coyotes on deer dynamics in northeast Ohio, either directly as a predator on fawns or indirectly by affecting movement and space use of deer.
A similar project is taking place in Cook County, IL.
In 2012, Dr. Gehrt and other experts on coyote ecology and behavior were invited to Broomfield, CO, to consult on a reported escalation in coyote conflicts. Dr. Seth Riley (National Park Service Wildlife Biologist), Dr. Julie Young (USDA), and Dr. Stan Gehrt all brought different skills to the table to identify issues and suggest strategies for future management decisions. The city invited these experts as a result of coyote bites to three young children within a two-month period. Conclusions, among many, called for increased novel ways to educate the public, stronger regulations regarding wildlife feeding, and habitat modifications. As to details about the bites, it is believed that all attacks stemmed from a single coyote; the animal was lethally removed and no further attacks were reported. The incidents did, however, encourage communication with the public and management agencies on how to prevent future conflicts, including understanding when it is necessary to lethally remove and when hazing might be more appropriate.
Attached below is the report summarizing the many details and findings of this visit (the report is also included on our page of Scientific Publications).