IN THE FALL OF 2009, Taylor Mitchell, a 19-year-old folksinger from Toronto, was touring the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada in support of her critically acclaimed first album, For Your Consideration. With a free afternoon between gigs in Nova Scotia on October 27, she pulled into Cape Breton Highlands National Park and set out along the heavily visited Skyline Trail. The temperature was in the high thirties; birch and maple leaves would have crunched beneath her feet.
Less than half a mile ahead of Mitchell, two other hikers were making their way along the boreal trail. When a pair of coyotes came padding toward the men, they paused. Surely the animals would turn tail and disappear into the forest. In fact, no: This pair acted fearless, and came closer and closer to the astonished hikers. When a mere 20 feet separated man from canid, one hiker raised his camera to his eye. The resulting photograph would soon become crucial evidence: Within minutes of the shutter click, the coyotes, who had moved down the trail, intercepted and viciously set upon Mitchell. The singer screamed and may have tried to run, an action that would have exacerbated the attack. Drawn by the commotion, hikers from both directions raced to her side, scared off the coyotes, and dialed 911. But Mitchell was already in critical condition. Airlifted to the hospital with bite marks covering most of her body, she died the following day.
Cape Breton Highlands rolls over 366 square miles of elevated forest and open swale. About 100 eastern coyotes make their living inside the park, though the animals have inhabited it only since the 1980s. The coyote evolved as a hunter of small mammals in the Great Plains, but within the past half-century the species has expanded its range to the entire lower 48 and to every Canadian province. "We're among the last places to get them," says Derek Quann, the park's resource-conservation manager. In Quann's park, the animals eat hare and small rodents but, working in groups in the deep snows of late winter, have also been known to take down 1,200-pound moosean astonishing feat, considering that western coyotes neither hunt in groups nor prey on anything larger than sheep or calves. Wolves, however, routinely do both, which raises the question: What exactly is an eastern coyote?
MITCHELL'S DEATHonly the second fatal coyote attack recorded in North Americasent park managers into a scramble. What had provoked such bold behavior? Was the public safe? After the attack, employees closed the Skyline Trail and shot two coyotes. Analysis of the animals' stomach contents confirmed that these were indeed the antagonists. Necropsies found that the coyotes weren't rabid or otherwise diseased, and inspection of the attack area indicated that they hadn't been guarding a kill.
In the past 20 years, reports of human-coyote interactionswhich run from "I saw one in my neighbor's field" to "That rangy bastard killed Snowball"have increased exponentially: up fourfold in Texas, for example, and 16 times in California. That's not surprising: There are more people and more coyotes out there than ever before. Highly adaptable creatures, coyotes make themselves comfortablewhether hunting, resting, or observingin farm fields, woodlots, and suburban backyards.
"The coyote is an experimenter," Quann says. "It will try things, and if it succeeds it will learn that behavior and pass it on." Unfortunately, many coyotes have learned to link people with food: sometimes garbage, sometimes kibble intended for pets. Though Cape Breton forbids feeding wildlife, visitors do it all the same. In the days following the Mitchell attack, Quann says, "we went to extensive lengths to curtail that learning." He has since killed four additional animals, including one that, rangers determined, was also involved in the attack. These coyotes, he says, were "possible pack mates of the first two."
Quann uses the word pack warily, preferring the wonkier "cohesive family social group." That's because pack is associated with wolves, and wolves, as we know, can bring out the worst in people. But, yes, Quann says with a reluctant sigh, "it's pretty well accepted these coyotes are wolf hybrids."
This is, to some, unsettling news. It's only within the past three yearsas monitoring technology has improved and the price of genetic analysis (of scat, hair, and hide from museum specimens) has droppedthat scientists have proved definitively that wolves and coyotes have interbred. Now, with the attack on Mitchell, many are left wondering whether the resulting combination of traits, both behavioral and physiological, could be a recipe for future attacks on lone hikers.