Coyotes have been repopulated San Francisco's green spaces. (Courtesy of Janet Kessler)
Janet Kessler will never forget the day she met her first coyote.
It was thirteen years ago, and she was walking her dog on Twin Peaks in San Francisco.
“We sat down and watched each other,” Kessler remembers. “[The coyote]’s enthusiasm, her interest, her excitement, her intelligence, all of that came to the fore. In the 10 to 20 minutes we were watching her, I decided that I had to find out more,” Kessler says.
Now Janet Kessler is known in the area as the “Coyote Lady” for her extensive field research and documentation of urban coyotes.
Her daily routine is disciplined. She wakes up at 4 a.m., takes a walk, and is ready with her Canon camera by dawn.
“I’m out until 8, 9 or 10 a.m. … and then I go out again in the early evening. I’m out until dark when I can no longer see the coyotes,” she says.
To distinguish between the different coyotes, Kessler gives them names — although it’s something that she discourages other people from doing because “it puts them in the category of a pet.” She tells me about Silver (“for the silver eucalyptus trees”), Gum Nut, Acorn, Scout, Sparks, Scowl and Squirrel (“who waits around for squirrels.”)
It may feel like coyotes are popping up in San Francisco all of a sudden, but they are actually recolonizing the places they used to live abundantly. Coyotes are native to California and were found throughout the Bay Area — including in San Francisco — until the mid 1900s.
It was during the 1940’s that people started killing coyotes en masse, using a powerful poison called Compound 1080 meant to keep “vermin” out of their ranching and farmlands. Compound 1080 was banned by President Nixon in 1972, but people still feared and hated coyotes – hunting them, and even holding coyote killing contests.
Kessler, who’s 70 years old, says that people her age have told her that when they were kids, they were paid four dollars to bring in two coyote ears. This mistreatment nearly wiped coyotes out from the Bay Area completely. But in 2002, something amazing happened: a coyote was spotted walking in San Francisco’s Presidio. This was a big deal, and questions arose as to how and why coyotes were returning.
One theory was that coyotes walked here from Marin across the Golden Gate Bridge. While it sounds like the stuff of Disney movies, Kessler says it’s “very unlikely.”
“Most ecologists I’ve spoken to think it’s kind of a crazy idea,” she says.
Kessler explains that a much more likely theory is that a trapper brought coyotes over from the North Bay. Since then, coyotes have been busy repopulating San Francisco’s urban parks — places like the Presidio, Glen Canyon and Golden Gate Park. Each one of these “territories” has a coyote family living in it — or at least a coyote passing through.
According to San Francisco Animal Care and Control, the total number of coyotes living in San Francisco is estimated to be dozens. The reason this number isn’t more specific is because there hasn’t been a rigorous tracking program for coyotes.
Kessler says that over the 13 years she’s been studying them, the coyote population in San Francisco (at least within the areas she has studied) has basically remained the same. If you think you’re seeing a lot of coyotes in an area, “you’re probably seeing the same ones over and over again.”
Even if the total number of coyotes isn’t growing, it is possible that there are more coyote sightings — thanks to social media and platforms like Nextdoor where people can share photos and alert neighbors if they see a coyote in the park or while walking their dog.
Kessler says while coyotes are not interested in people, they might be interested in your pet. But, she adds, there is an easy way to avoid tragedy: “Whenever you see a coyote, pick up the dog and go in the opposition direction. That’s all you have to do.”
A big part of Janet’s work is teaching people about how to live with coyotes, and that starts with understanding them more.
“They’re just like you and I are,” she says. “These are social animals. They mate for life. Both parents raise the youngsters. They remain as a family for an extended length of time. They interact all the time with play, with fun, with teasing. They poke each other.”
On her website, CoyoteYipps.com, Kessler posts videos of coyotes howling alongside sirens, snapping at their pups and frolicking with their siblings.
Ecologically speaking, coyotes coming back to the city is a good thing. They’re important predators, regulating populations of rodents and raccoons, and helping increase diversity of bird populations. According to Kessler, San Francisco is doing “a fine job” of moving us towards coyote coexistence.
It also helps that we are generally more open to living next to wild animals.
“There’s been a basic change in our attitudes towards the environment,” Kessler says. “I think we’re more open minded and environmentally concerned. And of course, coyotes are part of that environment.”
Being so close to nature is part of what makes living in the Bay Area so special. So next time you’re on a walk, keep your eyes peeled. You might get lucky and see something that you wouldn’t have just 20 years ago.
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