It's a cool, breezy evening at a seaside park in San Francisco, and Janet Kessler is on the lookout. We sit quietly among pinecones and dead leaves, staring out over the green space before us. With a thin frame and a mass of brown-gray hair pulled back in a scrunchie, Kessler cuts an almost leonine profile. She's ready to spring into action at any moment. We wait patiently for one of the more unlikely residents of San Francisco to pay a visit: the coyote.
As we wait and watch, Kessler and I talk about how she has made a name for herself doing just this—tracking urban coyotes in the wilds of San Francisco's parks. With ample urban green space, the city, it turns out, is the perfect habitat for coyotes. There's prey, space to build dens, and, most important, a much lower chance of getting shot here than on ranchland. In 2014 alone, the Department of Agriculture killed more than 60,000 coyotes; no such effort to remove coyotes by lethal force exists in San Francisco.
So seven days a week, usually at dawn and dusk, Kessler goes out to watch them. She first became fascinated with the creatures after having a chance encounter with one near Twin Peaks, a pair of hills that marks the city's highest point. "Have you ever been connected to wildlife?" she asks. "Do you ever feel something—the call of the wild, some magical force in there? That's what this was." Despite having no formal background in biology or wildlife management, Kessler now spends her days tracking coyotes' movements and documenting their lives. "What I mainly look for is family life," she says. "If I just see a coyote, it's not as exciting. But if I know who it is, and what his relationships are, and how he's treated his daughter recently, it becomes a soap opera."
"When I'm describing coyote family life, I'm trying to show them that it's not so different from our family life."
Suddenly, it happens. "Coyote!" she exclaims and points toward the subject of our hunt, about 50 yards away, prowling across the grass. The sound of Kessler's DSLR camera clicking fills the silence between us as we stare out at the coyote in the distance. We don't want to create too much noise, or make too many sudden movements, or we might scare him off. He picks up a vole, throws it in the air, and then rolls on top of it, paws up like a happy dog. As Kessler snaps photographs, she grins widely. "Wouldn't it be fun if he pounced?" she asks with excitement. "Oh, you should be able to see a pounce! Please pounce. Come on, pounce for Shelby!"
While this particular coyote has managed to find some prey, coyotes in the area have recently had to travel farther and farther in search of game. Instead of just roaming San Francisco's parks, they've begun to move through its densely populated neighborhoods too, with unpleasant results. Just a few months ago in Ingleside Terraces, residents found parts of dismembered cats strewn across their lawns. The local press exploded with reports of coyote sightings, and theorized that the population was on the rise. But Kessler and other experts say that the coyotes' numbers have actually remained the same—the only difference is an expansion of their home range. "The different thing that's happening, the remarkable thing, is that coyotes are being seen in areas where they've never been seen in before," says Mary Paglieri, a behavioral ecologist and founder of the Little Blue Society, a group that focuses on resolving human-animal conflicts. "And I would probably attribute that to the drought."
San Francisco has now joined the long and growing list of cities that are home to a thriving coyote population, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, among others. The debate still rages about how coyotes settled in urban areas like San Francisco in the first place. Genetic tests have shown that some of the city's early coyotes came from Marin County in the north. Paglieri's working theory is that a trapper brought them in and dumped them; while it's illegal to re-locate trapped wildlife in California, it still happens under the table, she says. Others, like Deb Campbell, a spokesperson for San Francisco Animal Care and Control, say that they simply walked across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Not everyone in San Francisco is as thrilled as Kessler about their newfound canine neighbors. Coyotes are territorial, which means they see large dogs as competitors that they need to ward off. They're also natural predators, so they tend to see small dogs as prey. In late September, a coyote killed an off-leash Maltese-poodle mix in Stern Grove. While San Francisco Animal Care and Control says residents can prevent confrontations by keeping their pets leashed, not everyone heeds the warnings, and not everyone wants to "co-exist" with the coyotes. But Kessler remains resolute in her efforts, writing articles for local publications on how to live side by side with coyotes and striking up conversations with people in parks about how to avoid dangerous run-ins.
The Coyote Whisperer
Apart from her park outreach, Kessler shares the photos she takes with academic researchers and wildlife advocates studying coyote behavior, and also keeps a blog. "I think what Janet is doing is absolutely incredible," Paglieri says. "When I exchange notes with Janet, we have this wonderful database of information that other researchers don't have. A lot of information regarding coyotes is textbook-type stuff." For Kessler, nothing less than the very survival of coyotes in the area is at stake. If people don't understand and empathize with the coyotes, she believes, they will have no reason to tolerate them as neighbors either. "When I'm describing coyote family life, I'm trying to show them that it's not so different from our family life," Kessler says. "We play, we tease each other, we have competition, we have jealousies. It's all the same stuff." While San Francisco Animal Care and Control maintains a co-existence policy for human and coyote residents of the city, that could be at risk if enough residents decide they feel threatened. In fact, the city is planning to re-visit its policy in the coming months. By acting as a human ambassador for the coyote world, Kessler is hoping to forestall that possibility.
Later that evening, as we walk beneath tall eucalyptus trees, the taste of salt and the sound of crashing waves flow through the air. Locals are slipping out to walk or run along the trails before it gets dark. A stocky, brown-haired man runs past with his yellow Labrador off-leash. Bossily, as though she's a cop or a park official, Kessler stops him and warns that he ought to "leash Buster" since there are coyotes around. While leashing the dog will keep it safe from the coyotes, of course, doing so will also help protect them. Kessler's always looking out for her pack.
Lead Photo: Janet Kessler is more than just an amateur photographer with a passion for coyotes; the work she's done has helped wildlife advocates and academic researchers alike. (Photo: Helena Price)
Submit your response to this story to email@example.com. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.
For more from Pacific Standard, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletter and subscribe to our print magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store and on Zinio and other platforms.