"We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in." — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC, is a busy city park full of locals and tourists. On any given summer day, you’ll see a family picnicking, surrounded by beautiful old trees and friendly wildlife. It’s a magical place. But at the moment, it’s also a warzone.
A few months ago, coyotes in Stanley Park began to nip at adult joggers. First at night, then in the day. Then a toddler was bitten. People understandably panicked. Coyotes were shot and killed, but the biting continued. The decision was made to euthanize all coyotes in the park.
I’ve been following this story closely because I’ve been putting the finishing touches on Lost Shadow, the second book in the Song Dog series, about the lives of two urban coyotes displaced by human housing. In Lost Shadow, one of the major themes is food. Pica and Scruff, now older and becoming more independent, argue about whether or not to eat food from humans. When I read about the coyote problem in Stanley Park, I see it through the eyes of my coyote characters, and recognize it as more than just an animal problem - it’s a problem that can’t be understood without considering the role of humans.
From a coyote perspective, Stanley Park is an incredible place. At the time of this conflict, garbage cans weren’t animal proof. Picnicking families were giving out free sandwiches. There were no multilingual or visual signs warning people to stay away from coyotes, so many people would try to approach and feed them. If I was a coyote, and I discovered this magical Shangri-La, I would never leave. I would stop trying so hard to catch rats, and instead start following humans around, waiting for something easier and more delicious.
This kind of situation comes up in several different ways in Lost Shadow, such as when one coyote character becomes very habituated to handouts from a kind human who she calls 'Friend'. It is all fine until Friend disappears, and the coyote has no idea what to do. Her behaviour has been fundamentally changed, and she no longer wants to source food the hard way. She becomes a coyote problem, but the problem is, at its heart, a human problem.
In writing Lost Shadow and in digesting the news from Stanley Park, I keep coming back to the quote above, from Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac. As humans, we share our cities with many animals, big and small. It is impossible to rid the cities of these animals, and so whether we love them, hate them, or feel ambivalent, it is critical that we understand them so that we don’t create problems like the one in Stanley Park. Most 'animal' problems in urban environments are actually human problems - problems caused when we don't fully understand that we share a complex environment with capable and determined creatures who find a way to survive in our midst no matter what we do. Everything we as humans do has a ripple effect on all the things that live alongside us. And eventually, those ripples can become waves that come back and affect us.
To act ethically begins with this understanding, and a recognition that being ‘kind’ to wild animals means understanding what they need. They don’t need free food - they need to maintain their wild instincts, and their fear of humans. With Lost Shadow, I want readers to be drawn into the page-turning adventure and as they move through the story, to begin empathetically experiencing the familiar landscapes of cities through new eyes. Ultimately, I hope that they can leave with a deeper understanding of how their lives are inextricably linked with all the other living beings around them. And hopefully, we can continue to move to a better understanding of how to co-exist with coyotes in our cities, to avoid any future tragedies similar to the one in Stanley Park.
Claire Gilchrist is an author and middle school teacher. She loves all canids, and has done extensive research on urban coyotes as well as worked as an educator for the Co-Existing with Coyotes Program in Vancouver, B.C. She currently splits her time between White Salmon, Washington, and Victoria, B.C. Learn more here.