Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Sting

A honeybee gathers pollen from lavender flowers. Most of Malibu's insects are relatively benign, but summer is peak season for stings and it can be helpful to know what's out there and how to deal with any unfortunate encounters. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

—Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky

Around here, shunning the ichneumon, velvet ant, and especially the tarantula hawk might be sound advice, too.

I was on a walk recently with visitors from Colorado. They marveled at how few biting bugs we have in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s true, mosquitoes and black flies are mercifully few, but we still have quite a few stingers, many of them strange enough to be entirely at home in Wonderland. 

Let’s meet some of them, shall we?

With Scorpio, the largest and brightest of the summer constellations, dominating the night sky, it seems appropriate to start with this celestial creature's terrestrial counterparts. Although we tend to describe them as bugs, scorpions aren't insects, they're arthropods in the family ArachnidaAlthough there are four scorpion species in the Los Angeles area, the varieties most often found in Malibu are Paruoctonus sylvestrii, the common California scorpion; and Vaejovis spinigerus, the striped-tailed scorpion.

Paruoctonus sylvestrii, the common California scorpion, zeroes in on supper. This was a fairly large specimen—almost two inches long. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Our scorpions rarely exceed two inches in length, but they are fierce nocturnal predators, able to subdue insects nearly their own size. Fortunately, they aren’t reportedly aggressive towards humans and prefer to avoid confrontation. In fact, although scorpions are common in the Santa Monica Mountains, many residents have never seen one.

The best way to spot these elusive arthropods is at night with an ultraviolet light, because the scorpion’s entire exoskeleton fluoresces under UV light—a recent theory proposed by biologist Douglas Gaffin of the University of Oklahoma suggests the fluorescent pigments may act as a light receptor for the scorpion—an eyeless way of seeing. Here's a link to a 2012 article in New Scientist.

An inexpensive UV flashlight makes it easy to spot scorpions at night. Although, ignorance is perhaps bliss. I was astonished to discover just how many scorpions are out there and I have no intentions of ever sitting on the ground again at night. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

I’ve been on several nighttime scorpion walks in the Santa Monica Mountains and I am astounded to find how many scorpions are out there. The fact that stings are so uncommon is a testament to the shy and retiring nature of these reclusive hunters.

Most stings occur when humans inadvertently disturb scorpion hiding places, including woodpiles and garden furniture. Scorpions have also been know to seek shelter in shoes left out overnight on the doorstep or in the folds of beach towels and other laundry left out to dry.

None of Malibu’s scorpion species are regarded as a dangerous and both the common scorpion and the striped-tail are apparently popular species in the pet trade. Both have a painful sting—victims compare it to a wasp sting—but it only poses a health hazard to individuals with severe allergy to the venom. 

Scorpions are beneficial, eating many times their own weight in insects, so peaceful coexistence—whenever possible—is the best way of dealing with them. Besides, they're all around us, whether we know it or not. 

There's another seldom seen Malibu resident with a painful sting: the soil centipede. This beastie is a type of Strigamia centipede. It's fast moving, lives under rocks and garden pots and will bite anything that it senses is a threat. Soil centipedes are eyeless and don't actually have teeth or stingers—they "bite" their prey—and the hand of any gardener unlucky enough to come in contact with them—with a pair of specialized legs that are used like fangs and connect to venom sacs in the body. It's a painful bite but reportedly not dangerous.

The soil centipede just wants to be left alone. For something that is nearly six inches long and bright red it's remarkably good at keeping out if sight and  moves fast when disturbed. Its first line of defense is to get out of the way, rather than to bite, although it does that with fierce efficiency if it feels threatened. This centipede was under a potted plant, where it was living a (presumably) happy life eating insect larvae. I carefully put the pot back and left it to go about its business. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Scorpions and centipedes are all very well, but the serious sting awards go to three members of the wasp family. These insects are usually shy and reluctant to sting, but when they do they have a formidable weapon.

The female Netelia ichneumon wasp has a painful sting, used to subdue caterpillars.  It's been described as comparable to the sting of a yellowjacket or a bee. However, this is a beneficial wasp and it is reportedly only aggressive if handled. The Netelia in the photo is a stingless and benign male that somehow ended up in the house. This species is largely nocturnal, and often drawn to porch and garden lights. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

The velvet ant is actually a wingless wasp, and like its distant relative the Netelia it also has an impressively painful sting. Biologist Justin Schmidt, who has been stung by just about everything possible, famously developed a pain scale for insect stings. If the sting of the yellowjacket—the most common and aggressive stinging insect in Malibu and just about everywhere else in North America—is a 2 on the 1-4 Schmidt pain scale, the velvet ant is probably a 3. Children are at the greatest risk for encounters with this wasp, since it's brightly colored, pretty, furry and tempting to touch. Fortunately, allergic reactions are reportedly relatively rare. Like the ichneumon wasp, only the female of the species stings. The male is small, winged and easily mistaken for some sort of inconspicuous fly. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Of all the Malibu-area bugs that bite or sting, the tarantula hawk—or pepsis wasp—is the queen. This wasp has a sting described by insect biologist and sting pain index creator Justin Schmidt as "Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath." 
 That's enough to make anyone cnidophobic. The wasp in the photo is feeding peacefully on milkweed nectar, and is shown only a little larger than life. Despite that legendarily horrific sting, it's not an aggressive species, but I was glad that I had a telephoto lens and didn't have to get too close. This wasp is usually rather rare in Malibu, since development has increasingly eliminated tarantula habitat, but for some reason, 2014 seems to be a banner year for the species. Most stings happen when the victim accidentally disturbs, steps on, or brushes against a wasp. Wearing gloves while gardening can help prevent unpleasant encounters. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

All three wasps are eye-catching and have vivid coloring, probably intended to warn would-be predators to stay away. It's a warning humans would do well to heed. The Tarantula Hawk has the distinction of being second only to the bullet ant on Schmidt's pain scale. He rates the sting of this wasp as a 4, and adds “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” 

This spectacular insect really does prey on tarantulas, which is why it is armed with such a formidable weapon. The female tarantula hawk paralyses the tarantula with her sting and lays her eggs in the unfortunate arachnid, which she will drag to a preselected and prepared hole or burrow, where it will serve as a food source for the next generation of tarantula hawks. And you thought Malibu politics were nasty. 

On a practical note, wearing gloves and shoes while working in the garden can help prevent some encounters with stingers. Many Malibu bee stings happen on the beach, where bees congregate on the wet sand to find salt. A pair of flip flops can help prevent beech bee stings, but some bites and stings are unavoidable—yellowjacket wasps win the award for general orneriness and often appear to sting without provocation, and even in Malibu in the middle of the worst drought in decades, mosquitoes are still out for blood.

Anyone experiencing swelling, hives, breathing problems, or any other sign of a serious allergic reaction from any type of sting should seek immediate emergency medical assistance. Even without a serious allergic reaction, stings can be surprisingly painful and, in some cases, take days to stop hurting or itching.

It's a good idea to keep Benadryl in the first aid kit for sting emergencies. Anyone with sting allergies should make sure they have an up-to-date EpiPen on hand, as well. Here at the Malibu Post we like  "sting ampules."  These are tiny, individual tubes of benzocane that are easy to carry and can be applied to give temporary relief from all kinds of stings. I've never seen them at a store, but Amazon sells a cheap and effective brand).  Cortizone cream, Caladryl lotion and the kind of first aid cleansing spray or wipes with Benzalkonium Chloride and Lidocaine are also  helpful. Ice helps reduce the pain and swelling from most types of sting, although some respond better to heat. In all cases prevention is much preferable to any sting remedy, no matter how efficacious.

The beautiful and deadly tarantula hawk embodies the dichotomy of the insect world: they share our world—or, rather, we share their world, since there are a lot more of them than there are of us, but often they inspire fear because they appear strange or have the ability to defend themselves with powerful chemical weapons. Most stinging "bugs" are beneficial and serve an important function in the local ecosystem. Learning to coexist is important, and offers us a look at a world as weird and alien as anything in fiction, and sometimes also a glimpse of something rare and surprisingly beautiful.

Suzanne Guldimann
29 July 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Escher Paradox

Two regular tetrahedrons, piercing each other, float through space as a planetoid. The light-coloured one is inhabited by human beings who have completely transformed their region into a complex of houses, bridges and roads. The darker tetrahedron has remained in its natural state, with rocks, on which plants and prehistoric animals live. The two bodies fit together to make a whole but they have no knowledge of each other.

—M.C. Escher, Double Planetoid, 1949

Right now, Escher's Double Planetoid seems an apt metaphor for Malibu. Only here, the developers are not only aware of the natural resources in the undeveloped side, but covet that land and seek to pave it over, transforming what is left of the natural world into strip malls—high end, pretentious strip malls with stratospheric rents, but still generic development full of the same ubiquitous chain stores that are invading scenic and historic communities around the world, from Florence, Italy to Rockport, Maine.

The Malibu Village Shopping Center just sold to an out-of-state real estate investment company for an estimated $150 million, up from $30 million, the last time it changed hands. That's a lot of money to recoup. Wagers are already being made about how many of the existing tenants, including the movie theater, will be able to afford to stay when the time comes to renew their leases. 

Malibu residents, less than enthused about the mall-ification of Malibu and concerned that the fast-tracking of the Civic Center sewer will generate a building frenzy, have been fighting back for years, but have gained little traction with city officials. In 2006 a concerted effort began to create a formula retail ordinance and give voters an opportunity to weigh in on large-scale commercial development, not only in the Civic Center but throughout Malibu, putting the decision making power for big projects in the hands of the voters. 

The Civic Center area is the central battlefield in the commercial development war in Malibu. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

It's been an agonizingly slow process, and according to the grassroots organization Preserve Malibu, more than 50 chains have opened or signed leases during that eight-year period, but that's nothing compared to the potential maximum build-out of the Civic Center area once the sewer system is in place. Over a million square feet of commercial development is possible. 

Preserve Malibu created this infographic to show the size and location of potential future development in the Civic Center area of Malibu. Critics have objected to the inclusion of the Pepperdine projects, because the university is not within the city. However, the people of Malibu and Malibu's infrastructure, especially Pacific Coast Highway, have to absorb the impact from the development and no one can argue that it isn't cumulative. 

The past three years of the push for an ordinance have been worthy of anything Irish satirist Jonathan Swift could have concocted for his Lilliputians. In the latest round, city staff proposed that the election be postponed until April 2016 because the petition didn't include the words "special election." However,  the Your Malibu, Your Decision Act, which would require developers to seek voter approval for any project bigger than 20,000 square feet and also limit chain stores, has finally been approved by the Malibu City Council for the November 2014 ballot. The Malibu Post took a look at the act back in March, when the signature-gathering effort was announced.

That approval to place the initiative on the November came grudgingly, reluctantly and even angrily from some on the dais, but it was given, after almost two hours of public testimony, by four of the council members. In the words of Councilmenber Laura Rosenthal, "The Initiative absolutely has to be on the November ballot, whether I'm for it or against it."

The fifth council member, Joan House, expressed the opinion that the measure should be postponed until April 2016 to provide more time to study it, despite the fact it met all of the legal requirements to be placed on the November ballot, and the city attorney and consultants could find no legal cause to postpone the vote.

The council then voted unanimously to approve their own ordinance, which is similar to the ballot initiative but only applies to the Civic Center, not the rest of the community, and can be altered at any time. If the ballot initiative passes, it will supersede the city ordinance, and cannot be altered except by another election.

House may have been the lone dissenting vote on the council regarding the ballot initiative, but she had company from developer interests during public comment. The Malibu Chamber of Commerce, Malibu Association of Realtors and several developer lobbyists predicted lawsuits, doom and destruction if the initiative passes.

That just about sums up the fears of the developer interests opposed to the Your Malibu, Your Decision ballot initiative. 

It's not a surprise that these groups oppose the measure, although one wonders what the Realtors have to gain when development clogs Pacific Coast Highway to the point that living in Malibu is no longer desirable or even feasible. However, these groups and the lobbyists who represent them are protecting their own interests and have every right to do that. What is troubling is the paternalist mindset that continues to govern this lobby. There's an attitude that the public isn't qualified or sufficiently educated to understand what's happening. 

This isn't new. It's the same old modernist manifesto that drove the post WWII onslaught of unchecked development in California. It's also the mindset that, in the 19th century, believed that "rain follows the plow," and embraced manifest destiny. 

Even some of the language used to deride the ballot initiative dates from an earlier era. One real estate agent described the initiative as a “dog’s breakfast.” The last time the Malibu Post encountered that particular insult was in an Agatha Christie murder mystery, c. 1933. 

Activists in a 1989 Malibu Times photo protest Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, whose paternalistic attitude toward Malibu and determination to protect development interests instead of natural resources and the needs of the residents fueled the cityhood movement.

This paternalistic, expansionist mindset is increasingly anachronistic in a postmodern era when the realization that resources are limited and dwindling has finally sunk in to all but the thickest skulls. 

But that doesn't change the fact that the 4000-5000 people who actually live in Malibu year-round, and vote, and have views on what Malibu's future should be are frequently treated like recalcitrant children. 

In Malibu that paternalism has led to some spectacularly awful land use decisions. Many of these date from the era immediately preceding cityhood, and thanks to fiercely protective residents and environmental activists, some of the worst projects have been derailed but not all.

"Stores and offices for lease," a sign reads on Pacific Coast Highway in this photo from the Pepperdine University Digital Archive. The car appears to be a 1955 Studebaker, which probably dates the scene to the late 1950s. This stretch of PCH is roughly the same location as the photo below.

The fight over the fate of the Civic Center isn't the only development debate in the community. Ugly, ill conceived  development lines PCH east of the Civic Center. For nearly six miles, from Santa Monica to the Civic Center, a solid wall of houses, apartments and unlovely office buildings line the highway, providing a continuous wall that lines both sides of the road and mars even the few remaining glimpses of the ocean. This isn't what visitors and residents come here to see, which is why the ballot initiative, unlike the city formula retail ordinance passed the same night the council approved the ballot measure for the November election, includes all commercially zoned property in the city.

This is what the vast majority of visitors and residents come to Malibu to experience. Malibu's  beach and mountain resources are exceptional and the city is located entirely within the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Intensive commercial development doesn't belong here any more than it belongs in Yosemite or any other national park. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Here’s an example of that paternalistic attitude from an article in the June 28, 1989 Los Angeles Times:

For the past 31 years, diners at the Malibu Colony Coffee Shop could count on a decent portion of pancakes, eggs, sausages and star sightings.

It was the local hangout where major movie deals were made over doughnuts and, at lunch, mechanics shared the same Formica counter with the mega-rich.

But this week, the cafe will close to make room for a new mall in a move that many residents bitterly complain is part of a new Malibu--more upscale and less down-to-earth.

"I guess this is progress," lamented owner Natalie Brown, who has run the coffee shop with her husband, Herb, for the past decade. "But a lot of people consider it a huge loss. This place is a Malibu landmark. This place is Malibu."

This is the only photo of the exterior of the Malibu Colony Coffee Shop I could find. It's from a news story about a car crashing into the drug store adjacent to the Colony Coffee Shop. The distinctive oval building was designed by pioneer African American architect Paul Williams in 1957, and torn down by the owner of the shopping center in 1989 out of sheer garden variety pigheadedness and what can only be described in hindsight as a colossal lack of vision.

More than 2000 people signed a petition opposing the demolition plan. That letter of protest ran as a full-page ad in the Malibu Surfside News. 

"The atmosphere, spirit and history of the Colony Coffee Shop cannot be duplicated," the ad stated. "It has been more than a concrete and glass building. It has held a special place in our hearts."

Roy Crummer, who owned the shopping center and was behind the plan to tear down the building, ran an ad of his own the following week, stating:

"People say I'm being cold-hearted about the building, but I've got more memories than most about it. Hell, my father built it."

"Unlike the coffee shop's many patrons, who I feel are thinking with their hearts and stomachs, I am going to make this decision like a doctor, with compassion, but with objectivity. I definitely want to retain the unique character of Malibu. . . . but I want the town to have a world class restaurant, a first class coffee shop, and a local health and juice bar."

A doctor, eh? Is it too late to sue for malpractice?

Crummer tore down an architectural landmark to make way for his generic shopping center. When the “world class restaurant” finally arrived, it didn’t last long. The space that housed Granita has been empty for almost 10 years.

The building designed by legendary Black architect Paul Williams that was sacrificed was part of Malibu’s cultural heritage and can never be replaced. 

One of the most poignant speakers at the July 14 City Council meeting was John Evans, co-owner of Diesel Bookstore, which is being driven out of the Civic Center area for a second time due to stratospheric rents and decreasing foot traffic. 

“I'm speaking out. Others are constrained not to speak out," Evans said. "Tenants have to stay silent. Real estate agents and developers threatened the city with lawsuits to stop any restrictions on their profiteering, under the flag of freedom of the markets... Anyone that believes there is anything related to the free market in this discussion is either silly or self-serving, and usually the latter.”

The space that Diesel is being forced to leave was home for almost 20 years to my parents' gallery. They were the original tenants and opened in an era when the owner and all of the other shopping center tenants were local residents. 

This is the space soon to be vacated by Diesel Bookstore. Long before it was Diesel, it was home to my parents' gallery. This photo was taken in 1978, when the Malibu Country Shops building was just going up. That's my mom standing in front, planning what it would be like when it was complete. 

A holiday ad from the 1980s shows the center's tenants, including the author and her parents. In those days, shops like Malibu Books and Company, Tops Gallery, the Godmother were owned and operated by Malibu residents and employed local people. This kind of environment is an endangered animal not just in Malibu. Globalization and commercialization is happening all over the world, but that doesn't mean we have to put up with multinational corporations and hedge funds taking over the town, and we don't have to permit excessive development that is not in line with the City of Malibu's vision and mission statements. That's why community activists are working so hard to pass the Your Malibu, Your Decision Act. It may not be perfect, but proponents of the measure see it as a crucial tool that can be used to stem a tide that has the potential to become a tsunami of commercialism if left unchecked.

In Escher's Double Planetoid there is balance. The inhabitants of the two tetrahedrons live separate existences unaware that the other but the two sides still combine to form one world. In Malibu, we have the awareness but not the balance. Right now, one side threatens to irrevocably overwhelm the other.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know the residents of Malibu want a say in it, and I also know that the half a million people who flocked to Malibu over the 4th of July weekend didn't come for shopping opportunities and chain stores. They came, in the words of the Malibu Vision Statement, because "Malibu is a unique land and marine environment," and we, the residents, are still committed to "sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle and to preserve unaltered natural resources for present and future generations." 

This is the City of Malibu's mission statement, inscribed larger than life in the foyer at city hall. It's not supposed to be just a wall decoration like those vinyl decals of inspirational words or Winnie-the-Pooh that they sell at Target, it is this city's core value and raison d'ĂȘtre.

The Malibu Vision Statement is written in three-inch letters all over the wall of City Hall. Maybe it's time that some of our city officials and the developers who regard the city as their personal cash cow took a moment to read and reflect on that.

There are many things in Malibu that cannot be bought, or sold, or replaced when they have been destroyed.  Not at any price.

Suzanne Guldimann
21 July 2014

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Peter's Birds

In 1978, Malibu Junior High School student Peter Williams reportedly took quaaludes, a prescription sedative-hypnotic medication officially used as a muscle relaxant that was a popular recreational drug in the '70s. He was last seen alive swimming out to sea at Zuma.

A drug education and prevention program called Peter's Project was founded following his death. Part of that project involved building a park on Cross Creek Road across from the Malibu movie theater. It had a brick courtyard with benches, trees, flowers and a plaque with Peter's name on it.

The park has been gone for so long that I couldn't find a photo of it for this post, but the trees are still there, and the birds are there now, too. Rumor has it the landlord, working with Audubon Society volunteers, plans to install a sign with information on how remarkable it is to have all of the species of birds nesting together in one place in the middle of a shopping center.

This year, the herons and egrets have been joined by cormorants. It's not Peter's Park anymore, but it's still a special place, a place where nature has found a way to thrive in the middle of development. That's a profound and, I hope, lasting legacy for Peter.

Suzanne Guldimann
6 July 2014

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Trickster Spirit

A pair of coyotes pause to stare as they make their way up a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains just before sunset on a spring afternoon. I was several hundred feet away, and I thought I was being wonderfully quiet and stealthy, but they knew I was there. As often as I've seen coyotes I always feel a thrill at the sight of this intelligent, mischievous, adaptable and often misunderstood wild dog. All Photos © 2014 S. Guldimann

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. 

—Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

The Chumash, Malibu's original human residents, revered Sky Coyote as a sacred trickster and associated him with the north star. He plays a game of chance with the sun each year on the Winter Solstice, legend says. If he wins there is rain, but when the sun wins, the land is stricken with drought. The current drought is exacting a price on every living thing in the West, and Coyote's terrestrial kin—despite their intelligence, adaptability and cunning—are no exception.

I have great respect for Malibu’s indigenous wild dog, who survives and thrives despite habitat loss and urbanization. That respect includes that knowledge that coyotes will catch and eat our much loved cats if we let them out, and the neighbors' chickens, too. 

Many people never see their wild canine neighbors, but everyone has heard them: their eerie and oddly musical pack song is part of the nighttime soundtrack of Malibu. This year, however, the prolonged drought is driving coyotes into residential neighborhoods in search of food and water and causing conflict with humans. 

Anyone who has lived here for long learns quickly never to let cats and small dogs out of sight outdoors and to secure chickens, goats and other livestock, but it is vanishingly rare for a coyote to attack large animals or humans. It's helpful to remember that coyotes aren't actually very large. Even the biggest, healthiest coyote rarely weighs more than 30-35 pounds. That thick, fluffy fur coat and the big ears help them to look larger than they are and the deep-seated human fear of wolves and their kin that has for generations generated stories of monsters like werewolves and skinwalkers invests coyotes with a fierceness that they rarely possess in reality. I’ve covered coyote-related issues for the Malibu Surfside News for a number of years and have never encountered a credible local incident involving an attack on a human.

Humans, on the other hand, take a massive toll on coyotes. According to a recent Washington Post article, the federal Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services reported killing 75,326 coyotes in 2013. Wildlife killing contests take place in California, despite being technically illegal under state Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations. A "Coyote Drive" in Modoc County is currently drawing fierce opposition. But coyotes are also increasingly the inadvertent victims of secondary rodenticide poisoning. That's because, while they will eat any small animal that they can catch, their main source of protein comes from rodents, including pocket gophers, mice and rats—the primary targets for rat poison.

This Serra Canyon coyote still haunts me. It was threadbare and covered with sores, a victim of secondary rodenticide poisoning that attacks the animal's immune system and makes it susceptible to a potentially fatal mange.

The National Park Service has been studying the coyote population of the Santa Monica Mountains for almost two decades. According to NPS research, the coyotes' diet—in order of frequency—consists of fruit, rabbits, woodrats, pocket gophers, voles, squirrels, other small mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, deer, and trash. Domestic animals make up less than one percent of the local coyote diet.

“Cats are one percent, trash is 10 percent—not a major part of what they are eating,” NPS biologist and lead urban predator researcher Seth Riley told me during a 2012 interview.  “Domestic animals are not a major source of food in urban areas.” 

Coyotes aren't sweethearts—they are efficient hunters and scavengers who will eat pretty much anything they can find, including pets, but they aren't monsters. They kill from need not with malice. Hunts are conducted in silence. Coyotes sing to communicate with each other, not to announce that they are hunting.

Coyotes are thought to mate for life, and males help females feed, protect and educate their offspring. Older siblings and other non-breeding members of the coyote's extended family have been observed helping to take care of pups. Because of the coyote's social structure coyote/dog crosses are uncommon in the wild. According to Humane Society reports, genetic testing reveals that there are actually few genuine  "coy-dogs." The evidence indicates that most of these are bred by humans, and then dumped in the wild when their human creators find they are too wild to train or subdue. 

According to Riley, coyotes are more likely to be nocturnal in urban areas, but it's not unusual for them to be active during the day. Pet owners need to be aware that, just because you don't see a coyote, doesn't mean the coyote isn't nearby. They aren't called trickster spirits for nothing. 

 “We believe coyotes are a vital component of rural and urban communities, deserving of respect for their adaptability, resilience, and intelligence,” Camila Fox, founder of the Coyote Project, states on the Project Coyote website. “We aim to create a shift in attitudes toward coyotes and other native carnivores by replacing ignorance and fear with understanding and appreciation.”

The experts are unanimous that coexistence is the key to coping with coyotes. Removing attractions like dense brush, unsecured garbage cans and fallen fruit in backyard orchards can help prevent coyote-human interactions. Filling gaps in fences can also help reduce backyard incursions. 

A coyote carefully scopes out the area.

Coyotes are often attracted to patio BBQs or outdoor kitchens, where meat drippings and scraps, or just the smell of food, lingers. They are also attracted to pet dishes and bird feeders. Making sure that there are no scraps of food and sweeping up scattered birdseed can help discourage unwelcome visitors.

 “A fed coyote is a dead coyote,” is one of Fox’s axioms. Malibu coyotes will eat palm tree fruits and ornamental berries. They will also raid all types of fruit trees and seem to have a passion for figs. 

Domestic animals should be fed indoors and kept in at night. Cats, small dogs and young children should never be left unattended. Livestock, including chickens and rabbits, should be secured in pens and hutches. Coyotes can easily jump a six-foot fence, and they aren’t the only predators out looking for an easy meal—they share the night hunt with owls, foxes, bob cats, and raccoons. 

A pair of coyotes cross Mulholland Highway and vanish into the storm drain on the other side. Road crossing is a major danger for all local wildlife, even in remote areas with low population density, and one of the leading causes of mortality.

For human-coyote encounters, Project Coyote recommends making noise to scare the coyote away. “The first thing is to be big, bad and loud,” Fox said at a 2012 coyote awareness community meeting in Calabasas. “Make eye contact.  Don’t run and don’t stop until the coyote retreats.”

This male coyote paused to leave a calling card before vanishing. "I see you watching me and this is what I think of you," he seems to say. He is a trickster, after all. 
Fox recommends using a rattle made out of an empty can containing a handful of pennies, whistles, air horns, or a pop-up umbrella. She stresses that the goal is to frighten the coyote, not harm it or harass it. Fox says that coyote behavior is similar to that of domestic dogs, and that observers can learn from coyote body language.

 ProjectCoyote.org has a wide range of resources on peaceful coexistence. The City of Calabasas has an excellent coyote policy that Malibu could easily adopt. The Calabasas website also offers practical and humane coyote advice, starting with: 

Recognize that the coyote is indigenous to Calabasas. We built our city in the coyote's backyard and the coyote has adapted to this environment. We should adapt to the presence of the coyote. 

I hope that's a goal we can all attain.

Suzanne Guldimann
1 July 2014