HomeOutdoorsNewsCoyotes Hunted and Killed a Woman in 2009, Scientists Finally Know Why

Coyotes Hunted and Killed a Woman in 2009, Scientists Finally Know Why

by Jon D. B.
pack of coyotes
A pack of coyotes, submitting to the alpha coyote of the pack. (Photo credit: Perry McKenna / Contributor, Getty Images)

Before the death of 19-year-old folk singer Taylor Mitchell, there had never been a confirmed killing of a human adult by coyotes. That was in 2009. Now, after nearly a decade-and-a-half of research, scientists finally know why the pack did what they did. And it is shocking.

Taylor Mitchell’s story is a tragic one. An avid outdoorswoman, she took to Cape Breton Highlands National Park in her native Canada. The popular Skyline Trail awaited, but the young woman would be set upon by a pack of coyotes before she could take to the trail. Climbers in the vicinity witnessed the entire pack descend on Taylor unprovoked, as if they were hunting her. We now know this to be the case.

Taylor was severely mauled, and if not for intervention she would’ve shared the same fate as the coyote’s wild prey. But park visitors called 911, and she was airlifted to a Halifax hospital. Tragically, the 19-year-old would die of her wounds not 12 hours later. Hers would become the first documented and confirmed adult human fatality from a coyote attack in North America.

“We didn’t have good answers,” Stan Gehrt, professor at Ohio State and leader of the Urban Coyote Research Project, offers in a new statement. For starters, coyotes rarely go after large prey. Far smaller than their gray wolf kin (think 25-50 pounds as opposed to 120-180), coyotes widely prefer small prey like rabbits, birds, squirrels, and anything that doesn’t require risk of severe injury to hunt. Packs will coordinate to kill our larger North American deer species and go after our livestock, too. But the latter is exceptionally rare. So what could provoke a pack to actively hunt and down an adult woman in a populated area?

Compared to a Moose, We Humans are Easy Prey

Gehrt’s team finally has an answer. His team’s research, published to the Journal of Applied Ecology in December, found that the coyotes of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park are hunting moose – one of the largest land mammals in North America – as their main food source.

As for why these mid-sized canines are hunting one of the heaviest and tallest mammals on the planet, Gehrt’s team found that “extreme climate conditions” are forcing their typical prey out of their ecosystem. Snakes, lizards, and rodents are no longer abundant in the area. So the coyotes have shifted their hunting tactics, and learned to hunt these 1,500 pound cervids.

North American moose (Alces americanus) can stand over 10-feet-tall and weigh a full ton (2,000 pounds). (Photo by Lucie Gagnon via Getty Images)

This is, by all accounts, remarkable, yet it makes the death of Taylor Mitchell no less tragic. There are multiple cases of coyotes attacking small children, but only a handful of fatalities. Our small pets are common prey, too. But coyotes had never been known to actively seek out and hunt adult humans. We’re simply too much trouble. Compared to a moose, however, we’re easy prey.

“We’re describing these animals expanding their niche to basically rely on moose. And we’re also taking a step forward and saying it’s not just scavenging that they were doing, but they were actually killing moose when they could,” Gehrt’s research explains. “It’s hard for them to do that, but because they had very little if anything else to eat, that was their prey. And that leads to conflicts with people that you wouldn’t normally see.” 

‘These coyotes are doing what coyotes do, which is, when their first or second choice of prey isn’t available, they’re going to explore and experiment and change their search range’

Coyotes of the Cape Breton area had attacked humans before. But these incidents involved bites and minor wounds, never a mauling or a kill. It would appear that these packs have been testing humans as potential prey alongside moose for the last decade.

“These coyotes are doing what coyotes do, which is, when their first or second choice of prey isn’t available, they’re going to explore and experiment and change their search range. They’re adaptable, and that is the key to their success,” Gehrt continues.

In conclusion, “The lines of evidence suggest that this was a resource-poor area with really extreme environments that forced these very adaptable animals to expand their behavior,” he explains. In their extensive paper, Gehrt and his team cite the years of fecal and DNA research that solidified their conclusion. And if there is any good news, its that this coyote behavior looks to be extremely localized, and remain exceptionally rare.