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Wildlife Conservation Showcase: Dr. Shelley Alexander

By Holly Hastings, May 5 2020—

Have you ever seen a coyote do something that made you laugh? I think we’re all united in the love of watching coyotes bounce in the snow to catch their prey, known as the prey-bounce. In the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Dr. Shelley Alexander is engaged in fascinating conservation work that hits close to home for many Calgarians. Alexander’s speciality is Albertan Coyotes. Not only is her extensive scientific research impressive, but her ability to communicate with the public on the importance of coexisting with these beautiful creatures pulls the heartstrings of any animal lover. Alexander noted that this behaviour evokes a positive emotion that could potentially be used to influence the public to increase the positive language over the negative. 

The current project that Alexander is working on is called the Foothills Coyote Initiative. 

“As a result of working with the citizens and science data, I started teaching Philosophy of Science,” Alexander explained. “My work was really in the natural sciences, but with social sciences, philosophy and geography, I started to see some areas that could be tapped into to understand the human motivation to live or not live with coyotes.”

The Foothills Coyote Initiative, which started in 2015, conducts interviews with landowners in their homes to understand their values, attitudes, experiences, how they handled their livestock and pets, their perceptions about coyotes on their property and how they handled such situations. Alexander was a part of this interviewing process and found that as the area was fastly urbanizing, she wanted to look into the interplay between agricultural families and the newcomer wealthier urbanites. And so, the basis of that work was to document experiences, understand the motivations to coexist with coyotes or not and to see if there were differences between agricultural versus urban peoples. 

“From the way that people behave towards coyotes and their ethical approach to the environment in general, I was able to aggregate people into a spectrum of world views,” said Alexander. 

At one end of the spectrum, which Alexander named “nature is mine,” classified people who feel nature is theirs to use for whatever purpose. At the other end of the spectrum were people who meant well in feeding coyotes and living with them on the property, unknowingly creating dangerous implications as a result of that. This approach may well be helpful if the coyotes were to stay on their property, but most likely they would end up scratching at someone else’s front door and possibly be more at risk to be killed. 

“So when I look at both of these people, the only way to regulate is through changes to laws or enforcement through laws,” she added.

Naturally, we all might assume that it would be the urbanites who are pro-coyote, but as a result of Alexander’s study, she discovered the inherent biases that arise out of these sorts of investigations. Understandably, she found that people who have lived on the land for generations described living with multiple generations of coyotes and understood the importance of coyotes. 

“An interesting part that came out of this intersection study was that agricultural people perceive a power imbalance in some cases, Alexander said, “that urban people are imposing their value system without really understanding the consequences, and that is true because most people that have lived on the land have a much better understanding of what is going on.”

Another interesting study of Alexander’s is a coyote word cloud — she asked many people what the first two or three words came to mind when hearing the word coyote. Most often, words like dog, wild and beautiful come to mind, but also many contradictions. Alexander split her language research between agricultural and urban people to see differences. She stated that the agrarian people described behaviour and quality of the animal: “is it healthy?” Compared to urbanites tending to focus on the idea of where it belongs, as in “It’s coming into my space; it should stay out there.” 

Additionally, since 2006, Alexander has been studying the dietary ecology of coyotes and relating that to where they might be getting into conflict. The dietary studies show that very few scats show domestic animals in them, compared to the perception of the media and public, which suggest that there are a lot of pets being eaten. Still, in actuality, less than 1 per cent of the scat specimens had pets in them. Roughly 14% of their diets are garbage or human sources of food — a number that has increased since Alexander’s study in 2006 in Calgary and is considered troubling. Since then, we have seen more and more human encounters in the media. 

Alexander created a site called Living With Coyotes, an online mapping tool where citizens could post observations of coyotes. The idea was to build community-level observations to where encounters were happening, and citizens could make more informed decisions about where to walk and when they should leash their dog and such. 

Coyotes are intriguing animals, surprising scientists left and right with their abilities. One of Alexander’s favourite stories revolves around the crabapple. She states that her team was using all of the best scientific methods to understand diet and came to the conclusion that coyotes were eating fallen crabapples in the fall. So the team made management recommendations to the city to have people clean up their fallen crabapples to deter encounters. 

“But oddly, as a result of the Living With Coyotes mapping system, someone contacted me with a video of a coyote balancing like a ballerina in a tree to pick and eat the crabapples,” she described. As it turns out, it is not commonly documented, but coyotes can climb trees. Alexander laughingly said it was like the coyote slapped her in the face and told her, “You think science tells you everything.” This hilarious discovery that came from the citizens report contributed significantly to coyote studies. 

The finding that holds the most importance for Alexander are the statistics of negative encounters. She states that there are just fewer than three people per year bitten or scratched by coyotes, “so the reaction where people want to head out and kill them all or are afraid is quite overblown compared to the actual risk given that coyotes are around us all the time.”

Alexander states that the level of misunderstanding of coyote behaviour is not necessarily negative, but a lack of understanding of canine behaviour and ability to extrapolate between the domestic dog and wild dog. 

“For example, someone might see a coyote run away and stop to look at them. And then think that the coyote is still considering attacking them, which creates fear for the human. But what is actually happening is an adaptive behaviour to get at a distance so that the coyote has enough flight distance so that no matter what the human does, it can still get away.”

Other misunderstandings are apparent in the labelling of aggressive behaviour. A coyote that protects its cubs is often seen as unnaturally aggressive, but in reality, it’s an evolutionary behaviour that can be equally seen in humans, and therefore necessary. This type of behaviour has its reason, it’s a message for you to get out of their den, and not a predatory move. 

Alexander says that these kinds of things provide the information necessary to help the public understand how to react in these situations. By catering her presentations to such issues, Alexander creates a dialogue from conservationists to the public in a way that is appreciated and helpful.

Outside of academia, Alexander participates in much public outreach and volunteer areas. Collaborating with artists on wildlife exhibitions, guided Jane’s walks at Nose Hill serving to get people back into the environment, speaking to retired Royal Air Force fighter pilots from World War Two and many more. 

“I think that mobilizing science for public outreach is essential,” she explained. “We [conservationists] have the good fortune to do something that we really love and do something that has meaning for people and could help them feel better about engaging with the environment. But help animals in that context too, and it’s not just the wildlife people who have the opportunity to do that, it’s important to get out there and help in whatever way you can.”

Think about the first words that come to mind when you hear the word coyote. These are the kinds of questions that are of particular importance to Alexander. Studying the emotional response to wildlife may be the key to engaging public behaviour towards animals. 

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