5.22.2011

coyotes and other creatures: education vs ignorance, coexistence vs extermination

Photo: Lianne Howie, Lucky Mutt Pet Photography

In April, I blogged about a proposal in Ontario to legalize coyote-killing contests. This excellent article from a small, local newspaper explains why such plans simply do not work, and describes the best approach for dealing with urban and suburban coyote populations. As with so many things, a "zero tolerance" approach will only make things worse. Public education and coexistence is the way forward.

Personally, I don't buy the evolutionary psychology theory about people's misplaced fear of coyotes, as humans have misplaced fears about so many things, and evolutionary theories strike me as cherry-picking at best. (Evolutionary psychology is often used as an excuse for sexism.) But I do know that fear and ignorance drive so many terrible ideas, whether its a ban on dog breeds or headscarves, or recent celebrations of a murder.

From Inside Halton:
"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less." - Marie Curie

A North Oakville woman walking the paths of 14 Mile Creek is suddenly face to face with a coyote, its head slightly bowed, in all appearances waiting for an opportunity to attack. In the blink of an eye, the predator is gone.

From the window of a Glen Abbey home, a resident sees a flash of movement in the backyard. But the movement is much too large and swift to belong the family’s pet Chihuahua. The resident opens the back door to investigate and sees the tiny family pet in the grasp of a coyote. The sound of the door opening frightens the coyote who drops the dog and escapes over the fence and into the ravine.

The terrifying stories of coyotes in North Oakville are plentiful. These carnivores appear as suddenly as they disappear. They hunt in backyards, stalk the pathways and leave residents with an ominous feeling.

We are afraid. But should we be?

Fear of coyotes

"When there's something with the potential to hurt us, we're afraid," offered Michael Runtz, a professor at Carleton University and renowned Ontario wildlife expert. "It's part of our psyche. Consider the safety of driving on the QEW; it is far more dangerous, yet we shrug that off because we accept that we're safe in a car. But if you mention there's a pack of coyotes around the corner, we're reminded of that fear."

Runtz explained that while cars weren't part of our history thousands of years ago, large carnivores, like coyotes, certainly were.

Evolutionary psychology, the explanation of psychological traits which are functional products of natural selection, verifies Runtz's belief.

"A child that requires attack or injury to learn that an animal is dangerous is unlikely to survive for long," wrote David M. Buss in Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. "For this reason, we might expect natural selection to have created a specialized learning system."

In his book, Buss points to studies indicating that nonhuman primates (apes, gorillas, etc.) are able to "culturally transmit" learned knowledge such as fear of predators and "pre-specified cues to dangerousness" (sharp teeth, large size, etc.). He theorizes that this is likely common in human evolution as well.

Human fear is a driving force behind the request for management of coyotes, noted top urban carnivore scientist Stanley Gehrt in Oxford Press' Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict and Conservation.

"Fear often dictates the public's response to the presence of carnivores in developed areas," he wrote.

North Oakville is home to many natural predators – red-tailed hawks, red foxes and domestic cats – all who compete with coyotes for many of the same food groups. Though according to Gehrt, "coyotes differ from most other urban wildlife in that they can be deemed worthy of removal simply by being seen, rather than after they have caused some damage or inconvenience for human residents." . . .
Read this excellent story here. Many thanks to writer Michael Howie and to Dharma Seeker for sending this to me.

6 comments:

James said...

Evolutionary psychology, as a field, is not well respected among scientists -- especially biologists. While there is some rigorous scientific EP work being done, far too much of it is the "I imagine that these ancient conditions account for this modern belief, therefore it does" work.

Psychology Today just got a major black eye over an inane article insisting that black women are objectively less attractive than white women, based on a thin, and completely subjective, survey.

Fortunately, some of PT's other writers have picked up the slack and ripped the article to bits -- scientifically.

Another blogger has applied Kanazawa's methodology to himself, and has come up with what looks like a sound conclusion.

laura k said...

an inane article insisting that black women are objectively less attractive than white women

...sponsored by a skin-lightening product. ;)

Seriously though, your description "I imagine that these ancient conditions account for this modern belief, therefore it does" is dead on.

Evolutionary psych has always struck me as (a) mostly supposition, (b) conveniently selective and (c) full of contradictions. On the one hand humans are incredibly adaptable to a huge array of environments and conditions, but on the other hand, our behaviour has been indelibly imprinted by the adaptations made by our prehistoric hunter-gatherer forebears. No.

James said...

To be fair to the responsible evolutionary psychologists out there (and I'm told that there are a few), it's only the inane stuff that makes the press. The actually rigorous stuff consists of small, incremental expansions to our models of human psychology which just don't really play well on the front page of USA Today.

My all-time favourite in the "dumb evolutionary psychology explanations" sweepstakes is still the one that "explained" why blue is for boys and pink is for girls, because girls did the foraging for fruit (and hence are attracted to reds and pinks) back in hunter-gatherer days. The problem is, that red/blue convention is only about 100 years old...

laura k said...

Oh good lord, does anybody really believe girls are inately attracted to pink and boys to blue?

Don't answer that.

allan said...

My all-time favourite in the "dumb evolutionary psychology explanations" sweepstakes is still the one that "explained" why blue is for boys and pink is for girls, because girls did the foraging for fruit (and hence are attracted to reds and pinks) back in hunter-gatherer days. The problem is, that red/blue convention is only about 100 years old...

A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department (Ladies Home Journal is also cited):
"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene's told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle's in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

Peggy Orenstein, NYT, 2006:
"When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split."

James said...

Here is a good take-down of the infamous Hurlbert study on pink & blue.

And here is a good blog post on the subject.