“Coyotes are part of most environments in the GTA, and they can be very good at keeping to themselves. Coyotes are able to live among us but stay mostly hidden when we are coexisting with them well. This coexistence is a delicate balance, and conflicts can arise when the balance is off.”
This page was originally published in December 2014, and edited in July 2015.
2. Coyote Taxonomy, Expansion, and Evolution
3. Cultural Coyote Stories
3(I). Native Coyote Mythology
3(II). Mark Twain’s “Cayote” from Roughing It, 1886
3(III). Chuck Jones’ Don Coyote, 1945, and Wile E. Coyote, 1949
3(IV). Janice Wright Cheney’s Coy Wolves, 2010
3(V). Alessandra Naccarato’s poems Coyote Medicine/Medicine Coyote, 2014
3(VI). Calliope Gazetas, Traces of Being: People and Coyotes in Urban and Suburban Canada, 2014
3(VII). Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Lou Bloom” in Nightcrawler, 2014
4. The Human-Coyote Relationship in the GTA
4(I). Coyote Coverage
4(II). Coyote Conflicts
4(III). Coyote Control: Culling and Coexistence
5. Coyote Commodification and Conclusion
6. Works Cited
I have only had two kinds of interactions with coyotes, both within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The first kind happened during the summer after my second year of university, with friends on the rural outskirts of the Durham Region hearing coyote yips and howls in the distance late at night. One night we laid down on the ground to watch a meteor shower. All we could hear was the dull roar of Highway 401 to the south, and the slight buzz of boxed pollinator bees at the apple orchard beside us to the east. Something someone said made us all laugh, then some not-so-distant-sounding coyotes started to howl. We nearly jumped out of our skin and ran inside. The second kind of interaction I have with coyotes occurs during the colder months in Toronto, as coyote fur trim on winter coats has become very popular. Whenever I leave my house I feel haunted by disembodied coyote ghosts; on the street, on the subway, at school. I don’t even have to leave my house to see them, I can just turn on the news and it is highly likely that I will see a field reporter wearing a coyote fur trimmed coat. These consistent post-mortem interactions made me want to learn more about coyotes.
Coyotes are part of most environments in the GTA, and they can be very good at keeping to themselves. Coyotes are able to live among us but stay mostly hidden when we are coexisting with them well. This coexistence is a delicate balance, and conflicts can arise when the balance is off. The balance shifts when coyotes become habituated to humans, which is generally because they have been fed, and conflicts include attacks on livestock, companion animals, and (very rarely) humans. When such conflicts occur coyotes often become vilified, and some see killing them as the best option to reduce conflicts, which compliments the hunting, trapping and fur industries. However, there is also a lot of opposition to killing coyotes from people in the scientific community who argue that coyote culls do not work to control populations, wildlife advocacy and animal rights groups that argue for coexistence instead of killing, and local residents who enjoy having coyotes around. Whenever the media brings coyotes into the wildlife spotlight there is generally a lot of debate on both sides, making coyotes a very controversial species.
In my first interactions with coyotes, they were heard but not seen. In the second, I see coyotes but they are silent. Within this project my goal is to uncover the ways that we talk about, understand, and interact with coyotes, and the process of overlooking coyote life in order to commodify coyote death.
The Latin name for coyote, Canis Latrans, means “barking dog” and was given to the species by American taxonomist Thomas Say in 1833. He described the features of the species in great detail:
Cinerous [gray-black] or gray, varied with black above, and dull fulvous [dull brownish-yellow], or cinnamon: hair at base dusky plumbeous [dull gray], in the middle of its length dull cinnamon, and at tip gray or black, longer on the vertebral line; ears erect, rounded at tip, cinnamon behind, the hair dark plumbeous at base, inside lined with gray hair; eyelids edged with black, superior eyelashes black beneath, and at tip above; supplemental lid margined with black-brown before, and edged with black brown behind; iris yellow; pupil black-blue; spot upon the lachrymal sac [tear duct] black-brown; rostrum [snout] cinnamon, tinctured with grayish on the nose; lips white, edged with black, three series of black seta [whiskers]; head between the ears intermixed with gray, and dull cinnamon, hairs dusky plumbeous at base; sides paler than the back, obsoletely fasciate [flattened] with black above the legs; legs cinnamon on the outer side, more distinct on the posterior hair: a dilated black abbreviated line on the anterior ones near the wrist; tail bushy, fusiform [tapering at both ends], straight, varied with gray and cinnamon, a spot near the base above, and tip black; the tip of the trunk of the tail, attains the tip of the os calcis, when the leg is extended; beneath white, immaculate, tail cinnamon towards the tip, tip black; posterior feet four toed, anterior five toed.
Coyotes are part of the canid family which includes six other species also found in Canada, the wolf, red fox, arctic fox, grey fox, swift fox, and dog, as well as the raccoon dog, jackal, dingo, African wild dog, and other kinds of fox. The Canid family diversion began about 7 to 10 million years ago, and the coyote, wolf and golden jackal diverged more recently, around 3 to 4 million years ago.
Unlike other species that have suffered from the expansion of human settlements across North America, coyotes have adapted and evolved to succeed. According to the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Hinterland Who’s Who page on coyotes:
European settlers found the coyote on the plains, prairies, and deserts of central and western North America. It appeared to prefer open or semi-wooded habitats. However, about the turn of the twentieth century, the coyote began a dramatic range expansion that is still in progress.
The reasons for the coyote’s expansion are not fully understood but probably include several conditions created by people: the clearing of forests, provision of carrion, or dead animal flesh, from domestic livestock, and the removal of the wolf. The mosaic of grassy fields, brush, and woodlots created by farming areas that were once covered with unbroken forest has provided attractive habitat for the coyote, as well as several other species like the red fox and raccoon.
Coyotes are highly intelligent, have a keen ability to adapt, and are very curious but non-confrontational by nature. Even though they have gone through extensive persecution by humans, their range is increasing. While larger predators such as wolves, cougars, and bears do not do well in urban areas, coyotes have been able to thrive.
It has recently been discovered that the expansion of coyotes across North America has led to the evolution of a new kind of coyote, the “Eastern Coyote” or “Coywolf.” Toronto filmmaker Susan Fleming spent two years working on “Meet the Coywolf,” a documentary program that outlines many of the recent discoveries about this species, for CBC’s The Nature of Things, and later PBS. In the film is it explained that around 1919 western coyotes got to Algonquin Park and began to breed with eastern wolves, a discovery by Trent University geneticist Bradley White and his research team. This created the hybrid eastern coyote or coywolf, the species present in the GTA. Later in the film biologist John Pisapio at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources explains his discovery that coywolves travel from Algonquin Park to urban areas in Southern Ontario via railway corridors, and that urban coywolves typically have a territory of about 6 square kilometres, around half of what they would have in the countryside.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ “Eastern Coyote Fact Sheet” explains the species’ life cycle and family structure:
In protected areas coyotes can live eight to 12 years, but in areas where they are hunted, or in populated areas like southern Ontario where vehicle collisions are common, the average life expectancy is less than five years. … The coyote’s basic social unit is a mated pair, and coyote pairs will often mate for life. … Mated pairs usually breed in February, with pups born in April or May. Litters average five or six pups, but can range from two to 10. Both parents share pup-rearing duties, and begin to teach the pups hunting skills when the pups are about eight to 10 weeks old. Juveniles usually leave their parents’ territory during their first autumn or winter to establish their own territory. “Packs” of coyotes are generally an adult breeding pair and their pups from the most recent litter. … Only 20 to 50 per cent of pups survive their first year. Humans account for most coyote deaths through hunting, trapping, and motor-vehicle accidents.
Coywolves typically weigh between 14 and 18kgs and are still much smaller than grey wolves (30-60kgs) and eastern wolves (25-30kgs), but larger than western coyotes (10-15kgs.) Although coywolves are classified as carnivores, their hunting and foraging habits make them more like opportunistic omnivores. Their diet consists of mostly “rodents, rabbits, fruit, insects, human sources, geese (eggs),” but they will consume carrion such as road kill and deadstock on farms whenever they can. They usually hunt alone or in mated pairs, unlike wolves who often hunt in packs. However, since coywolves have large jaws and teeth, they are able to take down large ungulates such as deer if they have a large enough pack.
Coywolves question our notions of native and invasive species. Non-native or alien species are often assumed to also be “invasive,” but this term is not always well defined. The Ontario Invasive Species Act defines invasive species as: “A species that is not native to Ontario, or to a part of Ontario, and, (a) is harming the natural environment of Ontario or of the part of Ontario in which it is present, or (b) is likely to harm the natural environment of Ontario or of a part of Ontario, regardless of whether it is present in Ontario or in a part of Ontario.” However, Encyclopaedia Britannica defines invasive species as “any nonnative species that significantly modifies or disrupts the ecosystem it colonizes,” and lumps the term together with introduced species, alien species, and exotic species. Coyotes and coywolves are not considered under the Ontario Invasive Species Act or by the Ministry of Natural Resources to be invasive (or non-native, though they technically are to Ontario). However, they can significantly modify the ecosystems they occupy, but in a generally positive way. As stated above, western coyote expansion and hybridization with eastern wolves happened as a result of increased human settlement in North America that created more open and semi-wooded habitats which coyotes prefer, and pushed larger predators such as wolves, bears and cougars out, allowing coyotes to fill the niche and become the top predator. In areas where coyotes are the top predator they are a keystone species, and have a very important role in the ecosystem. The Natural Resources Defense Council states:
In cases where coyote numbers have been successfully reduced, other mesopredators such as foxes, badgers and raccoons, which coyotes often compete with and sometimes prey on, have increased significantly, thereby altering the surrounding ecosystem. ‘Mesopredator release,’ as this phenomenon is called, has been shown to decrease overall species diversity and density of smaller prey such as bird and rodent populations. Because birds and rodents are often either seed dispersers or seed predators, fluctuations in their abundance can have a corresponding effect on the surrounding plant community. Coyotes, therefore, play an important role in maintaining the balance of species diversity within their ecosystems.
Additionally, coyote expansion seems to be helping to perpetuate the genes of eastern wolves through hybridization. Paul Wilson, Canada Research Chair in DNA Profiling, Forensics and Functional Genomics at Trent University is quoted in a Canadian Geographic article about alien species as saying: “Where wolves were being extirpated and didn’t readily hybridize with coyotes elsewhere in North America, you saw them eliminated from the landscape. But once the coyote hit this eastern wolf range, you started to see hybrids forming, with the genetic potential to become more wolfy or more coyote-like, depending on the environment. In the absence of those coyotes invading, it’s not entirely clear whether there would be much of a remnant left of those eastern wolves.” In a 2008 paper on the conspecifics of the eastern and red wolf, Kyle et al. surmised that, “Coyote/Wolf hybrids are likely harboring Wolf genes that would otherwise be lost due to genetic drift in a small isolated population… and hybridization is moving towards a Canis that is better adapted to anthropogenically modified landscapes.” This success flies in the face of conventional evolutionary biological science that discouraged species interbreeding. The standard definition of species, “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups,” comes from the mid-20th century biologist Ernst Mayr. Canid hybrids, such as coywolves, coydogs, and wolfdogs, seriously challenge this definition. While some species that mate produce sterile offspring, such as a male donkey mating with a mare, canid interbreeding is possible because the wolf, coyote, jackal, dingo and domestic dog all have “78 chromosomes arranged in 39 pairs, which allows them to hybridise freely (barring size or behavioural constraints) and produce fertile offspring”. Yet, these are scientifically considered to be distinct species.
The coyote is prominent in many native myths, appearing as a hero, creator, or trickster. The word “coyote” is the Spanish alteration of “coyotl,” from the Aztec language Nahuatl. The Aztec worshipped many coyote-related deities, such as Coyotlinauatl, a God that was worshipped by wearing coyote skins; Tezcatlipoca, who “could transform himself into a coyote at will;” Heuheucoytl or “Old Coyote, a mischief-maker; and Coyolxauhqui the moon goddess.” The coyote is also part of many Navajo myths, including the creation of the milky way. Southwest desert tribes called the coyote “God’s dog.”
Algonquin tribes of central and eastern Canada included the coyote in many tales of the mythological culture hero Nanabozo/Nanabozho/Nanabush, the trickster. This figure is an impersonator of life as well as a creator of life, and appears as “diverse personalities and forms – including a coyote, a raven, and a hare – which represent the various phases and conditions of the life cycle.” Nanabozo, or the Trickster, appears as a coyote in many late 20th-century literary works, including several stories by Thomas King such as The One About Coyote Going West, Coyote’s New Suit, A Coyote Columbus Story, Coyotes Sing to the Moon, and Green Grass Running Water.
Tomson Highway features Nanabush as a trickster in his plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. In The Rez Sisters, Nanabush appears as a seagull, a nighthawk, and a bingo master. In the play’s foreword, Highway wrote:
The dream world of North American Indian mythology is inhabited by the most fantastic creatures, beings, and events. Foremost among these beings is the Trickster, as pivotal and important a figure in the Native world as Christ is in the realm of Christian mythology. “Weesageechack” in Cree, “Nanabush” in Ojibway, Raven in others, “Coyote” in still others, this Trickster goes by many names and many guises. In fact, he can assume any guise he chooses. Essentially a comic, clownish sort of character, he teaches us about the nature and the meaning of existence on the planet Earth; he straddles the consciousness of man and that of God, the Great Spirit.
Some say that “Nanabush” left this continent when the whiteman came. We believe he is still here among us—albeit a little the worse for wear and tear—having assumed other guises. Without him—and without the spiritual health of this figure—the core of Indian culture would be gone forever.
One of the earliest western literary accounts of the coyote is found in Mark Twain’s book Roughing It, about his travels in the American West. Twain gives a very extensive account of the nature of coyotes from his perspective, describing the animal first as a desperate scavenger, then an intelligent playful trickster that is entertaining to watch, and finally as the cousin of “Indians” (unfavourably for both):
The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.
He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely! -so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful. When he sees you he lifts his lip and lets a flash of his teeth out, and then turns a little out of the course he was pursuing, depresses his head a bit, and strikes a long, soft-footed trot through the sagebrush, glancing over his shoulder at you, from time to time, till he is about out of easy pistol range, and then he stops and takes a deliberate survey of you; he will trot fifty yards and stop again- another fifty and stop again; and finally the gray of his gliding body blends with the gray of the sagebrush, and he disappears. All this is when you make no demonstration against him; but if you do, he develops a livelier interest in his journey, and instantly electrifies his heels and puts such a deal of real estate between himself and your weapon that by the time you have raised the hammer you see that you need a Minie rifle, and by the time you have got him in line you need a rifled cannon, and by the time you have “drawn a bead” on him you see well enough that nothing but an unusually long-winded streak of lightning could reach him where he is now. But if you start a swift-footed dog after him, you will enjoy it ever so much- especially if it is a dog that has a good opinion of himself, and has been brought up to think he knows something about speed.
The coyote will go swinging gently off on that deceitful trot of his, and every little while he will smile a fraudful smile over his shoulder that will fill that dog entirely full of encouragement and worldly ambition, and make him lay his head still lower to the ground, and stretch his neck further to the front, and pant more fiercely, and stick his tail out straighter behind, and move his furious legs with a yet wilder frenzy, and leave a broader and broader, and higher and denser cloud of desert sand smoking behind him, and marking his long wake across the level plain! And all this time the dog is only a short twenty feet behind the coyote, and to save the soul of him he cannot understand why it is that he cannot get perceptibly closer; and he begins to get aggravated, and it makes him madder and madder to see how gently the coyote glides along and never pants or sweats or ceases to smile; and he grows still more and more incensed to see how shamefully he has been taken in by an entire stranger, and what an ignoble swindle that long, calm, soft-footed trot is; and next he notices that he is getting fagged, and that the coyote actually has to slacken speed a little to keep from running away from him- and then that town dog is mad in earnest, and he begins to strain and weep and swear, and paw the sand higher than ever, and reach for the coyote with concentrated and desperate energy. This “spurt” finds him six feet behind the gliding enemy, and two miles from his friends. And then, in the instant that a wild new hope is lighting up his face, the coyote turns and smiles blandly upon him once more, and with a something about it which seems to say: “Well, I shall have to tear myself away from you, bub- business is business, and it will not do for me to be fooling along this way all day”- and forthwith there is a rushing sound, and the sudden splitting of a long crack through the atmosphere, and behold that dog is solitary and alone in the midst of a vast solitude!
It makes his head swim. He stops, and looks all around; climbs the nearest sand mound, and gazes into the distance; shakes his head reflectively, and then, without a word, he turns and jogs along back to his train, and takes up a humble position under the hindmost wagon, and feels unspeakably mean, and looks ashamed, and hangs his tail at half-mast for a week. And for as much as a year after that, whenever there is a great hue and cry after a coyote, that dog will merely glance in that direction without emotion, and apparently observe to himself, “I believe I do not wish any of that pie.”
The coyote lives chiefly in the most desolate and forbidding deserts, along with the lizard, the jackass rabbit, and the raven, and gets an uncertain and precarious living, and earns it. He seems to subsist almost wholly on the carcasses of oxen, mules, and horses that have dropped out of emigrant trains and died, and upon windfalls of carrion, and occasional legacies of offal bequeathed to him by white men who have been opulent enough to have something better to butcher than condemned Army bacon.
He will eat anything in the world that his first cousins, the desert- frequenting tribes of Indians will, and they will eat anything they can bite. It is a curious fact that these latter are the only creatures known to history who will eat nitro-glycerine and ask for more if they survive.
The cayote of the deserts beyond the Rocky Mountains has a peculiarly hard time of it, owing to the fact that his relations, the Indians, are just as apt to be the first to detect a seductive scent on the desert breeze, and follow the fragrance to the late ox it emanated from, as he is himself; and when this occurs he has to content himself with sitting off at a little distance watching those people strip off and dig out everything edible, and walk off with it. Then he and the waiting ravens explore the skeleton and polish the bones. It is considered that the cayote, and the obscene bird, and the Indian of the desert, testify their blood kinship with each other in that they live together in the waste places of the earth on terms of perfect confidence and friendship, while hating all other creature and yearning to assist at their funerals. He does not mind going a hundred miles to breakfast, and a hundred and fifty to dinner, because he is sure to have three or four days between meals, and he can just as well be traveling and looking at the scenery as lying around doing nothing and adding to the burdens of his parents.
We soon learned to recognize the sharp, vicious bark of the coyote as it came across the murky plain at night to disturb our dreams among the mail sacks; and remembering his forlorn aspect and his hard fortune, made shift to wish him the blessed novelty of a long day’s good luck and a limitless larder the morrow.
This passage offers a very thorough insult to both coyotes and “Indians.” This is not the last time that predators have been compared to the “enemy” of the time, in the 1920s Scientific American described the coyote as “the original Bolshevik,” and in 1945 Wisconsin sportsmen made the following public statement in response to a plea for clemency for predators: “The wolf is the Nazi of the forest. He takes the deer and some small fry. The fox is the sly Jap who takes the choice morsels of game and the song birds.” More recently, during discussions of wolf reintroduction in Montana, protesters held signs declaring “The Wolf is the Saddam Hussein of the Animal World.”
Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones based his drawings of Wile E. Coyote on Mark Twain’s coyote description in Roughing It. The character was originally named Don Coyote.
This is the first Road Runner and Wile E Coyote cartoon, called Fast and Furry-ous:
This depiction of the coyote creates a buffoon version of the trickster character, because although Wile E Coyote refers to himself as a genius, he never succeeds in catching the Road Runner, and he often ends up getting hurt by his own plans. However, Wile E survives every violent catastrophe that he brings on himself, and persists to try again, showcasing the tenacious will coyotes have to survive.
In 2010, artist Janice Wright Cheney created an art piece about coywolves, using textile over taxidermy forms, found fur, and accessories. This work explores the modern trickster role of the coyote as wolves in disguise.
Explaining the exhibit, Cheney said: “What interests me is the concept that the wolf, supposedly long vanished from our region, has actually returned in the disguise of a coyote. Using taxidermy forms, luxurious velvets and brocades, furs and jewels, I have created a version of this wolf-coyote, an animal that is an expert in matters of disguise, a consummate trickster.” For Cheney the wolf is the trickster, returning to Eastern North America disguised as a coyote, with a “perfect mix” of characteristics: “canny and clever, like coyotes, with the hunting abilities of the wolf, this hybrid creature is equipped with skills and advantages that prove very useful in the anthropogenic landscape of the northeast.”
Speaking about how control is exteted upon women and predators, Cheney says:
The large coyote-wolf creatures are dressed — like old ladies — in jewelry and fur wraps. They have an elegant and refined presence. They wear brocades and beautiful materials that we associate with luxury and wealth. They are disguised, dressed in the skins of other animals. It’s a deceit: they are dangerous and uncontrollable but don’t appear to be. I wanted the animals to be both menacing and friendly, referencing our uneasy relationship with large predators. The idea of “dressing up” reminds me of moral panics concerning dress codes, and that dress codes are another way of controlling bodies, specifically women’s bodies. This is predicated on the idea that women are “out of control,” that they need to be restricted. This theme resonates with the narrative of the coywolf.
I find this parallel to be quite interesting, and it relates to an issue of sexism in the animal rights movement. Animal rights theorist Gary L. Francione says, “[T]he fur campaign has from the outset been tainted by sexism. … [F]ur is no more or less morally obnoxious than leather or wool. The primary difference is that furs are worn by women, and wool and leather, although also worn by women, are worn by virtually all men. Fur became an early target of the animal rights movement, and from the outset the imagery was, not unexpectedly, sexist.” Fur seems to be most prevalent now in trim on winter parkas worn by all genders, but anti-fur campaigns are still mostly focused on women. For example, PETA frequently features naked women in their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” advertisements, and celebrities that are publicly admonished for wearing fur are almost exclusively female.
Another element of this exhibit is the museum-wilderness divide of nature study, using wolf and coyote skulls, jaws, other bones, and teeth. Reflecting on this Cheney says:
I have been exploring the idea of two disparate spaces for nature: the museum, where nature is safe, where things are tidy and arranged, classified, and quite dead, and wilderness, where nature is the opposite — dangerous, and uncontrollable. I’m also interested in the tensions between humans and non-human animals — how animals cross the boundaries that humans have created and how we seek to control what displeases or transgresses. In my practice I go between these two spaces — what is safe versus what is dangerous. The work Coy Wolves represents our uneasy relationship with these transgressors, these predators.
A finalist (and winner of the popular vote) for the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize, Vancouver writer and performer Alessandra Naccarato’s poems Coyote Medicine/Medicine Coyote encompass many of the points of contention between humans and coyotes in the GTA:
These poems really resonated with me, and my reasons for wanting to focus on coyotes for this project are very similar to Naccarato’s answer to what inspired her to write these poems:
Last winter, coyotes started showing up everywhere. Wet fur on the hood of arctic jackets in the rain. Stories overheard in the grocery store. My aunt writing about the wild dogs in her yard. PETA protests and protests against PETA. They showed up, but always in a fragmented, second-hand way. Through other people’s stories, photographs, clothing. I wanted to write my way closer to the coyotes, and as I did that another story showed up. My grandfather kept standing in front of the poem, feeding the dogs in the woods by his house.
Scattered throughout this page is the work of Calliope Gazetas, from her Masters of Design Thesis for the Ontario College of Art and Design titled Traces of Being: People and Coyotes in Urban and Suburban Canada. She describes the work thusly:
My thesis examines how human/coyote interactions in urban and suburban Canada are representative of larger issues surrounding our relationship to nature and non-humans. I have created a series of drawings and laser-cut coyote bodies that respond to a set of limited cultural perceptions of coyotes through observing, exploring, and engaging those perceptions. My work is informed by the collection of data from online surveys, interviews, participatory and observational research, and photographs from wildlife cameras. These pieces represent multiple perspectives of coyotes based on community responses and biological studies.
Director Dan Gilroy wanted Lou Bloom, the main character in the 2014 film Nightcrawler, to be animalistic, and worked with actor Jake Gyllenhaal to create a coyote-like man for the film. When asked why it was important for Gyllenhaal to lose about 30 pounds for the role, Gilroy said, “We always imagined the character to be the symbolic equivalent to a nocturnal animal that comes out of the hills to feed. … So Jake said, ‘I like the idea of a coyote for this character.’ The character of Lou is inquisitional and always hungry. He always wants more. He’ll never be fed – emotionally or spiritually or physically.”
Coyotes are opportunistic by nature, but not sociopathic like Lou Bloom. They exhibit the kind of bold behaviour exemplified by Bloom when they lose their fear of humans, usually when they are fed by humans. This is the process for Lou Bloom as well, he begins as a petty thief that lurks in the shadows, but when his opportunistic nature is rewarded he becomes bolder and more dangerous. The difference is that Lou’s actions are purely self-serving, while coyotes are family oriented and act to serve their packs. This is where the comparison between the character and coyotes ends.
The coyote is a relatively new species to the GTA, according to Toronto Animal Services supervisor Mary Lou Leiher “They moved to Toronto in earnest in the past 30 years.” Research on coyotes in Southern Ontario is still catching up to their urbanization and hybridization with eastern wolves. A study in Cape Cod found that “eastern coyotes respond to urbanization in similar ways to other coyotes,” so there has been little differentiation between eastern and western coyotes in urban coyote research. The limited research has unfortunately left “an information void to be filled by popular media or professional papers focused exclusively on conflicts or threats that coyotes pose for people or pets.”
The human-coyote relationship in the GTA is influenced by scientific discoveries and cultural stories, but it is also greatly shaped by how we talk about and respond to conflicts. This section will look at recent GTA news reports on coyotes, conflicts between humans and coyotes, and human control of coyotes.
The way that human-wildlife interactions are reported in the news has a large impact on how we feel about and treat animals. Often when coyotes and other wild animals make the news in cities, according to Edward Keenan “the implication is that urban centres should remain fortresses against wildlife, keeping humans safe from nature.” Last August, Toronto wildlife-related news headlines were all about raccoons after then-mayor Rob Ford said that Toronto has “a serious raccoon problem.” This was not in response to an increase in the raccoon population or an increase in conflicts (according to Toronto Animal Services there were no such increases), and the media hoopla over raccoons ended within a few weeks.
Coyotes have been in the GTA news spotlight since November as there has been concern in many communities about coyote attacks. These kinds of stories commonly resurface a few times a year in the GTA regarding alleged attacks on pets or people, or perceived threats of conflicts due to increased sightings. Unfortunately, “fear often dictates the public’s response to the presence of top carnivores in developed areas.” For example, in 2001 homeowners in the Chicago metropolitan area were surveyed to determine their attitudes towards nuisance wildlife, and coyotes were ranked as “the most severe threat to human health and safety,” despite there being “relatively few attacks on pets and no record of any attacks on people in that area.” The majority of news articles and reports about coyotes in the GTA that I found this past winter (2014-2015) focused on the fear of residents about incidents with coyotes. Unbalanced news reports that highlight negative and fearful citizen accounts of coyotes help to vilify the species.
Since 2012, several stories from Mississauga News about coyotes have used one file photo (shown on the left) taken by freelance photographer Dan Sutton. Sutton’s Flickr page has a similar photo, seemingly from the same series, dated December 15, 2011. The coyote in Sutton’s photos appears to be in poor health, with fur missing from its face, back leg, and tail. The photo on the left is featured in the following articles on the Mississauga News website: “City hosts coyote meeting,” March 30, 2012; “Coyotes roaming Erin Mills,” May 10, 2012; “Coyote ugly: two people bitten in Brampton neighbourhood,” November 12, 2014; “Family pet snatched up by animal believed to be coyote in Campbellville,” January 20, 2015; “Dog killed and owner injured after latest suspected coyote attack in Mississauga,” November 13, 2014. In the last example an image of the owner and her dog is shown beside Sutton’s coyote image, and a caption in small print below says “[The owner] poses with her Yorkshire Terrier…, who was killed by a suspected coyote in Mississauga on Friday (Nov. 6). The photo of the coyote is a file photo from the Mississauga News and not the coyote suspected of the attack.” The other articles have no such clarification. I think that it is very misleading to continue to use an old photo of a sickly looking coyote for other coyote news reports.
This April 2012 video from Global News is one of the most balanced examples I found of coyote coverage in the news:
The above clip is quite reasonable, featuring experts who explain that coyote sightings were frequent at the time because of population fluctuations and the end of the mating season, and how humans negatively alter coyote behaviour by feeding them, which can lead to conflicts. Below is a screenshot and link to a Global News report about coyotes from November 28, 2014, which has the same reporter, as well as some of the same stock coyote footage. Although there is some information from experts, the overall tone is more ominous than in the 2012 video. It is also worth noting that in the more recent video the reporter is wearing a coyote fur trimmed Canada Goose coat. Click here to go to the Global News site and watch the video.
Screen capture from Global News video “Brampton looking at steps to prevent coyote attacks.”
Whereas the first video provides a lot of information from wildlife experts, this one mostly highlights fear. The crux of the coyote debate is how to prevent conflicts, and one side says we have to kill coyotes, while the other side says killing is wrong and/or does not work so we have to learn to peacefully coexist. The biggest benefactor of the argument for killing coyotes is the fur industry, which relies on a public that has no sentiment for this animal that happens to be a furbearer. It is this important conversation and the nuances between and behind the poles that is overlooked in this and many other recent news reports about coyotes in the GTA. The fur trim on the reporter’s coat is the result of a coyote being killed, and the fact that this is not addressed symbolizes the impact the news has on our perceptions of coyotes and our willingness to kill and commodify them.
The opportunistic nature of coyotes has helped them to adapt, but can also lead to conflicts with humans. Coyotes naturally avoid humans, and when this behaviour changes in urban areas the cause is usually preventable. Ohio State University biologist Stan Gehrt and his team in Chicago found that almost all of the coyotes they tracked that seemed to have lost their fear of humans were being fed by humans. This is echoed in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ fact sheet on eastern coyotes: “Coyotes displaying no fear of humans or exhibiting aggressive behaviours have likely been habituated to people through direct feeding or indirect feeding, such as leaving attractants like pet food outside near homes. In these situations, this aggressive behaviour tends to be restricted to a single animal or family group, and not the general population.” Another possible reason for coyote habituation in urban areas is “unintentional positive reinforcement of increasing aggressiveness in coyotes; that is, when coyotes begin to approach areas with human activity, people often avoid them or leave the area, lending dominance to the coyote.”
Coyote attacks on humans are very rare. An Ohio State University study found that only 142 coyote attacks on humans were reported between 1960 and 2009. There are only two recorded human fatalities from coyotes in modern history: a three year old child in Glendale California in 1981, and nineteen-year-old folk musician Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia in 2009. For the sake of comparison, Environment Canada estimates that there are between nine and ten lightning-related deaths and up to 164 lightning-related injuries each year on average in Canada, and the Canada Safety Council estimates that there are over 460,000 dog bites per year in Canada.
Coyote attacks on companion animals are much more common than attacks on humans, but are not well documented. Coyotes see cats and small dogs as prey, and larger dogs as competition particularly at locations where coyotes are being fed by humans. Pairs or groups of coyotes sometimes take on large dogs, but individual attacks on small dogs and cats happen more often. Studies have shown that coyotes in urbanized areas consume more anthropogenic items than coyotes in rural areas, “but the occurrence of domestic cat or dog in coyote diets across studies is consistently very low.” Most studies have found the occurrence of domestic cat in the coyote diet to be 1-2%, though an urban area in Washington State found 13%, the highest public occurrence.  Though these studies may not show the full picture of coyote predation (coyotes may not always consume the pets that they kill, such as in situations of perceived competition or threat, and they will utilize carrion so some things that show up in their diet may not have been killed by them), the overall implication of these studies is that “coyotes in urban areas are not dependent on pets for food.”
While coyote attacks can be tragic, it does not help the situation to vilify the species and ignore our impacts on their behaviour. If pets are being snatched up from fenced backyards or during leashed walks alongside humans that is a clear sign that an individual coyote or family has increased their proximity tolerance to humans, usually because someone has fed them. However, coyote attacks on pets are not always as dangerous and dramatic as those reported in the news. It is very important to gather as much information about conflicts as possible to understand their causes and find effective solutions. For example, in June 2013 there was a non-lethal coyote attack on a dog in Oakville. Oakville staff “worked with the Oakville and Milton Humane Society to locate the coyote den site and place trail cameras at key locations. Data gathered revealed off-leash dogs were accessing remote areas where the den was located and appropriate actions, including posting signage and education, were taken and no further issues have been reported in this area.”
Regarding domestic cats roaming outside and dogs being let off leash, conflict with coyotes is just one of many risks pet owners assume with those decisions. These risks include: diseases; parasites; toxins and poisons; extreme weather; cars; loose dogs and wild predators, such as coyotes, foxes, and raccoons; and human cruelty.  Pet owners should be aware of these risks before letting their pets roam. If outdoor cats or off-leash dogs approach coyote dens or hunting sites, coyotes can hardly be blamed for treating these domestic animals as prey, competition, or a threat.
My focus has been mostly on urban coyotes, but human persecution of coyotes for predation on livestock is a huge piece of the history of our relationship with the species. Most livestock losses from coyotes in Ontario are on sheep, costing $1.4 million in 2009, an impact that more than doubled from 2004. There is no denying that this kind of conflict is a considerable problem for farmers, but what interests me most is the failures and successes of various methods that have been used to mitigate these conflicts. This will be expanded upon in the following section.
Predators in the American West were first hunted for their pelts in the 1850s shortly following the introduction of strychnine, and persecution of predators began in earnest in the 1860s-80s around the Great Plains commercial buffalo harvest. The Hinterland Who’s Who page on coyotes offers the following as a brief history of coyote control:
From the time of European settlement, the coyote has been persecuted, because people have blamed it for preying on livestock. It is amazing that the coyote has thrived despite the organized attempts that were made to eradicate it in the first half of the twentieth century. Many governments offered bounties and funded extensive coyote control programs. Farmers often poisoned the carcasses of dead livestock with strychnine and left them in the back pasture for the “brush wolves” to find. A variety of devices and traps were also used to kill coyotes.
While predator control programs succeeded at extensively reducing wolf numbers and eradicating them from many areas, the coyote has prevailed, even though it is the most persecuted predator in North America today. It has been found that to have a significant impact in reducing coyote population sizes, over 70% of the population must be removed on a sustained basis, and “even with intensive control efforts, this level is rarely, if ever, achieved.” According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, bounties and culls have been mostly ineffective in reducing conflicts:
Most coyotes removed under these programs are the easy-to-catch juveniles or transient animals passing through an area, not the breeding adults that are most often the problem. In addition, programs such as “bounties” don’t target the specific animals causing the conflict or problem in specific areas, but rather indiscriminately target all coyotes across a broad region. Bounties – financial incentives to hunt and trap – have been illegal in Ontario since 1972. … Research also demonstrates that relocating coyotes is not a solution. Coyotes are highly mobile and territorial animals. A relocated coyote usually ends up in a conflict with an older adult, as most areas are already occupied by a dominant pair. Coyotes can also travel hundreds of kilometres to return to their original capture location. As well, relocation increases the potential for spreading disease.
Additionally, studies have found that hunting coyotes can result in increased population numbers. A temporary population size reduction creates a food surplus, which is “biologically transformed into higher litter sizes and higher litter survival rates… [because] the increase in food availability improves the nutritional condition of breeding females which translates in higher pup birth weights and higher pup survival.” Other effects of a temporary reduction in population size and food surplus is lone coyotes moving into the territory, and young coyotes breeding sooner. This process is explained in the following infographic from The Humane Society of the United States:
These effects can increase the likelihood of conflicts, as adult coyotes end up with more healthy pups to feed. When packs are stable, there are more adult pack members that “provide more den-guarding time and more food brought to pups…, [so] packs may be able to subsist on larger numbers of smaller prey (e.g., rabbits and small rodents) rather than going for livestock,” which they are more likely to do when they are under pressure to maximize efficiency in hunting for food for pups when there are less adults, and/or more pups. Research has shown that
“the primary motivation to kill domestic sheep is to provide food for fast-growing pups.” Coyotes learn what food is appropriate when they are pups, and “are reluctant to try ‘new’ food sources unless under stress (such as having to feed a large litter of pups), [so] reduction programs, in effect, may be forcing coyotes to try new behaviours (eating domestic livestock) which they would otherwise avoid.” These behaviours get passed down to the pups, and conflict persists. Therefore, not only are coyote culls ineffective at producing a long-term reduction in coyote populations, they also create conditions for increased conflicts.
Human-coyote coexistence programs have been set up by Coyote Watch Canada (CWC) in Niagara Falls, Oakville, and Whitby; the Stanley Park Ecology Society in Vancouver; and Project Coyote’s work has successfully reduced conflicts between sheep owners and coyotes in Marin County, California, and has just set up a program in Superior, Colorado. The CWC strategy includes: non-lethal goals, long term solutions, community scientists, wildlife feeding by-laws, promotion of proper hazing techniques, education and awareness, seasonal alerts, posting coyote awareness signs, and coyote response teams. CWC offers two pamphlets on living with coyotes and coyote hazing, as well as the following general awareness sheet:
As discussed earlier, the coyote is a keystone species in the GTA, and has a very important role in balancing ecosystems. Coyotes help farmers through rodent control, and when coexistence measures are in place coyotes will also become territorial and will “keep other predators and problem coyotes away from livestock areas.”
To summarize, coyote populations are thriving across North America despite almost two hundred years of persecution; coyote culls and bounties are not effective at reducing population sizes or conflicts, and can actually have the opposite effect; human-coyote coexistence programs are working to reduce conflicts in several places; and coyotes can be beneficial to both urban and rural ecosystems. However, rhetoric backed by fear and misinformation as well as lobbying by hunters and trappers has allowed the argument that coyotes must be killed to prevail in many places. For example, there are coyote killing contests in Alberta, Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The following section will look at a major driving force of coyote killing, the fur industry.
In my opinion, the most overlooked form coyotes take in the GTA is their post-mortem presence in the fur trim on coats. Though non-urban coyotes are more likely to be trapped and used for fur trim, many end up being urban coyotes as these coats are very popular in urban areas. What was once worn in the north out of necessity for survival from the elements has become a fashion trend in less extreme climates, such as the GTA. Fur has come in and out of vogue many times throughout the decades, and is currently on an upswing. Coyote fur trimmed coats made by Toronto based company Canada Goose have become a winter-wear staple, worn by many news reporters, politicians, and celebrities within Canada and abroad. These coats have arguably had a very large impact on bringing fur back into fashion as Canada Goose has increased their profits 30 fold over the last 14 years. There are many other companies that use coyote fur on their coats, such as London Fog, Burberry, Woolrich, Mackage, Nobis, Outdoor Survival Canada and Andrew Marc New York (some of which also use fur from other trapped and/or farmed animals), but Canada Goose is the most notable.
Out of the 730,915 animals trapped in Canada in 2009 and sold as pelts (excluding the 2.3 million animals such as mink and foxes killed on fur farms) 47,340 were coyotes. The 47,340 figure only captures killed coyotes whose pelts were sold, and not coyotes that were killed for other reasons, or whose pelts were unsuitable for sale. Looking beyond Canada, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program kills over 80,000 coyotes annually, and it is estimated that “on average at least half a million coyotes are killed every year in the United States… by federal, state, and local governments and by private individuals.” There are no coyote fur farms, so coyotes are trapped in the wild using leg/foot-hold traps, snares, or body gripping Conibear traps, or simply shot outright (when the full pelt is not to be used).
Companies like Canada Goose argue that coyotes are trapped and killed humanely. In March 2015, animal rights group Animal Justice filed a false advertising complaint with the Competition Bureau against Canada Goose, asserting that:
Canada Goose is engaged in false and misleading advertising related to claims that the coyote fur trim on its ubiquitous jackets comes from “humanely’ trapped animals.”
Use of the term “humane” will inevitably lead at least some consumers to conclude that a product described by this term was produced by means that did not contribute to animal injury or suffering… [but] the fur trim used by Canada Goose and described as “humane” is very far from this standard. … According to Dr. Shelley Alexander, a conservation ecologist specializing in human/wildlife conflict and coyote ecology, “The scientific evidence is definitive – trapping causes suffering and pain. To call such a thing humane depends on a very narrow and outdated understanding of the measures of suffering.”…
Traps used in Canada may legally allow up to 20 percent of animals to show poor signs of welfare if they are trapped in leg hold traps, or experience severe injury, but not immediate death, if caught in body gripping traps. For body gripping traps or snares that are designed to kill animals “instantly”, there is often no prescribed time frame for checking traps. Therefore, the 20 percent of animals that may not die “instantly” as a result of body gripping traps or kill snares could legally be left lingering indefinitely, possibly die of exposure, hunger, thirst, or predation before a trapper attends to check the trap. … The time within which trappers must check leg hold traps varies between provinces, ranging from 24 hours to five days. In the very best case scenario, these standards mean that an animal trapped in a leg hold trap that is not showing signs of poor welfare may be left in a trap for between one and five days, without food or water, in the cold. In the worst of scenarios, this means that animals suffering from severe, painful injuries caused by leg hold traps… may be left to suffer in agony from painful injuries for up to five days, experiencing frostbite or other extreme weather injuries, before the traps are checked and they are killed by a trapper. … Animals are usually clubbed, suffocated, or strangled to death by trappers because a gunshot wound would spoil the fur pelt. … Canadian law does not set out any standards specific to killing live animals found in traps, thus a trapper may legally use virtually any kill method, regardless of how humane is might be considered by veterinary experts.
A 2013 Huffington Post article by Shannon Kornelsen, Director of Public Outreach and Humane Education for the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, examined various aspects of coyote trapping, including the snare trap, which is, “A wire noose that tightens as the animal tries to free herself.” Discussing this trapping method she says:
While the industry claims these traps kill instantly, experts explain that snares actually “cause an agonizing prolonged death.” A study of snared coyotes noted a large proportion of carcasses with fractured limbs, broken teeth, and bullet holes, all proof they did not die instantly. One third of them also had grotesquely swollen heads (dubbed “jellyheads” by trappers). When the snare doesn’t close sufficiently, it constricts the jugular vein on the outside of the neck, which stops blood from returning to the heart. Meanwhile, the carotid artery continues to pump blood into the brain, eventually causing a rupture. The scientist who noted this wrote: “Anyone who has had a migraine knows what it feels like to have swollen blood vessels in the head. To have blood vessels burst because of pressure must be excruciating.”
One of the reasons some members of the general public know how painful traps can be is because the traps do not discriminate, so dogs, cats and people have found themselves the unlucky victims of these traps. Studies have found that “non-targeted animals constitute between 56 percent and 76 percent of leg hold trap captures”. It is illegal to sell the fur of endangered species in Canada, but because the traps do not discriminate there is no way to ensure that endangered species are not caught and injured or killed. There are no official statistics for pets, humans or endangered species harmed by these traps, but a list of reported incidents can be found by clicking here.
Even if coyotes were trapped humanely, there are many other issues involved. In the frequently asked questions section of the Canada Goose website, under “Why do you use fur?” they answer:
Our jackets are built for the coldest places on Earth—places where skin around the face can freeze in an instant. In these environments, fur is not just the best choice, but the only choice. Fur trim around a hood works to disrupt airflow and create turbulent (warm air), which protects the face from frostbite. Fake or “faux” fur simply does not protect as well as real fur. Faux fur is only a fashion statement and does not act in the same way that real fur does to protect skin. We have chosen to use Canadian coyote fur because it is highly abundant. In fact, in many regions of North America, coyotes are considered a pest as they attack livestock, endangered prey species, pets and sometimes people.
Regarding the first half of this answer, the majority of Canadians live in urban, non-arctic climates, and Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss says that about $50 million (approximately half) of the company’s sales are fashion driven. He describes one of his products, the Branta black label range, as a collection “focused only on contemporary fashion stores” and “intended for urban use.” Additionally, the claim that fur is “not just the best choice, but the only choice” to protect from frostbite is highly subjective. The false advertising complaint from Animal Justice also addresses this:
Canada Goose claims that using fur trim on jacket hoods does a better job of protecting facial skin from frostbite than synthetic fur, [but] in reality, no such evidence exists, and synthetic fur and other materials are regarded as highly warm and functional.
Synthetic materials are used by high functioning organizations in very cold environments like many militaries and explorers and there is no evidence that real coyote fur is warmer”
Research and development of synthetic materials has come a long way to produce warm and environmentally friendly winter garments that are free of fur and other animal materials such as down and wool. For example, “Primaloft is a synthetic microfibre insulator that was originally developed for the US Army as a water resistant down alternative… [and is] the premier supplier of insulation to the US Army, Marines and Special Forces [today].” For animal cruelty-free, environmentally and socially responsible companies that make very warm coats, Vaute Couture, Hoodlamb, Copenhagen Artificial Fur, and Paramo are very highly recommended.
As for the second half of Canada Goose’s answer, it is absolutely true that coyotes are abundant, and considered by some to be pests, but as argued in the previous section, killing coyotes does not reduce conflicts. At most, if an individual coyote becomes too habituated to humans and attacks someone, killing that individual may prevent future attacks (similar to putting down violent domestic dogs-who generally also only become that way because of human actions). However, it can be very difficult to target specific coyotes that are causing conflicts, and indiscriminate killing of coyotes has been found to cause further conflicts and does not reduce populations, as shown in the above section. Indiscriminate killing does not prevent human-coyote conflict situations, but long term coexistence strategies can. Furthermore, the problems caused by indiscriminate trapping and killing of coyotes are not green-washed away by the fact that coyotes are “abundant.” Saying it is okay to kill coyotes for their fur because they are “abundant” is a distortion of the truth, because the reality is that traps do not discriminate between abundant and non-abundant (non-endangered and endangered, wild and domesticated, even human and non-human), species. As mentioned above, 56-76% of leg hold trap captures have been found to be bycatch, therefore “abundant” coyote lives are not the only ones lost in the creation of coyote fur trim. Additionally, from an animal rights standpoint, the abundance of a species does not negate the intrinsic value of each individual as a sentient subject of a life.
In his book Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowatt explains the fallacy of predator vilification:
Whenever and wherever men have engaged in the mindless slaughter of animals (including other men), they have often attempted to justify their acts by attributing the most vicious or revolting qualities to those they would destroy; and the less reason there is for the slaughter, the greater the campaign of vilification.
The fallacy of the human-coyote relationship is that it is us or them: either we lethally control coyotes or they will inevitably inflict harm upon us. If we do not kill them, they will kill our pets, destroy our livelihoods, or attack us; and since we must kill them, we might as well use their fur. It is clear to me that this is simply not true. We continue to vilify coyotes even though their actions are very clearly tied to ours. They have followed us through our expansion and settlement across North America, and our persecution of them has not reduced conflicts or their population sizes. Most cases of coyote-human conflict can be traced back to coyotes receiving anthropogenic sources of food. Coexistence measures are succeeding where killing has failed. We need to be honest that the only beneficiaries of killing well over 47,340 coyotes annually in Canada, and around half a million in the US, are people involved in hunting and trapping, and the fur trade. There are no public safety benefits, only potential harms. There are humane alternatives to reduce conflicts, and keep ourselves warm.
While I was wrapping up the first draft of this project, indie rock band Modest Mouse released a song called “Coyotes.” The accompanying music video features a coyote riding the Portland Metropolitan Area Express, paying homage to real-life incident with a coyote in 2002; image below (no one, including the coyote, was harmed. This incident also inspired another song, “Light Rail Coyote,” by Sleater Kinney in 2002). My goal for this entry has been to learn more about coyotes and their relationships with humans, and shed some light on how they are vilified, killed and commodified for winter fashion. The video for “Coyotes” (click here to watch it) is eerily fitting since this project was largely inspired by the coyote fur trimmed coats I see on public transit in the winter, and the following lyrics from the song provide an excellent conclusion:
“Coyotes,” Modest Mouse
Coyotes tiptoe in the snow after dark
At home with the ghosts in the national parks
Mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killers
Giant ol’ monsters afraid of the sharks
And we’re in love with all of it
And we say: “What can we say?”
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