What Urban Carnivores Can Teach Us About Coexistence

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Photo: Regan Dohm.

It’s just the sound of static as we drive. We lean in a little, listening intently to the white noise. Then, a faint blip. And again, a little louder, and then even louder. "There it is; we’ve got him," says Marcus Mueller, a masters student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose task it is to find, follow, and locate the source of that little blip.

The signal is coming from a radio collar worn by a red fox captured in late January. It is now part of Mueller's master's thesis, a project that centers around what has become a hot topic of conversation nationwide: wild foxes and coyotes thriving in the middle of populous cities.


Everywhere that wilderness butts up against a city, wild animals have an opportunity to learn a new way of life, one that can take advantage of all the infrastructure and food sources that urban surroundings provide.

News articles and op-eds are published frequently in one city or another discussing the "growing coyote problem." Concerned citizens call or write to animal control offices or police departments wondering what to do about that coyote they just saw trotting down their neighborhood street. During the last century, coyotes have spread from the Southwest and Plains region to every corner of the North American continent, reaching all along the Eastern Seaboard during recent decades. Meanwhile the red fox is the most widely distributed carnivore in the world, equally as adaptable as the coyote. It uses this adaptability to make itself comfortable even in areas where it has been introduced, including California. These survivor species have been able to make a home not only in new areas of wilderness but also in new habitats that are anything but wild.

Their presence has certainly been noted by urban dwellers. Foxes are making national headlines as they dart across the lawn of Capitol Hill or take up residence on the campus of Facebook. And speaking of Facebook, more than one fox and coyote have their own Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts, which are popular with city residents. The coyote living on the University of British Columbia’s campus, affectionately named Carter, has a Facebook page updated several times a week with photos or videos submitted by students, many who come within a matter of yards of the coyote as she travels down campus or hunts squirrels and skunks (largely ignoring her human admirers).

The growth of urban areas typically drives away mammalian carnivores, but the opposite is true for these two canids. Instead, cities have inadvertently created an ideal habitat for them. As foxes and coyotes establish themselves in large cities all over the country, urban ecologists are hurrying to catch up in understanding the lives of what are now common city residents. More and more studies have been launched to learn about different aspects of these canid species that are now our close neighbors. But what is particularly interesting to Mueller and David Drake, associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at UW-Madison and Mueller's advisor for the UW Urban Canid Project, is that coyotes and foxes seem to be thriving not only among humans, but also with each other. These two species don’t usually mix.

animal tracks in the snow

Fresh snow makes it easy to see how much wildlife (and which species) utilize urban areas. Here, fox and rabbit tracks intersect through a corridor between two buildings on the UW-Madison campus.

Just as wolves will kill coyotes to keep these smaller competitors out of the way, coyotes kill foxes when they come across them in their territory. Yet both foxes and coyotes can be found in relative abundance in Madison and many other cities. Drake and Mueller want to find out how the two species are living together in these urban areas, and more importantly, what factors play into their distribution in the city.

With the answers to these questions, Madison residents can be more proactive about potential conflict and can coexist peacefully with these wild canids.

Behind the scenes of urban wildlife research

Mueller and Drake don't have to travel far for their research. Starting right in the heart of campus and expanding out, the team is trapping and placing radio collars on 30 foxes and 30 coyotes to create a sample population for study.

radio collars for research project

Two sizes of collars are used; a smaller one for foxes and a larger one for coyotes. Though the collars are quite small, they have a long battery life. They can send signals for as long as two years.

On my first morning in Madison, I walked to the Russell Labs building on Linden Drive to meet Mueller and Drake. The temperature hovered somewhere around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. We joked about how tough it is for me to be a Californian in this cold weather as we drove to set restraints in three places along a fence line near another building. Even Drake noted that it was particularly cold, and the area was having a snap of particularly bitter winter weather. The two researchers keep a careful watch on temperature and winds because they will not keep traps open for the animals if the temperature hits 0 degrees or lower. Drake explains that this is one of many precautions set up in their animal care use protocol for their study to ensure that the animals they radio collar are treated carefully, respectfully and humanely.

Their concern for animals' safety is one of the main reasons they selected a cable restraint as the device used to catch these two species — as opposed to confinement traps that catch an animal by the leg. These two species aren’t the only canids running around in this urban environment. Domestic dogs are also frequently off leash and run the risk of being caught in a study restraint. "It’s more traumatic for a pet owner to see their dog caught in a foot-hold trap rather than this," says Drake. "It’s a lot easier to get [dogs] out of this."

The cable restraints were designed and made by master trapper Mike Schmelling, who is advising the team on how to best catch their study animals. His devices are built with protective measures, all of which follow the law as well as common sense for humane treatment of animals you want alive, healthy and happy for a study. This morning, the team sets up three cable restraints along a chain-link fence in locations where foxes have been dipping under the links and passing through through small gaps.

setting a trap along a fenceline

Fences are easy for urban wildlife to get under, and there are three spots along this fence that foxes are using to get through. The small openings create and ideal place to set up traps. Mueller sets up cable restraints at all three in hopes of catching whichever fox is using these paths.

setting a cable restraint trap on an animal trail

The cable restraints are designed and made by local trapper Mike Schmelling. They have safety features including a stopper to limit how tight the release can get so the animal caught is not injured. Traps for foxes are never set in areas where coyotes are definitely known to pass, because the team doesn't want to put a trapped fox at risk of being killed by a coyote that comes across it.

While Mueller installs a cable restraint in the ground, Drake holds another restraint in his hand, pointing out the different components as he explains how the setup follows regulations for humane traps.

"The cable restraint has a stop on it. Legally you have to have a stop on there, and that prevents the cable restraint from tightening so far on the neck that it cuts the airway off. Legally the restraint has to have a ground anchor. And you have to have a swivel between the ground anchor and the cable so the animal can never kink up the wire and tangle itself up. And then legally it has to have the trapper’s name on it or whose trap it is. So we’ve got all that. And then what happens is it has a one-way washer on it. So when we set it, the animal will put its head through, the shoulders catch the wire, and the wire closes on the animal but it can only close down to [a certain point]. This is very much like a choke collar on a dog where when the animal fights, it restricts, and when the animal relaxes, it relaxes."

"We have an approved animal care use protocol," Drake says, "and we follow everything in there to the letter."

As if scripted, Drake pauses his explanation to answer a question from Mueller, who is pruning away small saplings in the radius of the restraint. Mueller wonders about removing a sapling on the other side of the fence that might possibly be within reach of the animal when it is caught in the cable release and be a risk for entanglement. "Yes, we’d better clear that one out too," says Drake, demonstrating exactly how thoroughly the team considers the safety of the animal that will, hopefully, be caught the restraint.

cable restraint barely noticeable along a fence

You have to look very carefully to spot the cable restraint set at the bottom of this chain link fence. The goal is to hide it well enough that even an animal that frequents the area won't notice it as it approaches. Hint: look for the miniscule circle of wire in the lower left corner of the fence just before the pile of leaves starts. If you still don't see it, well, that's sort of the point.

Once the cable restraint is set in place, Mueller sticks a few of the pruned saplings loosely back into the ground to camouflage the restraint as well as to encourage a fox to go through the loop rather than around it, and we move on to checking other restraints set up in a rather surprising place.

The previous spring, a fox pair denned under a building on campus and had a litter of kits. They quickly became campus celebrities. As the kits gamboled on the grass and enjoyed the sun, the parents would look on, fairly unconcerned about the audience of humans watching the youngsters. As many as 300 people at a time would be standing around the area, and the location had to be roped off. This year, they are denning under another nearby building, one that has thousands of people walking around and above their home. In fact, that proximity to humans might just be one of the reasons why foxes and coyotes can both thrive in the same general area like UW-Madison’s campus.

fox den in an urban setting

Urban wildlife takes advantage of every nook and cranny. Foxes have been using this building in a busy spot on campus as a roof to their den. Unless you know what to look for, it would be hard to spot their front door.

Why are coyotes and foxes living like this?

Coyotes and foxes usually don’t coexist. As mentioned earlier, the coyote is a predator of the fox. But here, they seem to be coexisting fairly well. In fact, a woman recently emailed Drake to tell of an account where she witnessed a fox and a coyote sitting there looking at each other, taking stock of each other and ultimately leaving each other alone entirely. Why are these urban animals playing nice for the most part? What factors are at play? That's what Mueller hopes to find out.

As the study subjects are captured and collared, Mueller will match up location data with human demographic factors in the same areas, such as the density and types of housing, what areas have people with dogs or without dogs, the location of possible food sources like gardens and chicken coops, and anything else he can think of that could be a driving factor in where foxes are setting up territories, where coyotes are setting up territories, and where the territories overlap.

"We do know at least from our pilot study that the fox and the coyote do overlap," says Drake. But the question is how. "Are they sharing that space but using the space at different times of the day or night? Or what we think is probably going on is there’s enough resources here in the urban area that they don’t have to compete for them."

This overlap between the two canid species is a new area of study for urban carnivores.

"There have been some studies looking at the competition between coyote and fox from a rural to urban gradient," says Drake. "But we’re not aware of anyone who is going to look into these interactions similar to the way we are."

And as for a guess at why the foxes seem to do so well in such blatantly obvious and surprising proximity to humans, Drake has a supposition. "The fox is tending to be closer to human beings, bedding down next to people like someone’s house or backyard. We don’t hear so much about that with coyotes. So I think the fox are tending to be closer to human beings and may be using the human beings as a source of security. Marcus will start to figure stuff like that out."

Indeed, Mueller intends to discover the reason behind this, along with many other things. Ultimately, the study is only partially about the interactions of urban foxes and coyotes. Their lives are the "what" of the study but the "why" centers around the humans among whom they live. After all, humans are constantly discussing the "growing coyote problem" and worrying about keeping foxes out of their backyard chicken coops. Answers are needed for understanding what's going on with these two species, the risks and benefits of their living among us, and how to coexist. This study will start to provide these answers.

radio tracking using telemetry

Tracking a radio signal in an urban setting can be difficult, as it's easier for the signal to bounce off buildings and throw off the true location, or have interference from other electronic signals in the area. It requires the researchers to be closer to the animal to find a location they can be confident is true.

listening to telemetry data

Mueller listens to the radio signal coming from a collared fox and works to pinpoint the direction where it's coming from. He needs to go to at least three different locations and confirm the direction of the signal before he can feel confident in recording the point.

entering telemetry data

Mueller jots down the location point of a collared fox after listening to the radio signal. By gathering different location points, at different times of day, he can get a sense of the animal's territory size and movement habits.

entering data into laptop

Students on campus can put their learning to work when they volunteer to follow along during the researcher's rounds. Here, a student learns how to enter telemetry data into a database while tracking two collared coyotes in a nearby cattail marsh on the campus.

checking traps for research

Mueller and two community members check the cable restraints early in the morning. Inviting the public to come along when checking the traps is part of the outreach and education side of the project.

There are several specific goals of the study, all aimed at finding the answers to questions that Madison residents have about their wild four-legged neighbors. "One is to figure out just in this area the animals’ activity pattern — where they go, when they go there, how they navigate this landscape," says Drake, "Because we want to be proactive and head off conflicts or negative interactions between these animals and people or companion animals. Marcus is going to look at competition between these animals and how they’re sharing the resources."

"And then, we have another proposal that we’re hoping to have funded. We’re drawing blood from each of these animals and we’re also doing a nasal swab and a rectal swab. The blood tells us what diseases the animals have been exposed to because we can look at the antibodies. And the swab tells us what diseases they currently have. So we want to start looking at disease risk with these animals as they navigate the urban landscape. For example, they can have parvo, canine distemper, things like that, and they can transmit it to unvaccinated dogs — but unvaccinated domestic dogs can also transmit it to a naive, disease-free fox or coyote. So we want to look at those interactions too from a disease standpoint."

The study is to benefit the public, and the public has been showing extraordinary support. "The neat thing for us here is the amount of the support and interest. Fascination from the public has been overwhelming," says Drake. "And it’s primarily toward the fox because, I think, people see fox much more than they see coyote."

In fact, encouraging that support and being absolutely transparent is a priority for Drake and Mueller. That’s why they have an open invitation to the public to come with them when they check traps or track the collared animals for location data collection.

"When we started the pilot project last year, I was completely flabbergasted at how much interest there was amongst the public, especially about the fox," Drake says. "So when Marcus started with the graduate school, I started thinking, what better way to engage the public than to have them come out with us? So we’ve had people come out and check traps with us and people are welcome to go out and radio track with us."

Earlier in the week, a female coyote was caught in a cable restraint and students shadowing the researchers during their trap-checks were able to take part in the process of placing a radio collar on her. After she was safely sedated, they were invited to listen to the vital signs, witness the swabbing and blood drawing, and learn about everything that happens with ensuring the animal is safe. The coyote was then covered with Drake’s jacket to keep her a little extra comfortable while the sedative reversal drugs kicked in, before she could head back into the park area.

collaring a coyote
collaring a coyoe
A researcher places his coat over the coyote to keep her extra warm while the sedatives are reversed. Keeping the animal safe during the collaring process is a priority. Regan Dohm

This particular female is a win for the team. She was suspected of hanging around with a male coyote collared the year before during the pilot project. Once the female was collared, Mueller was able to confirm that indeed the two are spending time together and seem to be a mated pair. By having the female "on the air," the researchers will likely be able to locate the den site and, with luck, collar pups in the spring. This will give them an even more complete picture of what coyote family life looks like in an urban setting.

Drawing the public in has benefits beyond just making locals feel included. It’s for the good of the species being studied. "We want people to start appreciating that there is all this wonderful urban wildlife," explains Drake. "And then we talk to them about what they can do to benefit urban wildlife in these areas and what they shouldn’t do. And specific to these coyote and fox, we talk to them about the ecology of the animals, why they’re moving into these city areas, what to do if you encounter an animal and what not to do."

Mueller adds to this, "We want to learn more about these animals so we can be more proactive in our management and more proactive in our response to potential conflict. As opposed to folks [not realizing] or they don’t acknowledge that the animals are present, and then a dog gets taken or something like that. So figuring out what is really driving that distribution will go a long way in preventing conflict."

Ultimately, their outreach chips away at the perception of a "problem" at having wild carnivores as part of the urban ecosystem. With more knowledge, what is viewed as an issue can simply be a peaceful and perhaps even mutually beneficial coexistence.

coyote researcher at desk

Mueller explains the steps involved in collaring a coyote captured in a cable restraint. The team not only collars but takes blood samples and swabs to study more about disease risk among urban canids and how city planners can keep disease from spreading from wild canids to domestic dogs and vice versa.

following fox tracks in the snow

Mueller follows the tracks of a fox, keeping an eye out for where the fox is traveling. He looks for an established trail or gap in a fence that the fox uses regularly so that a cable restraint can be set. Finding a good spot for a cable restraint is harder than it looks. The researchers seek a location that not only has plenty of animal traffic but also poses no threats for the safety of the animal once captured.

researcher noting GPS location

After finding a possible site to set up a cable restraint trap in a USGS reserve, Mueller notes the location with GPS. The researchers rely a lot on residents calling in to tell them they've spotted fox or coyote in the area and providing permission for them to set up a cable restraint on their property. Luckily, the team has a community of enthusiastic and supportive residents.

a fresh rabbit kill in an urban setting

Signs of urban wildlife are everywhere. Just off a busy road, Mueller finds a rabbit killed by a fox not more than a few hours earlier. It is confirmation that the area is in use by fox, and could be an ideal place to capture and collar fox for the study.

A question for urban areas across the nation

To a certain extent, what is learned about the urban canids in Madison may help other cities in dealing with their fox and coyote populations. At the very least, it can be additional inspiration for researchers in other urban areas to conduct studies. It builds on the work of studies currently being conducted, such as the ongoing work of Stanley Gehrt in Chicago. It also shows that encouraging the public to be part of the learning can make things easier for everyone, from the researchers to city officials dealing with urban planning or fielding complaints, to residents who just feel worried or confused about what to think of their wild canid neighbors.

Each urban area has its own specific characteristics that create tiny alterations in the behavior or distribution of the foxes and coyotes living there.

"Urban can be a really subjective word," says Mueller. "Our urban here is a lot different from urban Chicago, which is different from urban Milwaukee, which is different from urban Portland. Very generally, I hope that a lot of it would be able to translate, especially the idea of being able to do the research and getting people involved. But the actual habits of the animals will be pretty specific just because every city is so different."

Despite the differences, one thing is universally true: We now share our cities and towns with foxes and coyotes, and in some cases, we share our very homes.

The blip gets louder as Mueller approaches the third location for finding the collared red fox, the point that will put a definitive pin in the map for where it is currently hanging out. Mueller swings the Yagi antenna toward a space between two houses where a garage door sits open and a small shed stands beside it. He walks a few steps closer. Then he stops, takes off the headphones. "He’s there. He’s got to be right there by that garage." He bends down trying to see between the structures and spot his target. Though the fox stays out of sight, Mueller turns back toward me, his eyes bright with excitement and satisfaction.

"That’s really neat," he smiles. He enters the point into his records, and moves on.

picnic point sign

Parks, green belts, preserves, and even large backyards all provide excellent habitat for foxes and coyotes. For Madison, places like the popular Picnic Point and even the community gardens on campus are perfect homes for these wild canids. They provide just enough cover to stay invisible to human residents and plenty of food in the form of rabbits, rodents and other prey species.

sunrise from the cattails

Coming out of the small trail in the cattail marsh, a coyote or fox has a good view of Madison's skyline, the city they call home along with more than 243,000 humans.