Where the Wild Things Are
By Paige Parvin 96G
Driving along the busy Clifton corridor, with the Atlanta skyline visible just a few miles to the west, you’re more likely to encounter Cliff shuttles than wildlife. It’s easy to forget that Emory shares its six-hundred-acre main campus with all manner of creatures—including, it seems increasingly likely, coyotes.
The canny cousins of dogs, wolves, foxes, and jackals, coyotes crossed the Mississippi River about a century ago and started showing up in Georgia in the 1970s. Thanks to the gradual elimination of the red wolf across the Southeast, they’re now the top predator in the region, according to the Atlanta Coyote Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the scientific study of the animals in the metro area.
The Atlanta Coyote Project was founded by Larry Wilson 75C 92PhD, an adjunct professor in Emory’s Departments of Biology and Environmental Science,’and Chris Mowry 93G 94PhD, an ecologist and associate professor of biology at Berry College. Wilson spent thirty years working for Fernbank Science Center’as manager of Fernbank Forest, a sixty-five-acre, old-growth Piedmont’forest situated just across Clifton Road from Emory.
“We used to see lots of evidence that there were coyotes,” Wilson says. “We’d get calls from people who had spotted them at the Druid Hills Golf Club and the surrounding area. We realized there was a need for education and scientific information.”
Mowry began researching coyotes with a couple of his students at Berry’College, setting camera traps and using radio collars to follow their activity. Mowry also reached out to Wilson, whom he knew from Emory.
“Larry had been talking about urban coyotes for years,” he says.
In 2009, Mowry and Wilson gave a presentation at Fernbank Science Center, and the surrounding community’s curiosity was palpable. So was the distrust.
“Coyotes can be very controversial,” Mowry says. “They are predators, and people have a natural fear of predators.”
The mission of the Atlanta Coyote Project is to provide the public with accurate information, to gather data on local coyote sightings and encounters, and to conduct scientific research on the area population. Although the researchers are careful to remain objective, they do advocate for peaceful coexistence. That’s because, according to their findings, the coyotes aren’t going anywhere.
“People think coyotes live and hunt in packs, but that’s actually a myth,” explains Wilson. “In most of the areas around here, it’s typically a breeding pair and their offspring. When you get rid of an adult, you’re probably going to have young males that don’t know how to hunt, and they’re more likely to go after easy targets. They are amazingly adaptable, so as long as there is habitat and food supply, there will be coyotes. That’s why it’s really better to learn to coexist.”
As predators go, coyotes are on the small side, so they rarely go after large pets, Wilson adds. The mainstays of their diet are vegetation and berries, rodents, and the occasional tasty bit of road kill—call it fast food. Coyotes are furtive, stealthy, and smart, and usually they can live alongside humans undetected.
One of the Atlanta Coyote Project’s most ambitious efforts was a survey undertaken in 2014 to assess Atlanta residents’ experience, attitudes, and perceptions surrounding coyotes. The survey generated more than two thousand responses, the basis for conclusions that have in turn shaped the project’s work. Mowry and Wilson continue to give public lectures and presentations, such as at a recent meeting of the Wildlife Society.
“Our hope is to educate people and help them overcome their fears so they’re able to coexist with all wildlife,” Mowry says. “As an ecologist trained at Emory, I understand the interrelatedness of the natural world, and coyotes are just a part of that fabric.”—Paige Parvin 96G