One morning in August 1981, 3-year-old Kelly Keen wandered out the door of her home and into her family’s front yard. That was the last day of Kelly’s life.
Kelly wasn’t hit by a car or abducted by a stranger. She was killed by a lone coyote. Within seconds of the attack, Kelly’s father managed to force the coyote to release Kelly’s head and chase the canine away. But it was too late. Kelly died four hours later in Glendale Adventist Hospital from blood loss and a broken neck.
Following Kelly’s death, the City of Glendale commenced an 80-day program of trapping and shooting coyotes resulting in the killing of 51 coyotes within half a mile of Kelly’s home. It was never known if the coyote that attacked Kelly was destroyed. In addition to coyotes, many other animals were killed or mortally wounded in traps, including bobcats, gray foxes, skunks, raccoons and domestic dogs and cats. As of 2013, Glendale continues to have coyotes wandering city streets. To this day, Kelly Keen is the only human to have been killed by a coyote in the United States.
A coyote is an opportunistic predator. That is, it will attack, kill and consume any animal it perceives can be subdued. A family of coyotes may perceive that, together, they can subdue larger prey species than can a lone individual. Coyotes from desert regions rarely weigh more than 30 pounds, and so when they do eat animals it is mostly insects and other arthropods, rodents and occasionally rabbits. Coyote scat found with traces of deer or bighorn sheep, almost always reflect a coyote that has chanced upon a carcass of one of these animals. Coyotes are well-known scavengers.
Desert coyotes regularly consume plant materials including buds, fruits and seeds of a wide variety of plants. In one study, nearly half the diet of desert coyotes was comprised of plant parts.
Statistics clearly show the overwhelming majority of coyotes, more than 99.99 percent of all coyotes living today, do not consider humans of any size as prey. The chance that a human will be threatened, stalked or attacked by one or more coyotes anywhere in North America is so small that it is not statistically detectable. Put another way, any factor that can harm a human is more likely to hurt a human than is a coyote. Honey bees, walking on the street and shopping in a store are thousands of times more likely to result in injury than an encounter with a coyote.
In spite of the tragedy that struck Kelly Keen and her family in 1981, coyotes as a group cannot be considered hazardous to human well-being. With some adapting on our part, we can live in the presence of coyotes today just as they do in most cities. Glendale Mayor Laura Friedman summed it up best in 2011 when she said, “people need to adjust, too.”
James Cornett is a desert ecologist and author of “Wildlife of the Southwest Deserts.” Contact him at JWCornett@aol.com.