I have been thinking about this post for some time. Since October 29, in fact, when I first heard the news about Taylor Mitchell. Taylor, a 19-year-old up-and-coming Canadian folk singer, died of injuries sustained in a coyote attack while hiking alone in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia.
This is a terrible story. It’s terrible, in the first place, because it’s a tragedy. The death of young, talented people always shocks the core, in part because it feels like such a waste. When that death is caused by something outside of the control of the victim, when the victim wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong (wrong such as knowingly abusing narcotics, or driving while intoxicated), the needlessness shocks further.
But this story is terrible for a second reason as well. It’s terrible because it will be easy for people to conclude, based on this story, that a) hiking alone is dangerous; and b) hikers, particularly solo hikers, are in danger of being attacked by coyotes at every turn.
Neither of these conclusions is true, nor are they supported by Taylor’s story.
First, Taylor wasn’t really hiking alone. Sure, she was hiking solo, meaning that she was hiking without a personal companion or companions. However, she was by no means in some deserted wilderness where she was the only human being around for miles. According to news reports, other hikers nearby heard her screams and called for help, and this happened quickly enough that when officers reached the scene they were able to shoot and scare off the coyotes. Taylor was critically injured, but was airlifted out of the park for medical attention.¹
Had Taylor really been alone, help would not have reached her so quickly. We don’t know how the situation would have been different if she had had a hiking companion with her — would the coyotes not have attacked? would her companion have been able to scare or fight them off? — but this was certainly not a situation in which she was in an area devoid of other people. This was the Skyline Trail, a popular, relatively level ~6 mile trail that includes a wooden boardwalk. In other words, she had chosen her hike precisely the way I would have, looking for areas in which the likelihood of running across other hikers was high.
Oddly, it is perhaps because the park — and the trail — are so popular that this attack occurred at all. Fatal coyote attacks on humans are rare. Generally, coyotes fear humans. Since 1970, when coyotes were introduced to Cape Breton Highlands, there have been very few reported coyote attacks, and none of them fatal. Across the United States, the largest number of reported coyote attacks take place in suburban neighborhoods, where coyotes have become accustomed to humans and found the ease with which they can scavenge for food. In Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where hunting and trapping is not allowed, coyotes may similarly see humans as a source of food and not as something to fear.²
In light of this possibility, what is a hiker to do? Because populated areas might have a higher likelihood of a coyote attack, should you then choose deserted areas? Clearly not. The chances of injuring yourself in some other way are far greater than being attacked by a coyote, and hiking in more populated areas increases the likelihood someone will come along and be able to help you out.
We’ll never know what happened on that trail, and what made the coyotes attack. Rather than jumping to unfounded conclusions, let’s stick with what we know: education, preparation, and using your head. Learn how to properly respond to wildlife you meet on the trail. Don’t provoke wildlife, don’t feed wildlife. Tell someone where you’re going. Be prepared. Beyond that, freak incidents may happen, but you’ve done all you can to avoid them.
Over here at Her Side, our hearts go out to Taylor’s family and friends.
1. Gillies, Rob. “Taylor Mitchell, Singer-Songwriter, Killed By Coyotes On Hike in National Park,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/28/taylor-mitchell-singerson_n_337836.html, retrieved November 17, 2009.
2. Boujaily, Phil. “Special Report: On Coyote Attacks and the Death of Canadian Folk Singer Taylor Mitchell,” http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/hunting/2009/11/special-report-coyote-attacks-and-death-canadian-folk-singer-taylor-mitchell, retrieved November 17, 2009.