Six coyotes have been put down but none have tested positive for distemper or rabies, which could explain the aggression.
© Rory Merry
Six coyotes have been put down but none have tested positive for distemper or rabies, which could explain the aggression.
Coyotes are stalking and biting visitors in a popular Vancouver park in record numbers, in a mysterious surge of attacks that is baffling experts and dividing the city.

In the roughly nine months since December 2020, 40 coyote attacks in Stanley Park have been reported, including one last week where a 69-year-old man was bitten on the leg while walking on a trail. None have so far been fatal.

The figure is four times the number of attacks recorded over the last 30 years combined.

"In a normal year, there is no contact between a coyote and a person," said Nadia Xenakis, urban wildlife programmes coordinator with the Stanley Park Ecology Society. Even in years in which some aggression is seen, the behaviour is typically attributed to the animals' breeding season.

The 1,000-acre park on the northern coast of the city, thickly forested with old growth cedar and spruce, is home to skunks, raccoons and an estimated 12 coyotes.

"There's a lot we don't know about the coyotes in the park. We don't know about their genetics, if there's been interbreeding or what they're ingesting," she said. "We don't know if it's one coyote doing this. We've euthanised six - and if anything, the frequency [of attacks] has gone up."

Xenakis suspects a number of factors have contributed to the increased aggression including "rampant" feeding of wildlife by residents and more visitors, who invariably encroach into all areas of the park.

"There's not really an area for wildlife to exist without human contact," she said.

The coyotes have long been a presence in the park but are now attacking children and adults. Most of the attacks have occurred around the park's northern tip - known as Prospect Point - with others near the seawall that hems in the forest.

While habituation to human food is the leading theory for the abnormal aggressive behaviour, some have speculated that food or waste ingested by the coyotes - or even opioids - could provide some explanation. None of the euthanised coyotes have tested positive for rabies or distemper.

Some groups have called for more of the coyotes to be killed, but others want to see them protected. "There's a lot of extremism on both sides," said Xenakis.

Park staff are not sure what role the pandemic might have played.

"We can't tell if one unprecedented event is happening at the same time as another unprecedented event," she said. "We just don't know."

Staff have closed sections of the park and warned visitors repeatedly against feeding animals.

"I think it's an animal and a human problem," said Xenakis. "And humans need to abide by the rules. I see people violating them every time I enter the park. And if they keep doing that, we unfortunately could see these attacks continue."