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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

The Suburban Wild: Coyotes in Druid Hills

Emory University
Published March 25, 2013

A few months ago, my husband and I moved from rural Arkansas to the great Atlanta sprawl and settled in Druid Hills, a neighborhood within walking distance of Emory University's campus. The land that constitutes the Druid Hills neighborhood was originally ceded to the Georgia government by Native Americans in 1821 and was subsequently surveyed and sold to white settlers. Today, the area has become a prominent suburban enclave near Atlanta's urban center. Celebrated landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted drew the original plans for Druid Hills in the late nineteenth century, envisioning "healthful living in a country setting, yet not far from the city."

Sam Fowler, General plan Druid Hills historic district, US 29, Atlanta, Georgia, 1987. Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey HABS GA-2390-6.
Sam Fowler, General plan Druid Hills historic district, US 29, Atlanta, Georgia, 1987. Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey HABS GA-2390-6.
Sam Fowler, 1930 City of Atlanta quadrangle map, Druid Hills historic district, US 29, Atlanta, Georgia.  Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey HABS GA-2390-10.
Sam Fowler, 1930 City of Atlanta quadrangle map, Druid Hills historic district, US 29, Atlanta,Georgia, 1987. Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey HABS GA-2390-10.

Reverberations of Olmsted's designs are surfacing today in Druid Hills, a suburban space that exists as a borderland, literally "outside the city", but not quite in the country. Having lived in major metropolitan areas, small towns, and rural communities, I did not initially realize that we had moved to "the suburbs." In my mind, Atlanta was one big mass of city and I had prepared myself for an urban jungle. However, while we live one mile from the Atlanta city limits, my new neighborhood hosts a variety of wildlife, including chipmunks, rabbits, foxes, owls, and hawks, not to mention large wooded areas that provide habitat for the band of coyotes whose presence is testing the limits of Olmsted's bucolic vision. Often associated with rural and western spaces, coyotes have been migrating eastward for the past century and now occupy increasingly contested territory in major metropolitan areas, including Atlanta. A 2012 New York Times article noted that "the urban coyote problem has come to Atlanta at last."

In response to increased coyote sightings and several coyote/pet skirmishes, the Druid Hills Civic Association sponsored a community meeting on January 29, 2013, to discuss the concept of coexistence. As the term implies, humans and coyotes exist in shared territories, confounding distinctions we sometimes draw between human and animal worlds. Central to the concept of coexistence is modifying the behavior of both human and animal, requiring an ongoing effort to sustain a dialogue-of-sorts with another species. In essence, coexistence asks us to take coyotes seriously as participants in a community defined by all living beings that inhabit it—plant, human, and animal-life alike.

Janet Kessler, Coyote coexistence Atlanta, 2009. Courtesy of Janet Kessler,
Janet Kessler, Coyote coexistence Atlanta, 2009. Courtesy of Janet Kessler,

The parish hall of the Church of the Epiphany was packed, as concerned neighbors, and at least one intrigued graduate student, gathered to hear three speakers representing a spectrum of professional backgrounds and perspectives. Chip Elliott, an animal trapper with over ten years of experience in the Atlanta metro area, promoted both education and trapping as important measures to maintain a critical balance between humans and coyotes. While Elliott endorsed trapping as a successful mechanism for coyote control, he acknowledged that the practice would not eliminate the population. Instead, Elliott presented trapping as a controlled human response intended to "put fear" into increasingly bold coyote communities. Dr. Chris Mowry, a biologist at Berry College, provided insight into contemporary research on urban coyote populations, prefacing his presentation with the admission that, "We don't understand the coyote in Atlanta very well." Mowry's presentation highlighted the need for more research on the urban coyote phenomenon and introduced the Metro Atlanta Coyote Project. A collaboration that Mowry spearheads with Zoo Atlanta and the Fernbank Science Center, the Metro Atlanta Coyote Project studies behaviors and activity patterns of urban coyotes in order to develop more effective management strategies of these populations. Mary Paglieri of the Little Blue Society for Human-Animal Conflict Resolution concluded the evening's presentations. As a professional tracker, Paglieri emphasized the concept of "just balance," which weighs human and animal needs as equally important parts of a larger ecosystem. Paglieri described the coyote's ability to adapt to most human behaviors and responses, requiring a sustained "management co-existence program" that responds to coyote's "natural instincts," as opposed to "aberrant behaviors" the animals learn from contact with humans.

Coyote Meeting, Druid Hills Civic Association, Church of the Epiphany, Atlanta, Georgia, January 29, 2013.

From the outset of the meeting, it was clear that meeting attendees had strong feelings about what the moderator identified as the "coyote matter." As such, many of the questions revealed tensions between ideals of human compassion and their application. In a moment of levity, a Druid Hills resident asked whether peeing on a trapped coyote might deter it from establishing territory in human spaces, enabling it to be released into the neighborhood, as opposed to euthanizing it according to state law. While the question resulted in laughter, it highlighted one of the central concerns in the room: Can we demarcate space and establish identifiable boundaries that coyotes both recognize and respect? As all three speakers agreed that coyotes will maintain a permanent presence in the Druid Hills landscape, it is apparent that we need to learn how to speak across the human-animal divide. The coyote matter provides an opportunity to reflect on the limitations of distinctions we draw between oppositional binaries such as rural/urban, domesticated/wild, human/animal that have profound implications for our understanding of the spaces we inhabit. As a new resident of Druid Hills, the neighborhood coyotes challenge me to consider Olmsted's vision of a "country" neighborhood within the Atlanta landscape and to look across the boundaries of my comfort zone, identifying opportunities for meaningful coexistence with both humans and animals in the suburban wild.