A Coyote Whisperer for Urban Coyotes

Janet Kessler

Janet Kessler

By Joel P. Engardio

The hikers and tourists who encountered a wild coyote on a popular coastal trail in San Francisco were surprised to learn he has a name. And that he has a wife, as coyotes mate for life.

Goggles, named for his sunken eyes, seemed startled by the attention, as he jumped into the brush before anyone could get a picture. Belle, his wife, didn’t make an appearance.

But Janet Kessler – aka the Coyote Lady – was on hand to tell onlookers everything they wanted to know about San Francisco’s urban coyotes. For seven years, the 64-year-old has been voluntarily observing and photographing coyote behavior throughout The City’s park system. She regularly logs six hours a day.

“I do it because I love coyotes and want to dispel myths about them,” Kessler said. “I want to help people understand how we can coexist peacefully with these beautiful animals.”

Kessler names coyotes like Goggles and Belle after she gets to know their distinguishing marks and behavioral quirks over the years. She uses a super-telephoto lens (equivalent to 500mm) so she can get close-up shots without interfering with the animals.

“I don’t want the coyotes to react to my presence; I want to preserve their wildness,” Kessler said. “In fact, it’s important to scare coyotes away within 50 feet and to never feed them.”

Kessler takes up to 600 pictures a day as she roams parks and trails, predominantly at dawn and dusk when San Francisco’s coyotes – estimated to number in the dozens -- are most active.

Her photos have appeared at many exhibits, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. They reveal coyotes interacting with mates, offspring and nature with a range of seemingly human emotions.

Kessler has an advanced art history degree, worked as a gallery manager and raised two sons – all great accomplishments – but she has no formal training as an expert in animal behavior.

“The ability to observe does not have to be taught,” Kessler said. “You just need a camera, dedication and patience.”

Officials at San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control know her work and even use her photos in their materials.

“Wildlife needs all the advocates it can get. Janet might not be a certified scientist, but she is a passionate observer,” said ACC spokeswoman Deb Campbell. “Her philosophy is completely in line with what we recommend and her information is valuable. Plus, her photos are absolutely gorgeous and stunning.”

Kessler writes a blog at www.coyoteyipps.com that features her photos and a “Coyotes as Neighbors” video she produced in English, Spanish and Chinese. It teaches people how to get along with the animal.

“My mom is more driven and focused than any of the super-achievers I work with at Apple,” said her son, Patrick Kessler. “She has very strong opinions and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in.”

Kessler’s devotion to coyotes creates a complicated relationship with native plant enthusiasts. They say dense thickets choke natural vegetation and should be cleared while Kessler contends coyotes need the cover for protection.

Then there are off-leash dogs, which coyotes don’t mix with well. But Kessler has worked with dog advocates to create a protocol: leash dogs when coyotes are around and keep a distance, know how to shoo coyotes away if they get too close, and always leash very small dogs.

Kessler is a dog owner and her fascination with coyotes began while walking her dog on Twin Peaks. A young, curious coyote followed them.

“People think coyotes are vermin, dangerous or the big bad wolf,” Kessler said. “But they’re wonderful animals we can live with if we treat them with respect and take the right precautions.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner June 9, 2014