THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — “This is like a frigging treasure hunt,” Dana Stangel said as she hovered over a mound of mysterious fur, bones and other bio-unidentifiables.
Brushing her dreadlocks back, Stangel, a middle school biology teacher turned founder of a wildlife rescue, rolled a stone between gloved fingers. “I just want to know why this coyote decided to eat rocks.”
Like 30 or so other volunteers gathered in this leafy suburb on a recent Saturday, Stangel was picking through poop. At the request of the National Park Service, they had signed up to help find out what local coyotes are eating, and that meant dissecting the animals’ scat. Why? To better understand a creature that has lived side-by-side with humans since the Ice Age — and make sure it sticks around.
Armed with a few tools, paper towels, latex gloves and brief instructions on dividing scat into its various parts, volunteers unfurled stockings filled with dung. They referred to a diagram to help identify teeth from bones from scales from feathers. But they were often stumped — they aren’t trained scientists, after all. Was that a rabbit tooth or a cat claw? An incisor or a curved scapula?
“I have to look through your entire scat to get a feel for it,” said Justin Brown, the Park Service biologist leading the L.A. Urban Coyote Project, which has held seven of these dissection workshops since last year, each one of them attracting more volunteers than seats.
Volunteers for this effort are retirees, weekend naturalists, teachers, aspiring researchers, even families and couples on dates. On this day, Park Service pros huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with a tatted lumbersexual, a military veteran, a grinning grandparent, a towheaded 6-year-old and a long-haired rocker in a Black Sabbath cut-off tee. It looked like a motley crew of odd comrades, yet all were wildlife enthusiasts unfazed by the prospect of picking through poop in the name of preservation.
“Every time you dig, there might be something exciting in it,” said Philippe, a 10-year-old Netherlands native who was puzzled by a seed he couldn’t identify. He and the rest of the half-dozen young boys at the event beamed with pride at their discoveries — and none was scared about getting his hands dirty.
“I’d like to be a scientist,” Philippe said, adding that he was eager to brag to his friends but felt pretty sure “most of the girls in my class wouldn’t like this very much.”
“Hey, I’m a girl,” a 20-something woman retorted from behind a surgical mask a few feet away.
Poop dissection is just one way the Park Service is trying to get the public’s help in gauging how living in and around a mega-city effects coyotes. It’s also asked ordinary people to collect scat, as well as share coyote photos and sightings. L.A.-area residents have collected more than 1,300 pieces of you-know-what since the project launched in June. Once the droppings are in Park Service hands, staff bake and wash them to eliminate parasites, and volunteers lend a hand at monthly “scat parties” like this one.
“This is my fun, good-time Saturday,” said Sherry Ferber, a self-styled “scat sleuth” who travels with replica rubber raccoon droppings to better identify wildlife waste on her morning hikes. “I’m sad when I don’t see something on the trail.”
Ferber, a fourth-grade teacher who lives in Liberty Canyon, the site of a planned wildlife crossing for local mountain lions, said she and other volunteers are helping to reveal the true nature of animals misidentified as threats.
Park Service data prove her right about the dangers of coyotes. Biologists have been studying the animals here since 1996, radio collaring more than 150 animals, and serious conflicts with humans are rare. To reduce the likelihood of an unpleasant run-in with a coyote, the project disseminates do’s and don’ts. For example: Never feed wildlife, either intentionally or unintentionally by leaving out trash or pet food.
Figuring out what coyotes are eating in a fragmented environment full of traffic, trash and dwindling open spaces is part of the Park Service’s coyote-human peacekeeping mission. Brown, who has made a career of tracking the wild canines from the city’s fringes to its urban core, knows that if he can prove the coyote diet is predominantly wild foods — and not beloved pets, as many Angelenos fear — he can help shift public perception and reduce the potential for intra-species conflict.
The Park Service’s first coyote study, from May 2001 through July 2003, found that Conejo Valley coyotes — the ones in Thousand Oaks — ate rabbits, pocket gophers, woodrats and mice, as well as native and fallen backyard fruit. Eating domestic pets, like cats, proved very rare.
“We want to know why these animals are using specific areas, what type and how large an area is needed for them to subsist, and what do they eat in urban areas to actually persist?” he told the group. “This could help us understand other species as well, like bobcats and other mammals.”
Brown intends to use the current results to build on past data. But facing a limited budget and staff, he needs help. At this workshop, volunteers dissected more than 50 pieces of scat. Once finished, they wrapped the specimens in paper towels, each with the particular piece of poo’s identification number.
“A lot of time is breaking it down and spreading it into segments,” Brown said of coyote dung. “Once [volunteers have] taken things out, it only takes us 10 to 15 seconds to look at it, versus us having to take apart scat, go through nylon bags, the whole nine yards.”
So what makes someone come out on a sunny Southern California Saturday do this dirty work?
“I heard about it on National Public Radio,” explained Anthony Roselli, a tweed-wearing former chiropractor who has attended every event since the program began and was all smiles as he chipped away at a pile of rabbit fur and bones. “This makes me feel like a kid again.”
Others said they saw the poop party as gratis career training.
“This is the line of work I want to get into,” adds Patricia Lyon, a biology student at Pierce College. “And yes, this is the first time I’ve dissected scat.”