Coyote killings are rare and shocking

After 19-year-old singer-songwriter Taylor Mitchell was killed this week by coyotes in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the world has suddenly noticed the wolf's smaller cousin. Mitchell, a Torontonian who had recently been nominated for a Canadian folk music award, was attacked by two coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, in Nova Scotia on Tuesday. She was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax, but died from her injuries.

Her death has made global headlines, but any assumption that an attack this vicious is a normal occurrence has been rightly downplayed. For most Canadians, coyotes are a familiar, even urban, predator, known to target other small animals, and sometimes dogs or children. Taylor Mitchell's death was very rare, and unlike anything most people here have ever seen.

Unlike the image of the country that is sometimes promoted abroad, most Canadians do not forge through life in an untamed wilderness, battling the elements as they snowmobile to work. But though we are a mostly urban population, wild animals are a part of life in Canadian cities – even the biggest ones. The coyote in particular has adapted well to human populations, and in some areas of Canada has recently thrived.

Vancouver's Stanley Park is a 400-hectare forest peninsula, famous for anything but its coyote population. But along with the countless raccoons and skunks, the coyotes are well known to local residents. In 2001, the park "endorsed a collaborative strategy to deal with coyotes in the urban environment [called] Coexisting with Coyotes."

The programme introduced warning signs in the park, a coyote attack phone hotline, and – importantly – an education programme for children, the usual human targets of coyote encounters that sometimes occur.

Mitchell's case isn't the first account of a coyote attack this year. Earlier this summer in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, a coyote bit a toddler while she was in a school playground. The animal was later captured and euthanised. And just this week, a coyote attacked a pair of dogs in Canmore, Alberta putting residents there on edge. Still, despite the frequency of coyote encounters, attacks are rarely very serious, and deaths as a result are virtually unheard of.

All of this makes the attack on Taylor Mitchell an exception to the rule. Generally, not only do coyotes usually prey on small mammals, they hunt alone. That there were two coyotes in Mitchell's case points to the possibility that the animals – eastern coyotes – were part wolf, a predator known for pack hunting. The reasoning behind the attack on Taylor Mitchell is at this point still only speculation. Were the coyotes starved? Were they accustomed to humans feeding them? Nobody knows yet.

Taylor Mitchell's death has been as shocking to Canadians as anyone else in the world, because it strikes in very familiar territory. Suddenly the warning signs in an urban park start to look a bit more sinister. They aren't, of course. The warnings are a reminder that part of living in this country is the acceptance that animals are often nearby, and human interaction with them usually has negative results.

Mitchell's Facebook and MySpace pages are carrying messages of condolences and shock. Rightly so. Her recent Facebook status updates were full of excitement – especially that she was about to go on tour in Atlantic Canada. Now they are a depressing internet memory of a rare and terribly sad death.

Colin Horgan, a Vancouver-based freelance writer.