Hank the dog — a chocolate English Labrador retriever, to be exact — has survived two coyote attacks in two months at his home in Westlake Village.
“We never in a million years thought they would mess with him,” says owner Kevin, a retired firefighter and 12-year resident of Thousand Oaks, with his wife, Louann.
At seven years old and 100 pounds, Hank seems an unlikely target for his wild canine cousins. He is mellow-tempered, easygoing — and large.
“Hank is nice to everybody,” Kevin told the Guardian. “He just wants to be loved on and pet.”
Hank belongs to Kevin’s son, also a firefighter, but because of the son’s work schedule, Kevin cares for the lovable lab much of the time. In April, Hank awoke Kevin and Louann in the middle of the night, needing to go to the bathroom.
“We got up at about 3 o’clock in the morning, and we went out front for him to go to the bathroom in the yard,” Kevin says.
Kevin knew there was something wrong right away when Hank started.
“I looked up, and there were between six and eight coyotes in a big arc on the street — some in front of my truck, some behind my truck, one coming up the driveway, and three more across the street that actually activated the security light on someone’s garage. And they all were converging on us at once,” he says.
Kevin grabbed Hank by his collar and began to back up towards the security gate, and the coyotes closed in.
“None of them were afraid, and they all were just making the circle smaller as they came toward us. And so we backed up. They didn’t charge, but they didn’t back down either,” he says. “They were coming up the steps toward us, kind of creepy-walking. They weren’t running, they weren’t charging, they were hunched down, and every step we took, they took a step.”
Both pet and owner managed to slide inside the gate before the coyotes came close enough to lunge. Little more than a month later, Hank had another run-in with a predator — and this one involved physical contact.
“It just had gotten dark,” Kevin recalls of the second incident. “I was watching the Dodger game, and he wanted to go out to the bathroom, so in between innings, I grabbed him, went out our back door through our gate and went directly to the greenbelt behind our house … I was no more than five feet away from him … and he was kind of off-balance, squatted down. All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash, and a coyote about the same size as he was came as fast as I’ve ever seen any of them run. He came out super-quiet, super-fast, out of the ivy and tackled Hank, completely knocked him off his feet. I heard a big thud.”
In the blink of an eye, Hank was on his back, wondering what had hit him. He tumbled over, then sprang to his feet to defend himself — but the coyote had backed off.
“Hank got up, and he was angry,” Kevin says. “That was the first time I’ve ever seen him wanting to fight anything, and he was growling.”
It took some shouting to get Hank not to try to chase the coyote — which stood nearby and watched the duo. Kevin marvels that the coyote “wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t hunkered down. He was standing proud, and he was stalking us. Every time we’d walk further away from him, he’d keep the same distance and follow us. And when we would stop, he would stop.”
Kevin grabbed Hank and walked him back toward the house, and “every time I would walk closer to the gate to go in the house, the coyote would come that much closer to us again. He walked all the way down and stood outside our back fence.”
Once Hank was safely inside, Kevin tried to shoo the wily hunter away.
“I bet I threw ten rocks at him, and I hit him a couple times, and he would run and then stop and come back. And finally, he just got bored of us and left,” he says.
Friends suggested the coyote may have been trying to provoke Hank into chasing it to where more coyotes were lying in wait on a nearby hillside. Kevin’s neighborhood isn’t particularly close to hills or open spaces, but like many areas in the Conejo Valley, it has been subject to coyote attacks recently.
Jessica West, Human-Wildlife Conflict Specialist with California Fish and Wildlife, says many coyote attacks are preventable.
“We’re really trying to get people to think proactively versus reactively,” West told the Guardian.
She recommends not leaving water bowls or pet food outside, which alerts coyotes to potential prey. Owners of smaller cats and dogs are encouraged to trim leafy bushes and undergrowth so coyotes can’t be concealed for a surprise attack.
Additionally, West recommends keeping animals on a leash at all times, no more than six feet away from oneself. Extendable leashes of greater than six feet offer no way of picking up a pet if a coyote attacks. Thick vests for pets are available at some stores to protect against attacks. “Rollers” atop fences can spin if a coyote attempts to jump over. Air horns let out sharp, startling notes which may startle coyotes and alert neighbors of their presence.
Not long after Hank’s brawl, Kevin and Louann were enjoying a pleasant evening outside when a chilling sound pierced the night.
“We were sitting on the patio listening to music by the fire pit, and again, right around 8 or 9 o’clock — dusk — we heard the God-awful scream of a dog in pain,” Kevin says. “The dog continued screaming really loud, but it got quieter and quieter like it was being carried away, and that’s exactly what was happening. The next day we heard that a smaller dog got nabbed by a coyote, and it grabbed him and took off and ran away … It was very eerie and sad. You were listening to something get basically murdered, and it was unsettling.”
He says local pet owners are starting to carry sticks and air horns intended to startle wild animals — and alert surrounding neighbors.
“Last Saturday, we had heard an air horn further down, and we went, ‘Oh, a coyote,’ so we got our horn and sat on our back patio and looked over our fence, and sure enough, about three minutes later, a coyote came trotting by,” he says. “We honked it. He just stopped and looked at us, and he casually changed course and kept going … But it was good that people were honking their horns because the people that hear it, now they know there’s one close, and they pick up their dogs and go different directions.”
Hank has been a different dog since the encounters.
“He was shocked by it, and now when he goes out, it’s funny; his whole demeanor has changed,” Kevin says. “He’s way more cautious. When he goes to the bathroom, or he’s walking around, first, he’s sniffing a lot, the grass and the ground. And he’ll raise his head high and sniff. And when he’s going to the bathroom, he’s looking everywhere, and he sets himself up in a position where he can see more of his surroundings. You can just tell he’s cautious, not happy-go-lucky … I like him being more aware of his surroundings. I don’t think it’ll go away. He learned a lesson. Gotta keep your eyes open.”