Sanibel’s Elephant in the Room

contributed by Georgianne Nienaber

Most people are familiar with the story of the elephant in the room.” Let’s assume that there is a group of intelligent people gathered in a meeting. They include scientists, politicians and ordinary citizens. An enormous elephant is also sitting in the room, but no one is willing to stand up and say, Look, there is an elephant sitting in room!” No one will mention its presence because it would invite ridicule from the politicians and scorn from some of the scientists, who prefer to ignore the situation. The elephant is a controversial presence. It should not be at the meeting to begin with, and to acknowledge that reality would present an issue that is taboo, emotionally charged, and at best avoided altogether.

The elephant “ has been in the back of the room at Sanibel City Council meetings since December 3, 2019. The elephant has a name: Ethics.” Citizens and scientists have already been warned in an email from a councilman that he will not tolerate discussion about the circle of life,” which is really a euphemism for the ethical treatment of animals. In this case, coyotes on Sanibel have come under scrutiny for a number of reasons. However, no one in power has offered a vigorous public argument on behalf of the coyotes, which are living in our island sanctuary.

Coyotes are sentient beings and are just trying to exist. They share the bounty and balance of nature with humans and deserve compassion and empathy.

The Sanibel community must be vigilant in the protection and enhancement of its sanctuary characteristics,” cautions the Sanibel City Charter, Section 3.18.

Let’s try to look at the ethical responsibility inherent in this statement. It is a call to action and a reminder that passive acceptance of attempts to control normal animal behavior for our own comfort is morally wrong. Looking beyond the shores of our sanctuary, it is fact that wild animals on every continent are being killed so that human communities can expand.

Burdened with the definition of nuisance” animal here in Florida, the coyote is walking a tightrope. The Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) speaks with two voices and has termed the coyote a resident non-invasive” species, as well as a nuisance. Yet, on the fact page, FWC states, While an individual animal exhibiting behavior that conflicts with human expectations may be labeled as ‘nuisance’ wildlife, we must be careful not to apply this term to an entire species.”

An ethical analysis might suggest that what is a nuisance to some might not be a nuisance to all. Who then decides which animal has the right to live, while the other of the same species is killed in an act of convenience?

Rigid adherence to definitions eliminates the responsibility of ethical thinking, and FWC offers a codified definition of nuisance wildlife.” (Administrative Code (F.A.C.) 68A-9.010) An animal exhibiting behavior that causes (or is about to cause) property damage, presents a threat to public safety, or causes annoyance within, under or upon a building.”

Has any coyote on Sanibel exhibited nuisance” behavior as defined in the statute? This question deserves vigorous discussion.

A story out of Miami has enraged citizens this week and demonstrates clearly that public officials cannot be entrusted with making ethical decisions. In this tragic and unnecessary narrative the FWC killed a young coyote, which was rescued by Port of Miami firefighters, after it was observed trapped in the water between a buoy and a wall. Compassionate and empathetic action led to unethical responses by wildlife officials.

After photos of the exhausted but healthy coyote surfaced in south Florida media, along with photos of similarly exhausted firefighters caring for the coyote, the elephant in the room trumpeted loudly that FWC had violated public trust and ignored its own statutes. A petition garnered almost 7,000 signatures at this writing and can be viewed at change.org. Governor Ron DeSantis is the designated recipient. There is a second, worldwide petition that has 25,000 signatures as of this writing.

FWC defended its actions by saying the coyote was a non-native (invasive) species and a nuisance. Both are untrue. Read the nuisance statute again, and then note that Zoo Miami wildlife expert, Ron Magill, was quoted in the media correcting FWC’s statement that coyotes are invasive. They are listed as a non-invasive, resident species on the FWC website.

This coyote was not a nuisance. It was a terrified animal. Just try to imagine what this coyote, a member of the kingdom Animalia and genus Canis suffered. Like dogs, coyotes are intelligent, complex, and sentient beings. They experience fear and pain. To acknowledge this is to recognize the elephant in the room and assert Sanibel’s duty to remain committed to its charter.

Initially, the plan was to deliver the coyote to Wildlife Rescue of Dade County for rehabilitation. FWC requested a crate to transport the traumatized coyote. A phone call to Lloyd Brown of Wildlife Rescue confirmed media reports that FWC retrieved the transport crate, but never returned with the animal. Brown was preparing the facility for the coyote when he received notice that FWC had killed the coyote. FWC did not inform him. He learned about this from the media.

All Sanibel residents should understand that if they elect to hire a trapper for a nuisance” coyote, FWC will kill the coyote.

What image will it take to move the hard of heart to embrace an ethical argument on behalf of an animal that shares a home in Sanibel’s designated wildlife sanctuary? If the photos of exhausted firefighters caring for a half-drowned coyote do not move you, perhaps we need another image.

Georgianne Nienaber is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. She is retired and living on Sanibel Island after working for almost 50 years as an environmental, political and human rights investigative reporter.

Comments (16)

  1. Thank you Georgianne in bring this to everyone’s attention. I hope they see the coyotes have just the same right to be on sanibel or anywhere else as the sharks in the water or the neighborhood bobcats.

    • Georgianne NIenaber

      Thank you Jayne for reading and taking the time to comment. Unless people stand up to be counted, the coyote faces a difficult future.

  2. Thank you Georgianne – this is a very balanced and informed accounting of the coyote’s challenge right now, being on a conservation island. Folks need to use the same caution and principles livng with coyotes as they do with alligators.

  3. I like living on a sanctuary island but I do not like coyotes at all. When we first came to Sanibel in 1979 there were no coyotes. We used to argue about alligators, draw bridges, franchise restaurants, signage etc but not coyotes. Not until recently. Let ‘s get this so called “elephant in the room “ down to size. We do have other problems here which we are trying to solve such as beach erosion and the ever increasing traffic. We used to be able to see alligators in Ding Darling especially around Alligator curve but no more. They can now be seen wherever they mow to the water line i.e. golf courses. We will learn to live with these dog like sentient creatures because this is where we live. But I, for one, wish they were not here.

    • I have been on Sanibel since 1963 on and off and am a Florida native. There were most certainly coyotes on Sanibel in 1979. They have been in Florida long before any of us were born. While you might not have noticed the coyotes in 1979, since they had lots more room here to roam and lots of places to hunt and hide…they were there nevertheless. I saw them several times in the early 70s even before 1979. Coyotes are not a threat to us. We are the threat.

  4. Hello Beautiful Sanibel,

    Greetings from your friends and neighbors on nearby Pine Island!
    We have many coyotes here, and they can often be heard at night, before and after their hunts.
    To the best of my knowledge, no one is trying to kill them.
    We have a wide range of wildlife, and while humans can sometimes be in conflict with the animals, generally most of us show respect and compassion. This is a significant feature of life on an island that has not been overrun by humans who want to control every outcome.

    Doug C
    Bokeelia, FL

    #PlantOneTree 🌎

    • Georgianne Nienaber

      Doug, ‘’ This is a significant feature of life on an island that has not been overrun by humans who want to control every outcome.’’ That sentence says it all!

  5. What a well written piece. Thank you so much. As a native, I love my dear islands so much. I grew up both on a ranch on the east side of the Everglades and here on the islands. I have had a lifelong relationship with our environment and wildlife. It is why I love Florida so much. We are the stewards of this land and the critters on it. We need to take good care of all of them. There are birds and wildlife I never see anymore and can’t show my grandchildren now because of development and more and more of our natural landscape, especially off island, disappearing. Thank you for your voice!

  6. Georgianne, I know you have studied Baboons in Africa. Please don’t compare coyotes to baboons. As you are well aware they are totally different species and there are no baboons on Sanibel. The coyotes on Sanibel are at the top of the food chain and will propagate until the food supply becomes limited. I know because I spent 50 years in the western US with coyotes common place. I’m sure you’ve heard of the theory of unintended consequences. Let me explain what happened in our community in rural California. As the coyote population expanded, the bobcat population shrunk due to lack of food eaten by coyotes. As the coyote population expanded, owls and morning doves became all but extinct in our area. We previously had kites (the bird) hunting mice and rats daily. The kites are now gone as are the small rodents which the kites ate. Needless to say all the rabbits are gone. I hope these unintended consequences are not what you wish for Sanibel. These are facts that I saw with my own eyes, not through some scientific study. Coyotes were a danger to our local residents that walked their small dogs. Not because a coyote would attack a human being, which I agree is quite rare, but because most pet owners would sacrifice their safety to save their pet from a coyote attack. In the process they would likely get injured. Please think about these consequences as you champion the coyotes.

    • Georgianne Nienaber

      I do not believe I am in any way comparing baboons to coyotes! Otherwise, thanks for your comments.

    • Mr Reece, your interpretation of coyote biology, specifically reproductive family unit structure and management as well as predator/prey balance, does not align with the science known today. We (taxpayers) have spent hundreds of millions on this research (and have had government waste as many in trying to defy it).

      Perhaps(?) you perceiving that some appear to be championing this species because it is so grossly misunderstood and inaccurately maligned. People who don’t like the truth tend to ignore it. Coyote hating killers have been driving a false narrative. Not saying you are or did that, just a general point. You have hit the target of a bigger challenge today than any coyote, baboon or elephant is!

      Wildlife biologists know that predator/prey populations manage themselves without outside impacts upon it. Everything we do to disrupt that balance still never stops Nature from trying to fix it.

      There is a critically important difference Biological Carrying Capacity (BCC) and Social Carrying Capacity (SCC). BCC is science. It is the reality that there are never more animals on the land than that land can support; Nature is forced to strive for balance. SCC is opinion. It is socio-political perception. It is conjecture. We can not allow ourselves to make mistakes based on SCC judgments. We do this too often.

      We also own property in the west, a part of the rockies where coyotes are not targeted — and not in decades have we ever had any imbalance of prey populations or human-coyote related conflicts in and around the 8,000 acres that they surely could “over-populate” if that is what coyotes do. Not even with the free range cattle. Seeing a coyote pass by out there is like seeing a cardinal in Florida. A non event.

  7. Thank you for your voice, Georgianne. I love on Sanibel, and will work with you to protect the wildlife on the island from fear. I will use my vote as well as my pocketbook to stop this fearmongering from spreading.

  8. Thank you Georgianne for a well researched and thoughtful article. We have been residents here since 2007. We have seen surges in many different animal populations. Mother nature has a way of working things out and will do so if we quit trying to second guess her. We have chosen to live in a wildlife sanctuary for a reason, for those who struggle with living with unpredictable animals like alligators ,bobcats, coyotes or bears for that matter it may be time to reconsider if Sanibel is still the place for you or your pets. after all there are many beaches out there that are not apart of wildlife sanctuaries. You may lose some of the dark skies and quiet but maybe you will gain a new sense of security and peace. Killing an animal simply because it exists is just not right. Lets all live and let live.

  9. I love the coyotes I see regularly in our west end neighborhood. They behave well and walk away quickly when they see a human. No one should let cats or dogs run loose here away given the gators and bobcats as well as cars on the island.

  10. Most species will only be attracted to areas that provide a food source. Clearly, there is something attracting coyotes to the island. Perhaps they are being inadvertently or intentionally fed, or there is a newly discovered natural food source. I’d suggest inviting an independent, non-biased wildlife biologist in for a community educational event, but it should be someone with specific knowledge of coyote biology and behavior.

  11. Excellent article! It is high time for Game agencies to acknowledge the coyote for the benefits it offers to our ecosystem. They need to get rid of the term “nuisance” and embrace this animal as our one and only true native carnivore! Thank you Georgianne for your excellent article!

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