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A coyote in close-up.

Ken Canning/Ken Canning

Theriophobia. Thousands suffer from it, millions have no idea what it is.

Never heard of it? Never mind; even the mighty Google calls up fewer than 50 mentions, most of which reference a single quote by celebrated American writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez. In his 1978 classic, Of Wolves and Men, Lopez characterized the condition thus: "Fear of the beast. Fear of the beast as an irrational, violent, insatiable creature. Fear of the projected beast in oneself."

Wait a minute, "beast in oneself"?

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We'll get to that. But let's begin with the four-footed variety - the kind with fangs and claws.

Chances are you don't have to look far to find one, no matter where you live. Here in Toronto, coyotes thread their way softly through the city's many ravines, doing their bit to keep the rodent population under control. For the most part, they earn the epithet of "ghost dog," unseen by all but a few early-bird walkers.

Last year, however, one of the silvery creatures stepped out into the spotlight. "Neville" (so dubbed for the ravine he haunted in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood) made his name when he snatched a pet Chihuahua from its yard.

The papers were full of it, the blogs and call-in shows abuzz. Some called for old-school retribution, while others pled the case for peaceful coexistence. Animal Control officers planned to trap and kill the coyote, claiming they had no choice, given that Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources had refused to issue a special permit allowing the animal to be relocated outside the city. Neville's days appeared to be numbered - that is until more than 200 people signed a petition that forced the ministry to think again.

It's not the only time coyotes have made the news of late. They loom large in the public imagination ever since Toronto's Taylor Mitchell was killed by a pair of rogue animals in Cape Breton Highlands National Park last fall. This is in part because the story continues to evolve. Notwithstanding the fact that the animals in question have been destroyed, the Nova Scotia government has issued a bounty on pelts in a bid to diminish the local coyote population.

Maybe they're right to do so - after all, another young woman was recently attacked by a coyote in the same park, bitten on the back of the head while she slept.

Or maybe they're wrong. Taylor Mitchell's mother thinks so. Although devastated by her daughter's death, Emily Mitchell told the press this spring that she can't get behind the idea of a blanket cull. While she agrees that the aggressive animals must be dealt with, she doesn't want innocent coyotes harmed in the bargain. Moreover, she made it clear that Taylor, an ardent environmentalist, would have been opposed to, and indeed upset by, any such plan.

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Don't misunderstand me, I feel for the Mitchell family; I can only imagine the depth and breadth of their grief. I also feel for the Maxwell family, who lost their beloved family pet. None of which blinds me to the fact that when it comes to beasts, there's one creature on the planet before whom nearly all others lay back their ears in fear.

The sad truth is, people in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood (and virtually every other community, urban or rural) are at far greater risk of an attack by a human being than by any other animal. What's more, the same goes for their pets. Just ask any emergency room doctor or veterinarian about the damage homo sapiens can inflict.

Lopez had more to say on the subject: "At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one's own nature. In its headiest manifestations theriophobia is projected onto a single animal, the animal becomes a scapegoat, and it is annihilated."

He was lamenting the wholesale extermination of wolves in the United States when he penned those words, but he might just as well have been writing about coyotes. We human beings have tried out our bag of tricks on them, too - pits bristling with sharpened stakes, bone-breaking traps, dog packs and den fires, strychnine and nooses and guns - but somehow coyotes continue to thrive.

Their secret? Like us, they survive by adapting: they're opportunivores, feeding on everything from insects to garbage to deer; they can live almost anywhere, from the wide-open desert to the hollow beneath a porch; and, last but not least, they respond to excessive pressure on their populations by breeding more often and having more young. Clever ghost dogs, beating us at our own game.

I think Barry Lopez was right: While a cautious approach to any wild animal is only sensible, a phobic response is less about the beast in the underbrush than it is about the beast within. When we refuse to look inward - when we fix our fear on the head of a coyote or any other fellow predator - we miss the opportunity to face up to our own demons.

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Which is a shame, because in the end it's the only chance we have of facing them down.

For those who want to know more: The Nature of Coyotes: Voice of the Wilderness, by Wayne Grady

Alissa York is fiercely pro-human and pro-animal. Her new novel, Fauna, is available from Random House Canada. To learn more, go to

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