Human dimensions research empowers wellbeing

Apr 21st, 2014

Janet Harron

Human dimensions research empowers wellbeing

In 2009 Canadian folksinger Taylor Mitchell was attacked and killed by coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. She was the second person and first adult in North America to be the victim of a fatal coyote attack.

Over the last three years, PhD candidate Carly Sponarski has spent a total of 12 months living in Chéticamp, N.S., working directly with park visitors and area residents to understand their values, attitudes and behaviour regarding human-coyote interactions and to reduce any potential future attacks.

“We assessed their attitudes, fear and their perception of the likelihood and control over an attack. For many a sense of control is key,” explained Ms. Sponarski, whose research is in the area of animal/human interaction.

Dr. Alistair Bath, Department of Geography, Dr. TA Loeffler, School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, and Dr. Jerry Vaske, Colorado State University, are on Ms. Sponarski's PhD committee.

“We also empowered people so that they could protect themselves in the rare instance that a coyote would be aggressive,” said Ms. Sponarski.

Based on previous human dimensions research Ms. Sponarski conducted in the park in 2011-12, Sharing Space: Living with Coyotes was designed to target attitudes and perceptions of risk. An experiential learning cycle was used to design the program; participants learned to ask themselves whether their level of fear was elevated or close to what the actual risks really were. A key element was learning what it’s like to be a coyote in Cape Breton, which involved using GPS co-ordinates from collared coyotes to explain different animal behaviours. 

“We gave them a pen and on a typographical map, the participants connected the GPS points following a coyote’s movement through the landscape. For example, they could see the coyote go along the river or along the ridge of a mountain and they told me why,” explained Ms. Sponarski. “This gets them talking about coyote behaviours and the related ecological information.”

Like other wildlife, coyotes will often opt to use human pathways, such as the mowed grass beside a road. According to Ms. Sponarski, this learning is often one of the strongest points the program communicates.

“It allows people to realize that a coyote has it’s own identity. It’s not trying to do anything, it’s just being.”

The program also addressed coyote attractants using a poster of a typical Cape Breton yard, including lobster shells, a deer carcass, a dog’s fecal matter and water dishes. Local participants realized what potential attractants they had in their yards and what they could do to minimize the chances of coyotes exploring their property.

Sharing Space: Living with Coyotes also encouraged participants to be what Ms. Sponarski calls “a coyote ninja” in the rare instance of a coyote encounter.

“Ninjas have incredible mental and physical strength, both mental and physical, and they know how when to use it. We get people up and explain to them about the different deterrants such as a whistle, having rocks in your pockets and walking with a stick.”

Participants were taught the BAM approach – Back away, Act big, and Make noise. In rare cases, they were also encouraged to fight back.


PhD student Carly Sponarski and Chum, an artist-rendered


Chum, a coyote “ambassador” made by a local Chéticamp artist William Roach, is used to act out different scenarios with participants to allow them to practise appropriate responses.

“Chum is on wheels and ropes so we could swing him toward a person who would then be instructed to hit Chum with a walking stick or throw a stone. This resulted in interesting reactions from those people with heightened fears," said Ms. Sponarski. “They would say ‘I didn’t know how much strength I had until I connected with him.’” 

That healthy reaction was common throughout the workshops.

“People could discuss how this empowered them by helping with their emotional well-being. They all ended up talking about coyotes and how they felt they could walk by themselves again.”

Ms. Sponarski led 20 sessions with local residents throughout the fall of 2013. Participants were given informational brochures to distribute to their communities.

Growing up in Western Canada, Ms. Sponarski grew up as an animal lover, idolizing Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey. Initially her education was in biology but she began realizing that animal-based conservation “can only go so far.” 

“Conserving or preserving a species really comes down to human choices and to achieve conservation we need to work with people.”

It was an “aha” moment for Ms. Sponarski that resulted in her contacting Dr. Bath and coming to Memorial to work with him on human dimensions in wildlife resource management. 

“Working with humans is the key to creating optimal management protocols. Human dimensions uses applied aspects of geography. It delves into the academic side of theory but it also has this outreach side where you can get your hands dirty and get out of the ivory tower,” said Ms. Sponarski. “I have seen the power of this approach in Cape Breton.”