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Coyote experts question ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes’ account of Bay Area ‘attack’

SF Gate 8/17/2022 Dennis Young

Celebrity ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes’ harrowing tale of a coyote attack near the Golden Gate Bridge made headlines across the Bay Area and the country.  

The idea that a coyote had bloodied and bruised a veteran runner minding his own business on a popular Marin County trail was scary, and the video Karnazes shared of the immediate aftermath was graphic.

“I just had something rather terrifying happen. I'm out on a 150-mile trail run, and I just got attacked by a coyote,” Karnazes said in an Instagram video, visibly bleeding around the mouth. “That was a first. It knocked me over. Thankfully, I was running with poles, so I whacked it and it ran away. Kind of brutal. Not sure what I'm gonna do. I guess I gotta keep going, or else it'll probably come back for me.”

But coyote experts, in public statements and in response to questions from SFGATE, cast doubts on Karnazes’ dramatic account of what happened in the early hours of last weekend’s 150-mile Marin Headlands Endurance race.

The National Park Service says they spoke to Karnazes hours later and had a park ranger investigate the 3 a.m. incident. “To be clear, the fall, rather than the coyote itself, was the source of Karnazes' injuries,” NPS spokesperson Julian Espinoza told SFGATE. “It wouldn't be accurate to refer to the encounter as an attack.”

Karnazes, 59, has long been a celebrity in the long-distance running world, writing several books and boosting his profile with stunts like running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

He claimed the “well fed” coyote lunged for his energy bar. “As I’ve witnessed firsthand, people (mostly tourist) have been feeding wild coyotes in the Marin Headlands area of California,” he wrote on Facebook Monday. “This has got to stop. If you see someone feeding a coyote, please say something. The local Rangers are doing the best job they can, but we trail runners are out in these areas more than anyone.”

In interviews with other outlets and an email exchange with SFGATE, Karnazes’ story has been consistent: The coyote sprinted at him, knocking him over after he opened his energy bar. Multiple coyote experts said that this was unlikely, however. “According to our park biologists, this kind of reported activity from a coyote would be extremely unusual, as coyotes do not sprint at people when they approach them for food,” Espinoza said.

Camilla Fox, the founder and executive director of the Marin County nonprofit Project Coyote, concurred, saying an incident like the one Karnazes described would be “very uncommon.”

Both Fox and the National Park Service agreed with Karnazes’ contention that humans feeding coyotes was an issue, but pushed back on his conclusion that it would result in a coyote attacking a person.

“Feeding of coyotes and other wildlife can lead to habituation and a loss of coyotes’ natural wariness of humans,” Fox told SFGATE. “If they see people as a source for food they may become more bold, but true aggression toward people is very rare with coyotes.”

“People have, on occasion, encountered human-habituated coyotes in the Marin Headlands — just not in the way that has been described,” said Espinoza. “The overwhelming majority of the time that people observe aggressive behavior in coyotes, they are aware of their presence and are attempting to feed them.”

Fox also cast doubt on one specific part of Karnazes’ tale. The runner told the San Francisco Chronicle that he “heard the coyote snarling above him.” For coyotes, a snarl is "not one of their known vocalizations," according to Fox.

The NPS also told the Chronicle they ear-tagged several coyotes in the area, and those tags had not turned up any information about the Karnazes incident. (The Chronicle and SFGATE are both owned by Hearst but operate independently.) 

In an email exchange, Karnazes answered questions from SFGATE about the incident. At first, he deflected. “I think it’s important to note that I have run on these same trails for many years and have seen many coyotes and never had a problem,” he wrote. “People should not freak out, but they should stop feeding coyotes. I didn’t realize this had become such a problem until after the incident. Also, I was alone and it was 3 AM. Most people are not out at that hour by themselves.”

When asked for a detailed account of the encounter with the animal, he then shared the following:

“I was running down a trail in the middle of the night heading toward the turn around at the northwest parking lot of the Golden Gate Bridge. I unwrapped an energy bar and took a bite. Then I heard footsteps coming up behind me and thought it was a dog. I swung around to look and a coyote slammed into me sending me to the ground. It was going for the food I was eating and either miscalculated or got thrown off when I abruptly spun around.”

“I can’t read a coyote's mind, but that is what seemed like happened,” he added. “I looked up and the coyote was off to my side and I hit it with my pole (I was carrying running poles at the time, which are quite common during mountainous ultramarathons). It all happened in a flash and was done.

“And if you want greater detail, I peed my pants. That was also a first.”

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