Killed by Coyotes

After releasing her debut album For Your Consideration to positive reviews in 2009, 19-year old Canadian country singer Taylor Mitchell’s star was on the rise. After a successful summer of performances, Mitchell purchased herself a car and embarked on a tour across Eastern Canada. her promising career, however, was tragically cut short on a sunny October afternoon in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where she became the victim of only the second ever fatal coyote attack in North America.

19-year old Taylor Mitchell. Photo: James Dean Photography

Born Taylor Luciow in Roncesvalles, Toronto, Mitchell began performing at an early age, ultimately graduating from the Etobicoke School of Arts with a major in musical theatre before embarking on a career as a singer-songwriter. After initially releasing an EP in 2007, she followed up with her independently-produced debut album at the age of 18. Featuring guest performances from a number of prominent Canadian country and folk singers, the album was well received, garnering praise from leading Canadian music publication Exclaim! magazine, amongst others.

After being invited to perform at the prestigious Winnipeg Folk Festival in July 2019, shortly before turning 19, she began preparations for a tour of Atlantic Canada to promote her album, beginning on October 23rd 2009. What would prove to be her final performance took place in Lucasville on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia on October 25th. 

With a rare two-day break before her next scheduled performance in Sydney, a small commune located on Cape Breton Island, Mitchell had told organisers at her previous performance that she intended to take the time to go hiking. She set out on the seven kilometre Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in the early afternoon of October 27th, passing an American couple close to the trailhead. Late in the season and midweek, the trail was otherwise largely deserted.

The same American couple encountered a pair of coyotes walking along the trail shortly after, heading in the same direction that Mitchell had set out in. Showing a remarkable lack of fear, the coyotes boldly approached the couple, who stepped aside off the trail to allow them to stroll past. The husband shot a number of photos as they passed, with subsequent experts that examined the pictures noting both the unusually large size of one male (around 42lb), and his dominant attitude towards humans. Six minutes later, the couple heard what they described as either animal howls or a woman’s screams, raising the alarm from a telephone box at the car park. While waiting for help to arrive they met four younger hikers from Europe and Australia, who after being told of the alarming noises set out to investigate.

A few minutes walk along the trail they began to find personal effects later confirmed to belong to Mitchell, including a small pocket knife and a bunch of keys. Pushing on, they found a washroom with blood spattered across the door, as well as blood and torn clothing on the floor. In the woods close by they found a badly injured Mitchell lying on the ground, still being attacked by a pair of coyotes. Her body was covered in bite wounds.

After shouting and throwing stones they were able to eventually drive the animals away. Although severely injured Mitchell remained conscious and able to talk to the group until the first RCMP vehicle arrived. The larger coyote had remained close by, seemingly reluctant to give up its prize, and it was only a blast from the shotgun of an RCMP officer that ultimately drove it off.

Mitchell was taken by ambulance to a nearby community health centre, before being rushed by helicopter to the Queen Elizabeth II Sciences Centre in Halifax. Despite the efforts of medical personnel, she died from blood loss the following morning.

Investigators quickly pieced together the evidence to create a likely narrative of Mitchell’s last moments. Having seemingly doubled back towards the car park rather than continuing around the full length of the seven kilometre looping trail, Mitchell was confronted by the pair of bold and aggressive coyotes previously encountered by the American couple further along the trail. The dropped knife and keys were seen as indicative of attempts by the singer to defend herself from the animals, before fleeing towards the relative safety of the washroom she had passed a few minutes ago after dropping both weapons in the struggle. Bloodstains on the door of the unlocked washroom indicate how close she came to shutting herself inside, before being overrun by the coyotes and dragged into nearby trees, where they continued with a sustained and predatory attack.

The authority’s response to the attack was swift; a female coyote that returned to the scene of the attack was shot and killed, and four more were caught in leg traps and subsequently destroyed within a kilometre of the site. On November 4th, a large male coyote was trapped and killed, with a subsequent necropsy finding shotgun pellets embedded in its body that matched those of the gun fired by an RCMP officer to drive off the aggressive coyote that had attacked Mitchell, proving it to be the same animal.

Examination of the female coyote shot at the attack site as well as another of the trapped animals found evidence that they had taken part in the attack. The finding that a third coyote was involved brought about the theory that Mitchell had turned back from her hike because she was already being tailed by one animal, only to encounter two more as she attempted to reach her car. A fourth individual with a distinctive coat marking, one of the pair photographed on the trail heading towards Mitchell, was also suspected to have taken part in the attack but never caught.

The news that coyotes had killed a healthy adult was met with widespread shock, with most people familiar with the outdoors having never considered even large coyotes capable of posing a threat of that kind. Early suggestions that the animals could have been rabid were quickly disproven, with necropsy results showing the animals found to be involved in the attack were healthy and free of rabies.

Another popular theory was that the animals responsible were coyote-wolf hybrids rather than pure coyotes. There is no population of wolves in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick that could have produced such hybrids, but the size and aggressive nature of the animals involved in the attack lead many investigators to conclude they were part of the ‘Eastern Coyote’ subspecies found in Atlantic Canada, significantly larger than those found in Western Canada and the United States. Biologists theorise that this size and temperament is a result of interbreeding with the wolf populations that were still extant in Eastern Canada when many coyotes were driven north out of the Great Plains by the colonisation of America.

Nova Scotia biologist Bob Bancroft put forward the explanation that the animals responsible were hungry, desperate young coyotes that lacked the experience to catch traditional prey consistently, and that Mitchell inadvertently triggered their innate predator response by attempting to run away. Mitchell was an exceptionally slight girl, standing just 5ft tall and weighing around 105lb. It stands to reason that a a group of large, aggressive coyotes were able to overpower the young singer. 

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