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As coyote’s fear of us decrease, the risk increases

Volunteer AndreKrueger spends some time with Yodi rescued coyote during annual Fox Valley Wildlife Center baby shower Elburn Woods Forest

Volunteer Andrea Krueger spends some time with Yodi, a rescued coyote, during the annual Fox Valley Wildlife Center baby shower at the Elburn Woods Forest Preserve on Sunday, Apr. 10, 2011. | Sun-Times Media~File Photo

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How to stay safe

The Naperville Animal Control Department offers these tips for dealing with coyotes safely:

Don’t encourage coyotes by feeding them.

Keep pet food and water dishes inside.

Keep barbecue grills clean.

Don’t keep garbage cans outside, if possible.

Clear away bushes and dense weeds that coyotes might use to seek cover.

If you see a coyote , make loud noises to scare them off. Do not be submissive, turn your back or run.

Never leave dogs or cats unattended in a yard, and always keep them inside at night.

Keep your yard well-illuminated.

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:07AM

ELGIN — When Jim Chevalier heard that coyotes twice had attacked pet dogs in Wheaton over the past two weeks, killing one pet, it didn’t surprise him. About a year ago, that almost happened in the neighborhood where he lives, just east of the Toastmaster plant and south of I-90 on Elgin’s far northeast side.

“One my neighbors was walking his little dog late at night around Bradley Circle,” Chevalier said. “All of a sudden, he was surrounded by several coyotes. They were going after his dog. He started yelling for help very loudly. Finally, someone else heard him and drove over with their car; and by shouting and honking and threatening with the car, they were able to scare the coyotes away.

“Ever since then, we still see that gentleman walk his little dog around the circle. But now he always carries a walking stick with him.”

According to a wildlife expert for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, the Bradley Circle residents did just the right thing. But a 19-year-old Canadian folk singer facing a similar situation with a pack of coyotes apparently did just the wrong things, and paid with her own life.

Coyotes are seemingly everywhere in Chicago’s ring counties, and even in Chicago itself. They were almost unheard of even in rural areas of the counties as little as 30 years ago. But a study of Chicago’s “urban coyotes” completed last year concluded that an estimated 2,000 now live in Cook and the counties surrounding it. The number removed as pests — either relocated or killed — in the Chicago area has exploded from 20 a year as recently as 1989, to 300 to 400 annually now.

It is a species famous for its ability to adapt and change to new conditions, and it is getting more and more used to living around humans. Cats form an estimated 1 percent of the Chicago area’s coyotes’ diet, according to the study.

Some wonder if humans, too, could even end up on their menu.

Filling a vacuum

Ecology abhors a vacuum, and for decades places such as Kane County had one yawning lack. When the first European visitors arrived, northern Illinois had predators capable of eating large animals like deer — cougars, wolves and black bears. But by about 1910, those had all disappeared, pushed out by hunters, trappers and diminishing habitat. As coyotes moved in from their original haunts in the far West, they found a glorious buffet.

The urban coyote study — led by Dr. Stanley Gehrt from Ohio State University and conducted largely from McGraw Wildlife Foundation headquarters in East Dundee — judged that our coyotes usually live alone or in packs of about six headed by a father and mother. They eat mainly rodents such as squirrels, mice and rats; deer fawns and the carcasses of already dead deer; and fruit.

Many people will cheer that they also eat that other pesky invader, the Canada goose, whose growth rate has fallen from about 10 percent a year in the Chicago region to 1 percent now.

But the size of prey they can handle includes cats and dogs, and that leads to incidents like the one in Elgin and the more recent ones in Wheaton.

Bloody Wheaton

The two recent Wheaton incidents took place in a semirural area along the Illinois Prairie Path, near Herrick Lake.

During the last week of September, four to six coyotes surrounded the two pets dogs in the yard of Sue Reid. The attackers severely bit Jake, a silky terrier, then carried off Floyd, a Yorkshire terrier. The terrier’s remains were found a few days later.

Then, last week at about 10:30 one night, a 20-year-old house-sitter heard a family’s 16-pound bichon frisé named Evie barking loudly. Looking into the backyard, she saw a single coyote with Evie in its mouth. She screamed and chased the coyote, which slipped through the bars of a 5-foot iron fence around the yard but dropped the dog. Evie was taken to a veterinarian with six puncture wounds in the neck.

For Wheaton, it was a painfully familiar story. In January 2010, coyotes killed a 20-pound terrier in its owner’s backyard near the Chicago Golf Club. In November 2010 another dog was killed; and in December 2010, a third was attacked by three coyotes working together.

Wheaton’s city government fought back after the first 2010 case by hiring wildlife controller Rob Erickson of Cortland to shoot five coyotes in the area. When that created an outrage by wildlife lovers, the city council passed an ordinance fining people $100 to $950 for feeding any kind of wildlife.

Human prey

Those dog attacks were nothing compared to what happened in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Canada on the sunny fall afternoon of Oct. 26, 2009. A 19-year-old Toronto folk singer named Taylor Mitchell went hiking along a wooded trail used by hundreds of park-goers every day. Another group of hikers heard a scream.

Going back up the trail, they found the young woman, horribly mangled and bleeding, lying near an outdoor toilet, with a coyote standing over her. Bloody handprints suggested she had tried to get into the toilet to seek shelter but that some animal or animals had dragged her away to the edge of the forest.

The other people tried to scare away the coyote, but he defiantly stood his ground. Finally a park ranger ran back to his pickup, got a shotgun and fired, wounding the coyote in its hind quarters. The animal finally ran off.

Mitchell was helicoptered to a hospital but died just after midnight that night.

Park rangers canvassed the nearby woods and shot to death seven coyotes. One, a male with a previous shotgun wound, was judged to be the one seen near Mitchell. Another, a female, had pieces of a human body in its stomach.

Enter Dr. Gehrt, from the Chicago-area coyote study.

Called in by Canadian authorities to investigate the Taylor Mitchell case, Gehrt approached it at first with skepticism. No adult human had ever been killed by a coyote. No human had ever even been attacked in the whole Chicago area. Only about three attacks by coyotes per year had been recorded in the U.S. and Canada, most of those against children.

But on a documentary about the incident made by the National Geographic Channels last year, Gehrt said he became convinced that not only had the young singer been killed by coyotes, but they did not do it because they were defending a territory, or because the woman had somehow threatened their puppies.

They did it because they wanted to eat her.

Unusual incident?

The circumstances that led up to this murder by coyote in Canada were somewhat unusual, but of a sort that are becoming frighteningly similar in places like Chicago and its suburbs.

To start with, Gehrt found, the coyotes killed in the Canadian park were larger and a bit more wolf-like than ones found in the American West or in the Chicago area. As coyotes migrated eastward, some of them apparently interbred with wolves in southern Ontario. The resulting strains of coyote tend to be stronger and more aggressive than a typical coyote, more likely to hunt deer instead of squirrels, and more likely to hunt as a pack instead of as individuals.

Besides that, the coyotes in the Canadian park seemed to have lost all fear of humans. Two of the coyotes implicated in the attack had been photographed earlier by tourists walking along an entrance road to the park in broad daylight. Rangers speculate that some park-goers had been feeding the animals, causing them to associate people with dinner time. Since hunting is forbidden in the park, they also had no fearful memories to associate with human contact.

The Canada attack occurred at a time of year when the pack may have been especially hard-pressed to feed the kids. Its pups, born in the spring, would have been big enough to need lots to eat, but perhaps not old enough yet to hunt well on their own.

Finally, Gehrt and the other researchers theorize that unlike the people defending their dogs in Elgin and Wheaton, Taylor Mitchell may have handled the attack badly. Terrified as three to seven coyotes confronted her, and possibly surrounded her, she apparently threw her cellphone and camera at them, then tried to run away, hoping to reach the shelter of the outdoor toilet.

Acting afraid, and especially running away, kicks in a coyote’s instinct to run after fleeing prey, just as an angry poodle or spaniel is much more likely to bite a person if the person acts afraid and runs away.

People may actually be safer from coyote attacks in relatively rural places such as western Kane County than in congested areas such as Wheaton and Chicago — or, perhaps, Elgin. Coyotes living in or close to the city have had so much contact with humans and have so grown to realize that humans won’t hurt them, that they are losing all fear. And with lack of fear comes danger, both to the coyote and to humans and their pets.

Even the most developed areas of the city of Chicago have became part of the new coyote homeland — if not to whole packs, at least to occasional lone males wandering along the Chicago River in hopes of setting up a new territory. They have been seen around Navy Pier. A few years ago, one walked into a convenience store in the heart of downtown Chicago, possibly attracted by the odors from its sandwich counter. It didn’t attack anybody but caused more than a little alarm among the customers and staff before it finally decided to leave without making a purchase.

“Out west, if a coyote sees your car a mile away, he will break into a run,” Rob Erickson, owner of the Cortland-based On Target wildlife removal service, said in a radio interview last week. “Come up to one in downtown suburbia, and he’ll pose for a photo.”

One day recently along the border between Elgin and South Elgin, a lone coyote trotted calmly along the shoulder of Route 31 at 2 in the afternoon, passing Elgin Mental Health Center and the District 2 state police station as numerous cars drove past just a few yards away.

“Our job is to keep them scared of us, not us scared of them,” naturalist Jack MacRae of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District said during a lecture in August. “Confronting them with loud noises, banging things and so forth makes them less likely to be bold and want to be around you anymore.”

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