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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 city of 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 12, 2012 11:41AM

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 east 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. We still see that gentleman walk his little dog around the circle. But now he always carries a walking stick with him.”

Coyotes are seemingly everywhere in Chicago’s ring counties. 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 in 1989, to 300 to 400 annually now.

Coyotes, famous for their ability to adapt and change to new conditions, have become so accustomed to living around humans that cats form about 1 percent of a Chicago area coyote diet, according to the study.

Filling a vacuum

Ecology abhors a vacuum, and for decades places like Kane County had one yawning lack. When the first European visitors arrived, northern Illinois had predators capable of eating large animals such as 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.

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 p.m., 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 fence 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. 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, the city council passed an ordinance fining people $100 to $950 for feeding 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. Park rangers canvassed the nearby woods and shot seven coyotes. One had been seen near Mitchell. Another had pieces of a human body in its stomach.

When Stanley Gehrt from the Chicago-area coyote study was called in by Canadian authorities to investigate, he approached it 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 against children.

But on a documentary about the incident made by the National Geographic Channel, 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, nor because the woman had 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 are becoming frighteningly similar in places like Chicago and its suburbs.

To start with, Gehrt found that the coyotes killed in the Canadian park were larger and more wolf-like than ones found in the Chicago area. As coyotes migrated eastward, some of them apparently interbred with wolves in southern Ontario.

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 by tourists walking along an entrance road in broad daylight. Rangers speculate some park-goers had been feeding animals, causing them to associate people with dinner. Since hunting is forbidden in the park, they also had no scary memories of human contact.

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, she apparently threw her cellphone and camera at them, then tried to run away, hoping to reach shelter.

Acting afraid, and especially running away, kicks in a coyote’s instinct to run after fleeing prey.

“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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