Where the wild things are
As coyotes move into suburbia, they conjure mixed emotions. Some people con- sider them a threat. Others are willing to coexist. Numi Mitchell wants to find ways to manage them and improve their public relations.
Rhody Coyote’s yellow eyes are in constant motion, looking at Spencer Tripp, the trapper who is holding him down by the neck with a critter-control pole, then at Ralph Pratt, the veterinarian who is preparing to stick him with a hypo, then at Numi Mitchell, the scientist with a camera and a notebook. His bushy tail is clamped tight against his skinny butt, one toe of his right forepaw is caught in the firm rubber jaws of a trap, he’s not moving a muscle, but those yellow eyes are taking it all in, with a look of deep despair. There’s no fierce snarl, no gleam of defiance. When Mitchell squats down and grasps him by the back of the neck, the jaws gape in protest, showing strong, brutal white fangs, but the eyes have a faraway look, as if he’s prepared to see this familiar world—the spring trees, the blue morning sky, the damp, thick woods—give way to the next one.
Mitchell and Pratt work gently and efficiently to sedate him, free his foot from the trap, place a microchip under the skin at his shoulder, draw a blood sample, measure all his parts (ears, tail, nose to rump, shoulder to toe), hoist him in a net to check his weight (forty-four pounds), assign him a name, and secure a cus-tom-made high-tech radio collar around his neck. He’s about to become part of Mitchell’s study of coyote behavior on Aquidneck Island.
Coyotes began to appear in Rhode Island sometime in the late 1960s, says Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Management. Brown works at the Great Swamp Field Headquarters at the end of a ragged dirt road in South Kingstown. Bullfrogs croak in the pond outside, and in Brown’s tiny office, dusty shelves hold bones and skulls of foxes and beavers, a stuffed bobcat prowls on top of a filing cabinet, and two luxurious coyote pelts hang on a hook by the door. It’s his job to keep track of the state’s mammals.
“Historically, coyotes weren’t native to New England,” he says. “Their niche, as a top canine predator, was occupied by wolves. When the region was settled by Europeans, the forests were cleared for agriculture and firewood, and the wolves were hunted down and driven away.” By the 1960s, farms were reverting to forest. But this new forest was tangled with undergrowth, fractured by roads, sprinkled with houses—not a habitat enticing to wolves. To coyotes, it was an open invitation. With no wolves to drive them away, they started to expand their range from their native Midwest region. Coyotes now are found coast to coast in North America.
Rural Rhode Islanders were the first to spot coyotes slinking along roadsides or scouting the edges of backyards, but they have gradually spread to just about every corner of the state, except Block Island. They provoke mixed reactions. Some welcome them as wild neighbors, interesting to watch and maybe good for the balance of nature. But many see them as unnatural, a nuisance, or even a threat. They worry that the coyotes will spread rabies, plunder trash cans, eat their pets and attack their children.
Brown debunks all of those concerns, except for the danger to pets. “A small dog or a cat is simply prey to a coyote,” he says. “People just have to learn not to let them out at night.” If trash is properly stowed and hard to get at, the coyotes won’t bother with it, he says. No cases of rabies have been found in the local population. “The type of rabies found in the Northeast is much more likely to infect raccoons,” he says.
There are few documented attacks by coyotes against humans, even children, and those that do occur are generally prompted by people trying to interact with or feed the coyotes. “Don’t approach them, and you won’t have any problems,” Brown says. Compared to attacks on humans by domestic dogs, which number in the thousands every year, coyotes aren’t even in the ballpark.
But relations between people and coyotes here are still new, and the protocols aren’t yet familiar, especially to urban dwellers. Questions arise about how many coyotes can be supported here. “How many coyotes can live in Rhode Island is really more of a cultural question than a biological one,” says Brown. “For some people, or in some places, like maybe Bellevue Avenue in Newport, one might be too many. But it’s funny…people will call us and say, ‘We hate that coyote, it’s dangerous, please get rid of it!’ But then they’ll turn around and say, ‘Wait, you’re not going to kill it, are you?’ ”
How a top predator will adapt to a human-dominated environment where it hasn’t lived before is a fascinating question for a wildlife scientist. When coyotes began to colonize Aquidneck Island and Jamestown about ten years ago, Numi Mitchell was intrigued. But curiosity is one thing, cash is something else.
“When it was purely scientific research, nobody was interested in funding the work,” Mitchell says. At first, coyotes were scarce, and found mainly in wooded areas with few human residents. “But a few years later, aha!” she continues. “Coyotes are everywhere, and they’re a problem. Now it’s a management issue.” Mitchell has a doctorate in biology and works as a partner in a small nonprofit corporation called the Conservation Agency. She has directed research projects on wildlife around the world and is especially interested in how animals adapt to island life. When a Jack Russell terrier in Newport became a snack for a coyote, its owner offered to become Mitchell’s first major donor.
In June 2005, she launched the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study.Mitchell knew that coyotes had been studied in other parts of the country, and nobody had found a way to eradicate them. But she thought she might be able to find effective ways to manage them and improve their relations with humans. “Coyotes are very territorial,” she says. “If you kill them off, that just frees up the territory, and new coyotes will move in. But if food is scarce, they will self-regulate. Some females won’t breed, and those that do will have fewer puppies. If food is abundant, fat coyotes are fertile coyotes. So if we could figure out what their food resources are, maybe we could control the food supply, keep them a little hungry, and that would control the population.”
She designed a study using state-of-the-art radio collars, satellite tracking, and computer mapping tools to track the movements of individual coyotes. By the fall of 2006 Mitchell and her team had collared more than a dozen animals on Aquidneck Island and Jamestown. By tracking the animals’ movements every hour of every day and plotting them on maps, they were able to follow their daily travels and determine the home ranges of ten separate packs.
The maps also revealed distinctive coyote behaviors. Certain points on the map were attracting groups of coyotes night after night. “We found something we didn’t expect,” Mitchell says. “People were actually feeding the coyotes!” In one neighborhood, children were going out after dinner and leaving their table scraps on a stone wall near the woods, hoping to befriend the wild animals. In another spot, close to where a resident had complained that coyotes killed her dog, Mitchell found a neighbor had been leaving out pet food at night. “She thought that if the coyotes weren’t hungry, they would leave her cats alone,” Mitchell says. “Instead, she was just creating Coyote Central.”
When coyotes began to show up in Warwick neighborhoods a few years ago, the common reaction was panic. “I was getting coyote calls eight to ten times a week,” recalls Warwick City Councilman John DelGiudice. “People were afraid of them, and a lot of the callers wanted to see them eradicated. They wanted us to bring in sharpshooters.” The coyotes were turning up around Rocky Point, at golf courses, in wetlands, and in backyards. DelGiudice began to study the issue and consulted with experts.
“People at first thought we were infested with coyotes,” he says. “They thought there were probably sixty to 100 of them just on Warwick Neck. What we found out was there were really only about ten to twelve. They cover a lot of ground, and people were seeing the same ones over and over.” DelGiudice also learned that eradication was not an option. “In Texas, the government destroyed 2,500 coyotes in 1998, 2,800 in 2000, and 3,300 in 2002, at a tremendous cost,” he wrote in a 2005 report to the city. After all that effort, “[Texas officials] reported no significant drop in the population of coyotes.”
DelGiudice realized that public education was the answer. “We brought in experts to neighborhood meetings, to explain to people that the coyotes weren’t going to go away, and we’d have to learn to live with them,” he says. “They were told simple things they could do to keep the coyotes out of their yards: cover their trash, don’t leave pet food outside, watch that birdfeeders aren’t attracting rodents.”
The education program seems to have worked. “I can’t remember the last time I got a call complaining about coyotes,” DelGiudice says in June. “It must be over a year ago.” He knows they’re still in the area; they’ve been seen near the golf course, or crossing the road near Buckeye Brook. He’s also noticed he hasn’t seen any skunks lately. “I don’t know if the coyotes ate them, or just scared them away,” he says. “But there definitely seems to be fewer skunks around.”
Mitchell agrees that education is crucial, and her coyote study includes both a public outreach component and a classroom program. Lyn Malone, a former Barrington social studies teacher, has created classroom activities that are posted online, along with maps showing the data collected from the coyotes’ GPS collars. “It’s a great program for the students, because it involves real science, using real-time data and analyzing it in the context of current community issues,” she says. “And it’s an ongoing study. We don’t have all the answers, so they can really take part in the process.”
In Jamestown’s Lawn Avenue School, Jim Kaczynski shows his seventh graders a computer map of Jamestown and Aquidneck Island covered with colored dots, projected on a screen. The class has been working on this study all year. The students know that each color represents a different coyote with a radio collar, one from each pack. Each dot is a data point, showing where the animal was at a certain time of day. The data can be manipulated from a laptop computer to show just one coyote, or just the day or night activities, or to add in the locations of rivers and vegetation types.
On the daytime map, the dots are clustered in the center of forests and wetlands, as the coyotes find cover and sleep. Kac-zynski shows them the nighttime data. “What happens after dark?” he asks. Students’ hands shoot up. “They’re everywhere!” With a few more clicks, he shows them a three-dimensional depiction of the data. Places where a lot of coyotes have congregated show up as tall peaks above the landscape. “I can tell you what Mrs. Mitchell looks for; she looks for those peaks,” Kaczynski says. “That’s where people are feeding the coyotes. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” The students shake their heads, wrinkle their noses: “It’s bad!”
Malone is counting on students like these taking their lessons home. People who feed the coyotes think they’re helping them to survive. But in fact, the best thing they can do for the coyotes is to let them be wild, chase them away and keep their fear of humans intact. Kaczynski’s students, the first generation on Jamestown to grow up with coyotes in their town, will help to spread this message.
Mitchell’s maps show that most coyotes tend to stay out of urban areas, even at night, and stick close to their territories. But that behavior can change. Earlier this year, one of the coyotes in her study moved to the edge of the Salve Regina campus in Newport to have her puppies, and coy-otes were sighted on Bellevue Avenue in the daytime. Charles Brown and Mitchell attended town meetings to help address public concerns, but in the end, officials killed several coyotes that had become too bold.
Robert “Otter” Brown, a science teacher at the Wheeler School, is hoping to prevent that kind of conflict in Providence. His students have been learning about Mitchell’s coyote study for a couple of years now, and Brown hopes that soon they will contribute to the project by collaring an East Side coyote. “Coyotes have been seen at Butler Hospital, Riverside Cemetery and near the Lincoln School,” he says, all bordering the wooded wetlands along the Seekonk River. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to get rid of them, so it would be nice to know more about them, to study how this wild animal adapts to an urban environment.”
His students already are collecting data. They’ve surveyed about 2,000 local residents in the last two years, asking if they’ve encountered coyotes, whether they put their trash out the night before collection day, if they like or dislike the animals. They also ask if the residents think coyotes have any benefit for humans. Brown thinks this is an important point. People might feel more tolerant of the coyotes if they saw some advantage in their presence.
“Coyotes eat mice and rats, which can spread Lyme disease and hantavirus, diseases that affect humans,” he says. “Groundhogs do a lot of damage at golf courses, digging holes, but coyotes can keep those populations under control. There’s been some evidence that they even hunt deer on occasion, and we have too many deer in Rhode Island. The coyotes can help to keep everything in balance, and that’s beneficial to us.”
Brown has been working with Mitchell, learning her methodology so he can apply it to his East Side study. He’d like to expand on her work by collaring two coyotes from the same pack. He also plans to establish an Internet presence, perhaps a blog, where residents can go to ask questions and share information about coyote sightings. “It’s great to have kids involved in doing real science, gathering data about a complex issue, tackling a real-life problem,” he says. “I’m hoping we can find ways to make this a win-win situation for both coyotes and people.”
Mitchell’s methodology is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work, labor-intensive, and raising funds to keep it going is a constant struggle. As the end of the school year approached, Mitchell hoped to offer summer jobs to her two diligent interns from the University of Rhode Island, and thanks to a last-minute do-nation, was able to keep them on. The GPS/radio collars weigh just a pound, but they’re still a strain on the animal, so they are timed to fall off after a year. New coyotes are needed constantly, and trapping is difficult.
“Coyotes are crafty and smart, so they’re hard to catch,” says Mitchell. She has to be very careful when laying the traps so that no human scent gets on the metal. It’s tricky to hide the traps well enough to trick the coyotes, but not so well that they miss them entirely. “The foothold trap is the only way to catch them, and it’s very humane,” she says. She knows that people imagine traps with jagged teeth and bone-crushing force, and picture desperate animals trying to escape. “The pressure is minimal, just enough to hold them in place, and the jaws are lined with rubber”, she says. “We check the traps every morning, seven days a week, so no animal would ever have to be there very long.”
Once an animal is caught and collared, the collar records position data every hour, but it can only transmit GPS info over a short distance. So Mitchell and her interns track the animals down by following a radio beacon, then approach close enough to download the data, but not so close as to disturb the animals. Time and patience are requisite. The equipment is expensive; tests on coyote blood samples must be paid for, workers need paychecks. It all adds up.
So Mitchell writes grant proposals, solicits sponsors and comes up with creative ways to attract funding. For $2,500, a do-nor can choose a name for one of the coyotes in the study. Rhody Coyote was named by Paul and John Nunes, the owners of a local vineyard, who produce Rhody Coyote Hard Apple Cider. The May morning he was caught, the brothers arrived happily on the scene, at the edge of the woods behind a Middletown cow pasture.
Once Mitchell and Dr. Pratt finished their work, they took a few minutes for a smiling photo op. The deal brought in just about enough to pay for Rhody’s custom-made collar.
In half an hour, the team has completed its work with Rhody—he’s been scrutinized, and collared and photographed—and it’s time to send him on his way. Dr. Pratt gives him another injection to counteract the sedative and be sure he’s wide awake when he leaves. The rest of the team watches closely, cameras poised. I’m surprised that they don’t ask us to move away, to retreat behind the fence, to protect us from the coyote once it wakes up. Mitchell posts herself behind a nearby tree, hoping to catch a picture of the moment of awakening.
“He blinked,” says Pratt, glancing at his watch, and he gives the prone coyote a little nudge with the toe of his boot. A few more minutes go by, and the coyote lies inert, breathing hard. A robust chorus of birds chirp and trill in the trees, a woodpecker hammers, a cow in the next field moos insistently. “Blinked again,” says the vet, and his assistant puts a hand on Rhody’s furry rump, shakes and rubs him a bit. Another minute ticks by.
Suddenly there’s a jump and a blur, the coyote is a bolting ball of fur. He streaks toward the creek, splashes in, runs headfirst into a tree branch, turns and looks at us for an instant, then plunges into the woods. In about six seconds, he’s gone.
It’s clear why nobody was concerned that a snarling, fierce coyote would threaten us humans. He was desperate to get as far away from us as he could, as fast as possible. It was over so quick, I didn’t even get a picture.
His fate will depend on how we humans learn to live with him and his kind. “If we can succeed at passive coyote management, by minimizing their food sources, we would be the first state to do it,” says Mitchell. It’s not enough to just stop people from deliberately feeding the coyotes. Food sources, such as road kill, wounded deer left in the woods during hunting season, and dead farm animals, need to be eliminated. If the coyotes have to work hard to find enough to eat, their numbers will stay low. “Then people and coyotes could live together,” she says, hopefully, “happily ever after.”