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Coyotes move into to suburbs

April 26th, 2003, 05:42 AM
Coyotes move into to suburbs

NANUET Linda Stone opened the back door of her home one night to let Mandy, her bichon frise, out into the fenced-in yard.

Just 10 minutes later, Mandy was dead, killed by a coyote that had hopped the fence thanks to high snowdrifts from a recent blizzard. Stone found the small, 5-year-old dog on the other side of the fence after apparently scaring the coyote off when she went outside to check on Mandy that February night.

"At least I got her back," Stone said. "I thought she was alive because she was warm, but she wasn't."

Stone has lived in her Nanuet home for 18 years and although she has seen plenty of whitetail deer and wild turkeys, she had never before seen a coyote. Clarkstown's animal control officer determined that Mandy was likely killed by a coyote.

Like deer, turkeys and Canada geese, coyotes have become part of the suburban landscape, experts said.

"Coyotes are here to stay," said state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Matthew Burns.

Experts also said that while coyotes might be present and while many people might be afraid of the animals they were unlikely to attack humans.

The DEC said an average of 650 people were hospitalized and one person killed each year by dog attacks in New York, but only a handful of coyote attacks occurred nationwide.

Still, some people have expressed concern about the presence of coyotes, a situation that has led the DEC to launch a new tracking system. The DEC does not keep detailed statistics about the number and types of encounters with coyotes.

"We're going to start keeping a tab to see if the perception of coyote encounters is actually increasing," Burns said. "There's certainly a growing perception that they are."

On the rise

Complaints about coyotes, which include attacks on humans' livestock, are on the increase. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Bureau recorded 3,348 complaints nationwide. By 2001, the number had grown to 5,223.

Two such complaints were recorded in New York in 1998 and five in 2001. The vast majority of all complaints were recorded in Western states, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show.

The number of coyotes has increased, although it is unclear how many there are nationwide.

The DEC estimates the population of New York's coyotes to be between 20,000 and 30,000 during summer months, when food is easier to find.

New York hunters and trappers report harvesting more than 2,000 coyotes each year, with the taking of coyotes allowed throughout the upstate area, the DEC said.

Coyotes were a cause of concern in one upstate suburb, North Syracuse, which last winter experienced problems with six coyotes living in a wooded area behind a village cemetery. The animals appeared in back yards and approached people. The mayor said there also was an increase in the number of pets reported missing.

The mayor considered trapping and killing the coyotes, or catching the animals and releasing them elsewhere, perhaps in the Adirondacks. But because they are territorial, some experts said another coyote family already living in that area would likely kill or drive out those newcomers.

Food returns

Some predict fewer sightings or encounters with the coyotes now that warmer weather has arrived, bringing with it a return of the mice, squirrels and other food that coyotes eat.

Food is probably the main reason the number of sightings and animals have increased, said Clarkstown's animal control officer, Pat McCoy-Coleman.

"A lot of people are feeding their cats and dogs outside, and that attracts them," McCoy-Coleman said.

Coyotes often are attracted to the food, but also to the cats or dogs, especially during late winter, when food might be harder to find and they are preparing for the arrival of new pups, she said.

Stone's back yard has a 4-foot-high chain link fence, but with all the snow, it provided only about a two-foot barrier, an easy jump for a hungry coyote.

"The fence was to keep Mandy from getting out," Stone said. "I never thought I had to protect her from something getting in."

McCoy-Coleman, who responded to Stone's home, theorized that a pregnant coyote needing an easy-to-catch meal killed Mandy.

One of Stone's neighbors had been feeding cats outside, perhaps luring the coyote to the area, McCoy-Coleman said.

Many coyotes like the suburbs because food often is easy to come by, with garbage, as well as pet food, tops on the menu.

But coyotes also perform an important service, McCoy-Coleman said.

"They do a job," she said. "They hunt your field mice and your rats."

The Eastern coyote can now be found throughout upstate New York, including the Adirondacks, and in New York City and its suburbs, the DEC said.

Development in these areas, especially in the suburbs, also offers an abundance of rabbits, squirrels, deer, cats, small dogs, garbage and pet food.

These offerings supplement the coyote's diet, which includes berries, insects and rodents during summer and grasshoppers in the fall.

The animals eat small mammals in late fall and winter. As that population shrinks, coyotes will turn toward their largest prey, the whitetail deer not only eating deer killed by cars but also killing healthy adult deer.

Family units

Unlike wolves, coyotes don't form packs with numerous adults living together. They are organized into family units made up of an adult pair and their pups from the current year, the DEC said.

A family unit will defend a territory of 6 to 15 square miles against other coyotes. That territorial behavior limits the number of coyotes in any one area.

Young coyotes are driven from their parents' territory between September and March, when new pups usually are born. Young coyotes are known to travel up to 100 miles in search of vacant territory to claim as their own, according to the DEC.

While encounters between humans and coyotes may be rare, the potential for trouble does exist.

Some suburban coyotes have lost their fear of people. Coyotes in residential areas also quickly learn to associate people with food because garbage, pet food and pets are saturated with human odor.

Human behavior, meanwhile, has changed to be unthreatening to coyotes, the DEC said. Many people run inside after seeing a coyote the behavior of prey.

The Eastern coyote is believed to be a fairly new species in New York. The theory is that Western coyotes extended their range eastward; eventually, a distinct new subspecies was formed.

The animals have been present in New York since at least the 1930s, and have been firmly established since the 1970s. Active coyote populations exist throughout the United States.

But many people, including Stone, were unaware of the animals' proliferation.

The Nanuet woman, who works as a medical records compliance manager at a New Jersey hospital, now owns a Shih Tzu she named Kimmi.

The Shih Tzu is never allowed outside without a chaperone, Stone said. She walks the dog on a leash in the back yard.

"All my friends who have pets are outside now watching them, too," Stone said. "No one thought something like this could happen."

Stone said a network of family and friends had helped her through the ordeal of losing Mandy in such an unfathomable way. And McCoy-Coleman helped convince her that she wasn't to blame for Mandy's death.

Stone rushed Mandy to the Valley Cottage Animal Hospital in hopes that the staff could somehow save the dog. Stone said she buried Mandy at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester after a brief service.

"I still get nervous when I go outside at night," Stone said "I feel that Mandy made people aware. That's the only way I've gotten through it. She was sacrificed, but now people know