The Coyotes of Winter

By Melissa Jo Peltier

“Coywolf sighting near the Hook,” our neighborhood website warned. A few days later, the same message board noted another sighting near Clausland Mountain State Park, adjacent to our home…and the trails where I hike daily with my dog off-leash.

Having lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, I was familiar with the urban coyotes that would emerge from the hills at night, hunting small animals or scavenging through garbage cans. A roommate’s outdoor cat became victim to one. Reddish and scrawny, they’d run away if humans appeared. On the East Coast where I’ve relocated, a new variety of these wild canines rules supreme. The hybrid “coywolf” is heavier than pure coyotes, with longer legs, a larger jaw, smaller ears and a bushier tail. It is mostly western coyote, about 25% – 30% eastern/western wolf, and about 10% dog (large breeds like Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds.) The coywolf strategizes like a wolf, lives and hunts near humans like a coyote, and has a reduced fear of humans, like a dog. This winter, both our small New York town and Cape Cod vacation community have been reporting more sightings and attacks on pets. This makes sense, with their natural habitats are shrinking and our East Coast winters becoming harsher. While working on our home on the Cape this winter, I met a neighbor on the beach who told me a harrowing story of a tiny dog nearby being snatched by a bold coywolf, while sitting right next to its owner.

According to Dr. Jonathan Way of Eastern Coyote/Coywolf research, coywolf packs consist of a mated pair and their offspring, maybe 5-6 animals at most. They dig their dens in deliberately hard-to-find places in the woods, expertly hidden under trees or rocks. They mate and birth their pups in the late winter/early spring; then in summer, move from the den to a “rendezvous point”, a protected area near a water supply, where the pups can practice hunting and where the adults can survey their territories, which are quite large. Research has tracked them patrolling over 35 miles in a single evening. Most active hunting takes place at dawn and at dusk. They usually rest during the day.

Hysteria over their threat to humans has no basis in reality. According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, there have only been a half-dozen coyote bites in recorded history; and in the past 500 years there have only been two fatalities, an 18-year-old woman in Nova Scotia and a toddler in California. Contrast that with 4.7 million domestic dog bites and 15-20 related deaths annually. As far as humans are concerned they don’t pose a significant danger. Our pets, however, are a different story. I used to believe because our border collie/pit/terrier mix Frannie is a solid 54 pounds of muscle, she’d never be a target, but larger dogs may be perceived by a coyote as a territorial competitor or threat, possibly triggering an attack.

If coyotes or coywolves visits your neighborhood, what can you do to keep your dog safe?

  1. Never leave your pets unsupervised in your yard, even if leashed.
  2. Build a high fence. Coyotes are climbers, so to be effective, a fence should be at least 8 feet high and anchored a minimum of 12 inches underground to prevent tunneling.
  3. Don’t feed animals in your yard. Even bird feeders can attract small rodents, which are coywolf bait.
  4. Keep garbage cans covered and sealed.
  5. Always keep small dogs leashed when walking near coyote territory. If walking off-leash with a larger dog, don’t let the dog wander off the trail or stray more than a few feet away from you.
  6. In especially high-risk areas – especially at dusk – it’s smart to keep all dogs leashed.
  7. If you encounter a coyote that is approaching or stalking you and your dog:
    1. Make yourself large and stand your ground. Don’t run away.
    2. Make loud noises – wave your arms and yell. Bang pots and pans. Blow a whistle. I’ve started hiking and walking the beach with a portable air horn in my pocket.
    3. Carry pepper spray or long-range bear repellent to use if the animal won’t retreat.
    4. Remove all food from the area so the coyotes don’t return.
    5. Immediately report the encounter, so wildlife authorities and other pet owners can keep track of the animal’s whereabouts.

Coywolves are beautiful, graceful and intelligent, but they’re not dogs, and deliberately feeding them is incredibly dangerous, since they learn fast and will return expecting more. Following these precautions can help us co-exist with these enigmatic creatures, while keeping our dogs and other pets safe from harm.

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