Forget Wile E. Coyote's hapless pursuits in the cartoon wasteland. His real-life kin are prowling the U.S.'s concrete jungles, and they are anything but a laughing matter.
In just the last month, coyotes have shown up on the streets of Detroit, in a sandwich shop in downtown Chicago and at a mattress store in Kansas City, Mo. A 5-year-old boy in Middletown, N.J., about 40 miles from New York City, was bitten by one last week and needed 46 stitches to the head. Police shot a coyote in the area but warned that at least four others were roaming nearby.
The remarkably adaptive animals, famous for roaming rural stretches, have long been spotted in cities and suburban areas. But some naturalists suspect the ranks of urban coyotes may be swelling as they migrate from the open spaces of the West and Southeast toward the East and the Midwest.
In more heavily populated areas, they are drawn to the ample rabbits, rodents and small house pets that are easier for them to hunt than catching fawns in the forest. Parks, golf courses and well-tended residential areas provide a good food source and cover. Add to that dog food left outside or food scraps in trash cans, and you improve odds a coyote will show up.
"If there's a way for them to live there, they will," says John Shivik, a National Wildlife Research Center supervisory wildlife biologist. "People have it in their minds that we're invading coyotes' territory; that may be part. But when we sprawl, we tend to make a better habitat."
No one knows for sure how many urban coyotes there are, partly because the cousin of the gray wolf is so stealthy it eludes head counts.
But experts say the animal's U.S. population has risen steadily over the past decade or so, noticeably in the Midwest and East.
Some point to a presidential executive order in the 1970s that outlawed use of poison bait in the western U.S. protecting coyotes and sending them rippling eastward. Others cite the recovery of coyote-attracting deer herds in the Midwest and eastern part of the country.
Around Chicago, the coyote presence is unmistakable. An average of 541 coyotes were removed across Illinois over the past three years by licensed specialists who deal with animals deemed nuisances. Of that number, 312 were from the Chicago area, the state Department of Natural Resources says.
That is a far cry from the late 1980s, when perhaps a dozen coyotes roamed Chicago area, mostly along the agricultural fringes, says Stan Gerht, an Ohio State University assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Gerht's group estimates there may be as many as a couple thousand Chicago-area coyotes.
"The trend is definitely upward," state DNR wildlife biologist Bob Bluett says. "As long as they dodge traffic, they're pretty safe."
The sandwich-shop coyote, for example, plopped down in a cooler inside the store in the middle of a work day in the heart of Chicago's business district. It was captured and eventually released on a suburban estate.
For decades, coyotes have been associated with the western U.S., causing $47 million in damage to the cattle industry and $10 million in sheep loses the year before that, according to Department of Agriculture estimates.
But city coyotes have been in the news lately. Last month, for instance, The Washington Post reported that the first coyotes arrived years ago in the suburbs of the U.S capital, and biologists estimate there now are at least 1,250 in northern Virginia alone.
‘Most coyotes are good coyotes’
Such proliferation — and the prospect of human-coyote conflict — have wildlife enthusiasts preaching that people have little to fear.
"Most coyotes are good coyotes; they live their lives and they leave us alone," Bluett says.
Even so, people need to be careful around the wild animals. In addition to the recent New Jersey cases, a coyote nipped two small boys in April of last year in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Wash., leaving them with minor puncture wounds and scratches.
Still, experts urge perspective: In Cook County, which includes Chicago, there are some 3,000 dog bites on average each year, with a few hundred serious enough to require hospital care, Gerht says. Yet he is unaware of any reported coyote attacks.
Gerht should know. Since 2000, he has steered one of the U.S.'s most comprehensive studies of urban coyotes, focusing on their existence around Chicago. Along the way, he has attached radio collars to two-thirds of the some 300 coyotes he has trapped, then tracked them.
No shortage of dinner
His findings so far? Around Chicago, coyote densities are three to six times greater than what one might expect in rural areas, partly because their deadly foes in the country — hunters and trappers — are not around. And there is no shortage of dinner for urban coyotes; rodents consist of half their diets, while rabbits and groundhogs also are dense in some neighborhoods, cemeteries, parks and golf courses.
Lately, Gerht has been testing repellents to see if they would be beneficial in keeping coyotes out of certain areas. But experts say there should be no expectation coyotes will be purged from cities and suburbs any time soon.
"People have been trying to wipe out coyotes for 200 years," Bluett says, "and they've failed miserably."