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Fair game

New rules in Massachusetts allow private agents to control coyotes that roam the state, but animal advocates worry the changes will make the canine predators easier to kill

First, a cat goes missing. Next, the small dogs in the neighborhood get spooked. Then, late one night, you hear it: the howling in the distance. And that is when you know for sure. Coyotes have come to your little slice of suburbia.

In recent years, Massachusetts residents, frightened by the proliferation of this predator, have begged wildlife officials to do more to control - and kill - coyotes. Now, it seems, they may get their wish.

New regulations, recently approved by the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, have authorized private businessmen, who typically remove raccoons from chimneys or squirrels from attics, to trap or kill coyotes on private property.

But the changes, which also include an expanded hunting season, do not please everyone. Animal advocacy groups and wildlife biologists say the state does not need to circumvent local animal control officers by bringing in private agents to do the same job.

They worry that residents - concerned about their pet's safety - will now be able to pay someone to kill a coyote for just passing through their yards. They say that making it easier for more people to kill coyotes will not help reduce the state's coyote population, roughly 10,000 strong, and may make matters worse.

Coyotes are adaptable, opportunistic animals, interested in the easy meals that suburban living often provides and in protecting their territory, according to biologists. When a coyote goes down, a new coyote will inevitably move into the area. With more open land at its disposal, a coyote may even breed more.

But what troubles Jonathan Way most is the apparent blood thirst that some people have for the coyote. Way, author of "Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Mas sachusetts," said the state does not have a coyote problem, but rather a "people problem," and the new state regulations will not change that.

"I feel they're completely unnecessary and completely just catering to the hunting community - and to a minority of people who would specifically hunt coyotes at that," Way said. "And to me, it's just fascinating that supposedly one of the most liberal states in the country can make it easier to kill this social animal, this social wild dog."

State wildlife officials passed the new regulations July 31, expanding the coyote hunting season by about five weeks and adding the coyote to a list of animals that can be handled by state-licensed "problem animal control agents," people who work for a fee to handle wildlife problems on private property.

Thomas O'Shea, assistant director for wildlife at the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said the division extended the hunting season, now set to begin Oct. 13, to appease hunters, who have become more interested in killing coyotes in recent years.

By doing so, the division has come under fire from animal advocacy groups such as the Humane Society and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But O'Shea said the expanded hunting season is the shortest in New England, will not seriously deplete the population, and has "ancillary benefits."

With more hunting, coyotes may become more wary of humans, he said, and private agents will also help eliminate aggressive coyotes from the population. Currently, O'Shea said, animal control officers in most Massachusetts communities are not trained to deal with a rabid coyote or a coyote killing pets and livestock.

"We need to find, and expand, the tools to help communities and people experiencing problems with real problem coyotes," he said. "They don't have the means necessary now to remove the animals that are truly causing problems."

In the months ahead, the division will certify the private agents to handle coyotes. Once trained, O'Shea said, they will only be able to kill coyotes that pose threats to property and people, and that was welcome news to people worried about living near the animals.

"Get rid of them. Relocate them. I don't care what they do with them," said Lorraine Bergeron, a Peabody resident and dog owner who supports the changes. "People are frightened."

But animal control officers worry that some people will abuse the new rules.

Ken Frazer, a vice president of the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts, expressed concern that agents will have "a license to do pretty much whatever they want."

"They're going to end up going out and taking more animals than they probably should take," said Frazer. "And they're going to be charging people. They're not going to be doing it for nothing."

The cost, agents say, could be $300, $500 or more, depending on how long it takes to capture the coyote. And animal welfare advocates say state legislation - scheduled for a Sept. 17 hearing in Spencer - would make it easier for trappers to catch the animals. The bill, cosponsored by Representative William G. Greene Jr., a Billerica Democrat, would allow trappers working for state wildlife officials to capture coyotes with padded foot-hold traps - traps currently banned unless authorized by public health officials.

This trap is more effective than the currently legal box or cage trap, trappers say, and Greene believes that officials should be able to use it when a coyote poses "imminent danger."

The MSPCA opposes Greene's legislation. Scott Giacoppo, the group's deputy director of advocacy calls the foot-hold trap "cruel" compared with a box trap, which confines the whole animal, not just an appendage.

Others wish people would learn to live with coyotes, rather than devise ways to get rid of them.

Annie Raker of Lincoln owns a 10-pound shih tzu named Boomer. But she said she loves seeing coyotes on her land and loves hearing their howls in the suburban darkness. It is an eerie sound, she admits, but she also finds it beautiful.

"I love hearing them sing at night," she said. "Occasionally, they sing."

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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