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NEWTON

Wary of coyotes, resident backs new trapping law

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2011

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Until a coyote killed her Yorkshire terrier two weeks ago, Newton resident Deb Toyias had never given a thought to state trapping laws. Today, even she’s a little surprised to find herself campaigning for the passage of a bill before the Legislature that would open up the range of traps state authorities are allowed to use to catch problem wildlife.

“It’s really created an awareness in me,’’ she said. “What can we do about this? Look what’s happening; do I have to live with this?’’

Though Toyias was accustomed to seeing coyotes around her Randlett Park home, she said, she was shocked when, at 6:30 a.m. Oct. 3, a coyote jumped out of bushes in the yard and snatched her dog, Cody.

The incident scared local residents, more than 60 of whom showed up for a meeting last Wednesday at the Police Department’s headquarters, where city and state environmental officials tried to calm fears that small children could be next.

Representatives from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Massachusetts Environmental Police, and the city’s animal control office assured residents that coyote attacks on humans are exceptionally rare: There have been four confirmed incidents since Eastern coyotes showed up in Massachusetts nearly 60 years ago, they said. Attacks on pets, they said, while unfortunate, are normal coyote behavior.

But many residents wanted a more aggressive response, and some think that the trap bill, which could be up for a vote on Beacon Hill before spring, might be the answer. Toyias said she is starting a petition, and wants to set up a task force to start getting people involved and educating them about the proposed law.

In 1996, the Wildlife Protection Act banned body-gripping traps on the grounds that they are inhumane. That left state officials with box traps, which are big and bulky and catch about one coyote a year in Massachusetts. This means that to remove a coyote, officials typically have to shoot it. Shooting wild animals in densely populated areas like Newton can be dangerous, and officials do it only as a last resort.

House Bill 3315 in part would allow officials to use newer and more humane body-holding traps to catch problem coyotes; the animals could be captured without endangering the public, and officers would then dispose of them in a controlled setting.

“Wildlife can be a problem if it’s not properly managed,’’ said state Representative Anne Gobi, a Democrat from Spencer who is sponsoring the proposed change. “What the bill would do is modify the trapping law. It would give municipalities, towns, and property owners more options to address any conflicts that they have, and do it in a safe, state-regulated way.’’

Charlotte McGowan has lived in Newton since 1974, and says that the coyote problem is one that city and state officials just aren’t dealing with.

“We’re overrun with coyotes,’’ she said. “They can tell you bang pots, leave it alone, don’t feed the birds. But they can’t do anything else because they don’t have the tools.’’ If the trap bill passes, she says, officials will have more options for removing coyotes.

But trapping, say some wildlife experts, isn’t a solution.

“It’s just a policy that doesn’t work,’’ said John Maguranis, Belmont’s animal control officer, who was at last week’s meeting in Newton. “If you kill coyotes, you end up with more coyotes later on.’’

To make a significant dent in the coyote population, according to MassWildlife biologist Laura Hajduk, it would require killing 70 percent of the animals. Kill one, and another simply ambles over and takes its place, she said.

Maguranis said that 10 years ago in Belmont a coyote killed 17 cats. “People were out of their minds,’’ he said. “They felt a lot like the people in Newton.’’

But instead of try to get rid of the coyotes, his department launched an educational campaign, using community meetings, newspaper articles, and announcements on local television stations. Maguranis visited residents, telling them how to protect their pets and children, and how to harass coyotes to make them avoid people.

“We instinctively fear things we don’t understand, and by educating people it lowers the fear factors,’’ he said. Residents of Belmont, he said, get along just fine today with the local coyote population.

“Nine or 10 years ago, my phone would ring a couple times a day with people out of their mind because a coyote ran through their backyard, wanting me to come shoot it,’’ he said. “Now, people call me up and say, ‘Hey, John, there’s a beautiful coyote up on X Street.’ ’’

A number of Newton residents aren’t totally convinced. Toyias said she thinks education is an important part of the equation, but it can’t be the whole solution.

“I feel that it’s better to be proactive, not looking down the road to ‘what if.’ ’’

Toyias also said she’s getting phone calls and e-mails of support from people in the community. She hopes to schedule a meeting with Gobi and get as many local residents as possible involved in lobbying for the proposed change in the trapping law.

“We might have some numbers behind us,’’ Toyias said.