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Belmont animal control officer proposes 'hazing' team to scare off coyotes

Posted by Evan Allen  October 4, 2012 05:06 PM

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coyote.jpg
Photo courtesy of John Maguranis
A Belmont coyote

Belmont’s boldest coyotes are on notice: Animal Control Officer John Maguranis is proposing a coyote hazing team, and soon, a fearless romp too close to Belmont’s human residents could result in a visit from the “Q.R.T.” – Quick Reaction Team.

“This is absolutely the best alternative to dealing with coyotes,” Maguranis said. “Manage the ones you have, keep ‘em healthy and happy, and haze the [heck] out of them.”

If the plan wins approval from town officials, the team will be deployed to deal with Belmont coyotes that have lost their fear of humans. The hazing techniques are designed to make the animals fearful again.

Not every coyote is a candidate for hazing, Maguranis said – just coyotes that approach people or show aggressive behavior or habituation.

For the most part coyotes are scared of people and don’t pose much of a threat. But if a coyote begins to lose its fear of humans – often because food is easy to find in suburban backyards – it can start to expect food from people, said Maguranis, and sometimes can end up biting.

Team members will be taught a series of escalating hazing strategies. The first step: evaluation. Is the coyote acting aggressive, or is it just out and about? The hazing itself would begin with shouting, waving arms, and locking eyes first, followed by chasing, and then throwing things. Team members will travel in pairs.

Maguranis is the state representative for Project Coyote, a national coalition of scientists and educators that works to promote coexistence between people and coyotes. Hazing teams are part of Project Coyote’s coexistence plan.

The Belmont plan is still in the very early stages – Belmont’s Chief of Police is on board, but Maguranis has not yet gotten the OK from the Board of Selectmen or the Board of Health.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Belmont Police Chief Richard McLaughlin. “We’ve had a number of encounters with [coyotes]…. I think it’s very worthwhile for us to go that way.”

There are about 10,000 coyotes in the state, according to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Maguranis estimates there are about three families living in Belmont.

In the last twelve months, McLaughlin said, police have received 13 calls from citizens about coyotes. He said he hopes some officers will join the team.

“If there’s a situation, we’re called first, we’re here 24/7,” he said.

The plan will need the approval of the Board of Selectmen, said selectman Andy Rojas. The selectmen will decide whether to recommend its passage to the Board of Health, which will likely have the final word, he said.

The plan hasn’t yet made it to the agendas of either board, according to Rojas and Board of Health Chair David Alper. Maguranis said he hopes to bring it before the Board of Health this month.

“Because of development, basically making animals relocate has increased the propensity for contact between humans and coyotes and other animals and coyotes. Some of it can be a real problem.” said Rojas. “But by the same token, some of it is spurred by our own human actions. I really think it’s important that we address it comprehensively, and not view it as a threat or a simple solution.”

Still, he said, one major consideration will be what kind of safety risks the plan poses.

“One of the considerations is the town’s exposure,” he said. “That’s a big one.”

Maguranis said he is aware there is the slight risk that someone could get bitten, but coyotes, he said, rarely bite humans. There have been just five instances where a coyote bit a human in the 60 years the animals have lived in the state, according to the State’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. There have never been any attacks in Belmont, said Maguranis.

“Those are unbelievably rare occurrences that were caused by habituation, which is what we’re out to change,” said Maguranis. “We’re out to prevent the bad stuff from happening.”

Project Coyote is working with about a dozen communities throughout America, said Camilla Fox, Project Coyote Executive Director, to create coyote coexistence plans – many of which include hazing teams.

No team members, she said, have ever been bitten while hazing.

“The concept of the coyote hazing team is really to empower individuals and communities to reduce negative encounters between people and coyotes,” she said.

While killing coyotes often comes up in suburban communities as a way to reduce their numbers, it’s a counterproductive strategy, according to experts. State wildlife officials have said that it would require killing off 70% of the coyote population to make a lasting dent. Killing one or two just results in bigger litters.

Officials typically advise people who see a coyote to try to scare it – to wave their arms and shout – but Maguranis said that coyotes in Belmont are starting to get used to this type of response, and people often don’t do it for long enough to be effective.

“To properly haze a coyote, you gotta really scare him out of the area, he’s gotta have it in his head that you’re really out to get him,” he said. “I look ‘em right in the eye, and start walking toward them really fast, and that seems to work really well.”

The name of the team, said Maguranis – the Q.R.T. – is an acronym he borrowed from his 20 years in the Army, when, during combat training, the Quick Reaction Team is the first team to react to hostility.

He’s hoping to round up at least ten volunteers.

“They should be brave,” he said. “They obviously have to have a love of wildlife and a concern for animals in general. And they have to understand the fact that this is the best way to deal with coyotes.”

Q.R.T. members will have to go through one-on-one interviews with Maguranis to land a spot. Team members will have to go through training on coyote history and behavior, so they know how a coyote should behave and how to spot a coyote that could be dangerous or sick.

“Knowledge 100 percent of the time conquers fear,” said Maguranis. “If people are knowledgeable about the animal, they should be able to go out there and do a good job without any problems whatsoever.”

Anyone interested in joining the Q.R.T. should contact Maguranis at jmaguranis@projectcoyote.org.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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