Fear of coyotes roaming city streets brought more than 60 residents to a community meeting Wednesday night at the Newton Police Station, where state and local officials tried to calm jangled nerves and assure parents of young children that they have little to worry about.
Newton officials organized the meeting with representatives from the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Massachusetts Environmental Police after a coyote attacked and killed a Yorkshire Terrier around 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 3 on Randlett Park.
Deb Toyias had just let her 12-year-old dog Cody out in her yard when she heard him yelping. “I went to my front door and I saw my dog in the mouth of an extremely large coyote which was literally at my front step,” she said.
“I just started screaming because I had never seen anything like this – living in the city you don’t expect to see anything like this,” she said.
Her husband chased the coyote down the street until it stopped and dropped Cody onto the ground.
“The injury was very traumatic,” said Toyias. “I came out and we wrapped him in a blanket, and we sat in a rocking chair on the porch until he passed.”
Toyias said she was going to start a petition to get a bill legalizing safe and effective coyote traps passed.
Coyote sightings are nothing new in the area, say residents, but they say the daylight attack is scary.
“This shocked everyone,” said Paul Thayer, who lives on Warwick Road. “In our mind, this puts it in a whole new ball game.”
But Laura Hajduk, furbearer and black bear project leader for the Massaschusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said that while the attack is upsetting, it’s normal behavior for coyotes.
“When pets are outside, unsupervised, especially the small ones, sometimes coyotes can view them as a potential food source,” she said.
Officials will only put coyotes down if the animal is behaving in an unnaturally aggressive way – lunging at humans or attacking animals on leashes. A coyote killing a small dog, she said, is just a wild animal being wild.
Coyotes, said Hajduk, have been in Massachusetts since the late 1950’s. They started showing up in Newton about 15 years ago. There is no way to know how many coyotes there are in the state, but officials don’t believe the population is growing.
Attacks on humans are exceptionally rare: in the more than fifty years that coyotes have prowled Massachusetts, there have been only four recorded attacks. Two of those coyotes had confirmed cases of rabies, and one was suspected of having rabies.
Hajduk said that the best way to deal with the coyotes is for residents to make sure they keep food and garbage out of their yards, keep their pets indoors or on leashes, and harass coyotes if they see them.
“Coyotes have a natural fear of people,” she said. Problems with their human neighbors don’t arise until coyotes are habituated, and lose that natural fear.
“As coyotes get more used to living in suburban areas, over time they start getting used to the sights sounds smells of people,” said Hajduk.
Harassing the coyotes is key to keeping them at a distance. Bang pots and pans, said Hajduk. Blow an airhorn, blow a whistle, clap your hands and scream at the top of your lungs. Throw small objects at the coyote to scare it, or squirt it with a hose.
“Be proactive, not reactive,” she said, “and don’t let them get habituated.”
Many residents expressed the fear that a coyote would mistake a child for prey and attack. This, said Hajduk, was unlikely: no matter the size of the human, a coyote views it very differently than it does an animal.
Still, she said, parents should teach their children never to approach any animal they don’t know, and if a child sees a coyote, the best thing they can do is make themselves appear larger, either by opening up a winter jacket or raising their arms over their head, and slowly back away – never run. Children should find the nearest adult to come harass the coyote.
Officials emphasized that people had little to fear from coyotes.
“Don’t let coyotes intimidate you,” said Hajduk. “Coyote attacks are very, very rare.”
Newton Police Animal Control Officer, Ralph Torres, said that he gets a call a week about coyote sightings, and he hasn’t seen an increase in activity.
“I get more calls about turkeys,” he said.
Still, residents were worried. Richard Picarello showed up to the meeting with pictures of his two cats, Bear and Smudgy, who disappeared on August 1 from his house on Chestnut Street in West Newton. His neighbors heard their screams and he saw coyotes on his property.
He had a list of neighborhood cats that had gone missing recently – he said he knew of at least 20.
During the question and answer session of the meeting, residents pushed for a harsher response from officials.
One resident called the city’s response “lame,” and asked why officers couldn’t be more aggressive. When Hajduk responded that in order to make a lasting dent in the coyote population, officials would have to kill 70 percent of the animals, residents yelled out “Do it!”
But, officials maintained, it would be far easier to try to coexist with the coyotes than to try to get rid of them. Coyotes can’t be captured and released in a new location, because officials fear spreading diseases like rabies. Moving a problem animal to a new place creates a new problem, and often, animals that are moved find their way home. The only way to remove a problem coyote is to shoot it, which raises its own set of problems.
Residents can’t shoot coyotes because Newton laws prohibit firing guns within the city unless someone is defending their life. And while Newton Police and Massachusetts Environmental Police are allowed to shoot aggressive animals, they are wary to do so because it’s dangerous in a suburban setting, and often, people get upset that an animal was killed.
“These coyotes are out and about,” said Matthew Nardi, a Massachusetts Environmental Police Officer. “They’re here to stay, unfortunately.”
By the end of the evening, residents had worked out the beginnings of a plan with a representative from the Mayor’s office, Aaron Goldman. Goldman promised to set up a page on the town’s website where residents can track coyote sightings, and where information about how to coyote-proof homes and neighborhoods can be posted. He said he’d work with the School Committee to get safety tips to kids, and that he’d work on arranging another public informational meeting.
Not all Newton residents were worried. Aneiage Van Bean was out walking her dog on Randlett Park as the sun started to go down, and though she said she’d seen a coyote about two weeks ago, she wasn’t too worried.
“Wild animals have a place, and we just have to learn to coexist,” she said.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.