‘Dawn of a New Creature’: After Vicious Attack, Town Considers Living With Coyotes | dallas

Even before a two-year-old was snatched from a Dallas porch by a hungry coyote, neighborhood parents knew something terrible was about to happen.

Coyotes that usually stayed in wooded areas or a nearby creek bed were getting closer and closer. One was spotted on a doorbell camera stealing a food delivery bag from a porch. Another was seen following children on their way to school. Another stood in the playground of an elementary school with a squirrel in its mouth.

Neighbors had called 911, the city’s animal services department, even biologists from the state parks and wildlife department, but it seemed no one would do anything.

“We’ve known that for a while,” said Rebecca Bickett, who runs a Facebook group for neighborhood moms. “I don’t know, I’m not a wildlife expert, but I would expect some sort of escalation if aggressive wildlife is reported.”

A Dallas Police drone sits on Fieldcrest Drive in Dallas. Dallas police inspected the area where a coyote might roam. Photograph: Rebecca Slezak/AP

Dallas, like many American cities, is home to several packs of urban coyotes. They normally stay in the shadows, invisible to people. Also, like many American cities, Dallas had no plan to respond to reports of aggressive coyotes.

Dallas Animal Services had received the calls from residents of the White Rock Valley neighborhood in northeast Dallas, but later said many of the reports were of perfectly normal coyote behavior. They said that in areas where there is a lot of unintentional feeding — trash bags on the sidewalk, pet food left on a porch — coyotes can become unusually comfortable with their neighbors.

On the afternoon of May 3, one of these overly comfortable coyotes dragged a toddler off a porch, sending the two-year-old into intensive care at a nearby hospital.

The city of Dallas was quick to blame neighbors for making food accessible to coyotes. In a Facebook post shortly after the attack, the city’s Department of Animal Services said “residents regularly fed and petted” the coyote, but recanted those claims in the weeks that followed.

The neighborhood retaliated, saying they had tried to raise the alarm to no avail.

“It was insulting,” Bickett said. “I don’t want to use the term ‘gas lamp’ because I feel like it’s worn out, but that’s exactly what it was.”

The pressure of urban development and deforestation has caused the displacement of animal species to urban areas.
The pressure of urban development and deforestation has caused the displacement of animal species to urban areas. Photograph: Jeffrey Arguedas/EPA

Such an attack is extremely rare. Coyotes are capricious and secretive. They generally don’t want to be seen by humans, much less attack them.

Still, the attack on the Dallas toddler, experts say, is the kind of thing that could happen anywhere. The city is scrambling to come up with a plan that would help authorities respond more quickly to aggressive wildlife while educating residents on how to live peacefully with their wild neighbors.

Ohite Rock Valley is an upper-middle-class neighborhood nestled between green spaces in northeast Dallas. Mid-century Craftsman homes line the blocks, though in recent years, newly built housing flippers and mini-mansions have brought construction to the neighborhood. White Rock Elementary School in the center of the neighborhood abuts a runoff creek with many shade trees.

It is a perfect urban habitat for coyotes.

Karin Saucedo is a naturalist and wildlife photographer from Texas who has studied coyote behavior for years. She also grew up in White Rock Valley and recently spent more time there with her father.

She had seen coyotes walking cheekily in her father’s garden and knew that was not normal. She’s seen social media posts from residents concerned about local pack behavior and has tried to respond with the tools she knows how to keep people and coyotes safe. She talked about removing food sources and “hazing”, or making loud noises and acting aggressively towards animals to keep them away from humans.

“But I don’t have a badge,” Saucedo said. “It’s an impending disaster.”

It’s only when coyotes feel comfortable around humans — often because they’ve found an easy food source — that they become aggressive. Daytime sightings or coyotes approaching people rather than running away are all signs of aggressive coyotes, says Sam Kieschnick, a Dallas-based urban wildlife biologist with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. .

“When a resource is available, they use it,” Kieschnick said. Especially in this neighborhood, he said, food was available for the local coyotes, so of course they stayed.

In 2018, Kieschnick was called to Frisco, Texas, an affluent suburb of Dallas, when several coyote attacks were reported there. It was the first time he remembered hearing of a coyote attacking a person in the state. Several coyotes were killed there to eliminate the pack of thugs.

After the attacks, Frisco officials drafted a comprehensive urban wildlife management plan, with strategies to help people and their local wildlife coexist.

Authorities used a similar strategy in Dallas this month after the toddler was attacked. First, Dallas police and a US Department of Agriculture biologist killed four coyotes.

Now the city is drafting a coyote management plan centered on a hotline to report coyote sightings. There’s also a new emphasis on educating the public about what is normal coyote behavior, what isn’t, and how humans can live safely with canine scavengers.

A coyote runs on the sidewalk in Sacramento, California.
A coyote runs on the sidewalk in Sacramento, California. Photography: Xavier Mascarenas/AP

Dallas Animal Services said 10 calls were received about coyote sightings in the neighborhood between early February and the attack on the toddler in early May. It’s quite common. When the trees are bare and the coyotes begin to move around more in the spring, sightings are not unusual.

But things have become more concerning for residents in recent weeks, especially when coyotes have started following young children in the neighborhood rather than running away. Sometimes an animal services officer would come to the neighborhood, but when they left, the coyotes came back.

“We did everything we knew how to do,” Bickett said.

In Chicago, biologists have been studying the behavior of urban coyotes for more than two decades. The urban coyote research project is one of the most enduring studies of the species.

The City of Chicago used this research to develop its own management plan for the species. Like the Dallas effort, it starts with resident education. Second, it encourages people who see coyotes to scramble them. Finally, it discusses lethal disposal options for overly habituated coyotes.

Wildlife experts say the lethal option is only for the most extreme cases.

“If someone is bitten, there is no debate. That’s the right answer,” said Stanley Gehrt, principal investigator of the Chicago project and professor of ecology at Ohio State University. “Obviously there is a reason the animal behaved this way and if you don’t answer that you will have to pull another animal down the road.”

After the toddler’s attack, a Dallas councilman held a community meeting at White Rock Valley Elementary School. Outside, blue ribbons wrapped around every tree in the block to support the child, who was still in the hospital. Inside, city officials tried to explain how the coyotes got so bold and what the government was doing next.

“It only takes one person, a neighbor to involuntarily feed a wild animal.”
Photograph: Natural History Library/Alamy

Residents like Bickett and Saucedo were there too. Many wanted to hear an apology for blaming the residents.

“We knew we had to protect our pets. What we didn’t know was that we had to protect our children,” said 28-year-old neighborhood resident Kathy Stewart. “I want to know what changed.”

For biologists, the answer comes down to food. The city still claims that “well-meaning animal lovers” may have intentionally distributed food to coyotes. Adam Henry, a USDA biologist who helped hunt coyotes in Dallas, said some may have grown accustomed to finding food at new construction sites in the neighborhood, and pointed to images of the doorbell showing a coyote grabbing a food delivery bag.

“We are witnessing the dawn of a new creature,” Henry said. “They got used to finding him on those porches.”

Bickett dismisses claims about pandemic-era food delivery as part of the reason for more aggressive wildlife. She says if it had become common practice for coyotes, she would have seen it on other cameras, not just the single clip that was distributed to local television stations.

But Saucedo said the coyotes she studies can habituate to new behavior after just one positive interaction with a human.

“Once he realizes he can get a reward on a porch, he’s going to be curious about any porch,” Saucedo said. “It only takes one person, a neighbor to involuntarily feed a wild animal.”

At the meeting, many residents wanted to know why the city didn’t already have a plan to deal with coyote behavior. They have been part of the ecosystem for decades and are often spotted in residential areas of the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“Where is the city on his answer is exactly the same place where all the other communities that have a wildlife problem start,” Henry said. “That’s how government works, any government. We are always behind the curve.

“So White Rock Valley is the first community in Dallas to have this problem?” asked Kristy Feil, who has lived in the neighborhood for 19 years. “I mean, are we the first?”

The truth is yes. City officials couldn’t say for sure that in all of Dallas’ history there hasn’t been an attack, but violent interactions with coyotes are so incredibly rare that it’s not no wonder it took them so long to come up with a plan. Urban coyotes are, the vast majority of the time, out of sight and out of mind.

“I’m starting to understand why we’ve been having more problems lately,” Feil said after the meeting. “There is no one to blame. We just have to figure out how to handle it.

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Jennifer R. Strohm