New England town overrun by coyotes calls for snipers

A sign at the Nahant Thicket Wildlife Sanctuary warns of coyotes, in Nahant, Massachusetts on Dec. 28, 2022. (Sophie Park/The New York Times)

NAHANT, Mass. – When coyotes approach children playing in the park, as they do with disconcerting frequency in this small coastal town north of Boston, Kellie Frary springs into action, trying to chase the animals away while another adult quickly gathers Frary’s daycare group. .

“I don’t want to have to make that phone call, say to a parent, ‘The coyote chose your child,'” said Frary, a resident of Nahant, where 3,000 people live in 1 square mile.

No humans were harmed by Nahant’s coyotes, whose number is estimated at around a dozen. But after the disappearance of more than two dozen pets in about two years — and reports of three brazen and deadly attacks in 2022 on leashed dogs accompanied by their owners — the city is growing nervous. Its isolated geography — Nahant is essentially an island connected to the mainland by a narrow 1.5-mile causeway — contributes to the sense of threat felt by some residents.

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Compact, densely populated and surrounded by water, it is a difficult place for coyotes to leave, and a difficult place for them to remain invisible to humans, as they often do in cities and more sprawling suburbs, have said wildlife experts.

In early December, Nahant’s three-member board of directors voted to enlist federal snipers to track and kill some of the coyotes, making Nahant the first municipality in Massachusetts to seek expert assistance through the through a new state partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture.

The plan has relieved many anxious residents, some of whom now carry whistles and baseball bats on walks around town, and dress their dogs in $100 “coyote jackets” covered in metal spikes to ward off attacks.

“I love animals and I don’t want to see them killed, but a kid on a porch is going to get caught,” said Lisa Wrenn, who saw a coyote snatch her 12-pound chihuahua, Penelope, off-leash. summer as she stood on her front staircase. Left holding the leash and collar empty, she never saw the dog again, she said.

Although coyotes view small pets as prey, attacks on humans are rare and almost never fatal, according to coyote experts.

Support for the marksmanship plan is not unanimous. Opponents pleaded for a more humane approach, hoisting handmade “Save the Nahant Coyotes” signs near the roadway in the city.

Francene Amari-Faulkner, a resident who has organized protests against the plan, said the misrepresentation and exaggeration fueled hysteria and the rush for drastic measures. “If the city brings in snipers, it’s going to be a bloodbath,” she said, “because other cities will say, ‘We can do this too.'”

Although a coyote problem on a peninsula jutting out to sea may be less than typical, human dislike for the species is well established. Coyotes have long been considered a nuisance, and millions have been poisoned, shot and trapped by frustrated or frightened humans trying to control their population. But their signature trait may be their persistence. By the 1950s, they had pushed east into Massachusetts; by 2000, they were found all over the state except for the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, according to the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Tony Barletta, the town administrator of Nahant, is careful to remind residents that there is no turning back: the coyotes will remain long after a handful have been wiped out. And like it or not, the residents will have to find a way to live alongside them.

“We expect to have them here in town,” Barletta said at a recent Board of Selectmen meeting. “Just because you’re afraid of coyotes doesn’t mean that’s a problem, and that’s a hard thing to explain to residents.”

Massachusetts offers fewer coyote population controls than many other places, with its abbreviated hunting season, local rules against unloading firearms, and bans on the most effective traps enacted by a 1996 referendum. .

In South Carolina, 25,000 to 30,000 coyotes are killed by hunting and trapping each year, while in Massachusetts the annual total is about 500, said Dave Wattles, a biologist with the Division of Fisheries and Massachusetts wildlife. Yet even in the South, he said, hunting has little impact on coyote numbers, which are known to rebound quickly from any dip.

As local animal encounters escalate — residents share videos of coyotes patrolling their porches on a Facebook page called “Nahant Coyote Victims” — theories multiply. Some locals believe the omnivorous creatures have wiped out all of the island’s resident skunks and raccoons (rabbits have somehow persisted) and are eagerly stalking homes with pets, looking for food.

State and local authorities point out that attacks by off-leash pets are normal coyote behavior, unfortunate but not concerning. But by targeting dogs on leashes, Nahant’s coyotes deviated from normal patterns, indicating a decrease in fear of humans, Wattles said. These attacks prompted the state to allow the city to seek federal intervention to kill certain animals.

Because there is no way for snipers to identify the most aggressive ones, they will likely use trial and error, killing several, then waiting to see if the atypical behaviors subside.

Experts say it will be up to the people of Nahant to instill a healthy fear of humans in the remaining coyotes — and that will require overcoming their own fear.

“If the humans are submissive to them and run away, that teaches them that they are the king of Nahant,” Wattles said at a town-sponsored educational meeting for residents in July. “You have to let them know you’re a threat, and they’re not welcome.”

By engaging in continuous harassment known as “hazing,” he said — chasing coyotes; sprinkle them with water; throw sand or gravel at them; yelling and banging pots and pans to disrupt them – residents can re-establish boundaries.

But after seeing little impact from the hazing attempts, some residents fear it is too late.

Michael Hanlon, a part-time resident of the town, said he ‘screamed bloody murder’ and swung a 3ft stick at three coyotes who surrounded him and his dog Dewey on a residential street one recent night , but the animals only retreated a few feet.

Hanlon retired to his house.

“They have no fear at all,” said Frary, the day care provider, whose 12-year-old Pekingese poodle, Brody, reluctantly dons a spiked vest on his walks. “It’s like a teacher who was lenient and then tries to be strict. … They’re used to us now, and it’s too late.

She said coyotes have been known to bask in the sun on the local golf course, watching players putt. Another resident, Linda Tanfani, complained to city authorities after loitering coyotes threw a veil over her pickleball game.

“When they rule us, control our lives, it’s not right,” Tanfani said at the board meeting. “I’m tense all the time.”

Wildlife experts say most coyote aggression toward humans comes from people who provide the animals with food, which can drastically alter their behavior. In Arlington, a Boston suburb that saw three non-fatal coyote attacks on children in 2021, police later determined a resident fed a coyote. Officers killed the animal and the city has had no issues since, a spokesperson said.

A coyote attack can be so stealthy it’s been mistaken for something more mundane. John Malafronte, a driver for a clothing donation business, stood in a parking lot in Swampscott, Massachusetts – across Nahant Bay – early one morning in June, smoking a cigarette and texting on his phone , when he felt a pinch and reached to swat what he thought was a fly biting his leg.

When he looked down and saw a coyote instead, “I flipped my lid,” said Malafronte, who suffered a puncture wound and later received rabies shots.

Stanley Gehrt of the Chicago-based Urban Coyote Research Project has studied coyotes for decades, tracking hundreds of them to find out how they live. He acknowledges that coyote removal may be appropriate in some situations, but he also reminds nervous commuters of the coyote’s role in a healthy ecosystem.

Coyotes can help control rodent, rabbit and Canada goose populations, Gehrt said; they also prey on white-tailed deer, which cause car accidents and endanger drivers.

Coyotes also offer humans an invigorating dose of humility, he noted.

“We’ve done everything we can to eradicate them from the continent for 150 years, and they’re taking up residence in our backyards,” he said. “It’s a reminder that we don’t control everything.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company


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