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Adaptable coyote eats pets, flourishes in New England

Associated Press, 08/17/97 21:45

WAKEFIELD, Mass. (AP) - There are predators here with a taste for household pets.

Able to adapt to life in almost any environment, they record the daily habits of homeowners, waiting for the best time to strike.

One was spotted last month peering from atop a boulder at a poodle chained in a back yard. The poodle's horrified owner called police to report it. Others are blamed for making cats disappear.

``They're so clever, so smart,'' said John Benedetto, a professional trapper who has worked for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. ``A lot of people see them and think they're dogs.''

But they aren't. They're eastern coyotes.

``Coyotes view domestic pets as an alternative food source,'' said Erik Amati, state game biologist. ``In a lot of cases we've seen cats being taken and dogs being attacked and killed.''

One of the worst spates made headlines two years ago when animal control officials in Marshfield blamed coyotes for killing 45 domestic cats in just over a month. Animal control officers say coyotes are to blame for recent reports of vanishing cats in several Boston-area communities.

Bigger than their western cousins, the wild canines started filtering into Massachusetts from Northern New England a quarter century ago. Today wildlife officials estimate as many as 4,000 coyotes are thriving in the Bay State, breeding in every mainland county.

With coats that can be yellow, red, gray or black, the coyote resembles a medium-sized German shepherd with long hair, a narrow snout and straight, bushy tail. It lives in well-hidden burrows, brush piles and sometimes abandoned sheds. Its diet, nearly boundless, includes squirrel, rodents, birds, snakes and even berries and apples.

State wildlife officials are warning pet owners to keep an eye on their animals. A widely distributed poster topped with a drawing of a coyote cautions residents not leave pet food outside and not to feed or approach coyotes.

``They know the people's schedules in the residential areas and when people leave for work, they'll come out at 10 o'clock and forage,'' wildlife biologist Sue Langlois said.

In the countryside, some attack and kill sheep, forcing farmers to kill them. Coyotes have been known to bite humans, but no such encounters have been reported in Massachusetts.

State officials have no accurate estimate of the coyote population, but data taken annually from hunts, trapping and road kills, suggest their numbers are growing steadily, Langlois said.

While usually wary, coyotes will lose their inhibitions around humans if they are allowed to, a habit that will be passed on to future generations.

Wildlife officials say they have lost their ability to effectively manage and track the coyote population due to a new law barring leg traps.

Proponents of the ban, approved by voters last year, said the traps were cruel. But game officials and trappers say rubber-lined traps, approved by the Supreme Judicial Court, did the animals no harm.

For now, the only way to control the growing number of coyotes is through an annual hunt or special permits issued in rural areas to shoot problem animals, Langlois said. There is virtually no way to catch coyotes in residential neighborhoods because many towns outlaw or limit discharging firearms, she said.

Today more than 600 leg traps hang from Benedetto's garage wall. He still traps in other states, but in Massachusetts he has traded the metal contraptions for a rifle, which he uses to shoot coyotes caught attacking sheep.

``Not every coyote is a livestock killer,'' he said. ``You want to get the ones that are going after the sheep. They'll all eat it, but only one or two will kill it.''

Benedetto said western coyotes, about two-thirds the size of those in the Northeast, are equally adaptable, making homes in the desert climate of the Mexican border as well as neighborhoods in central Los Angeles.

And Benedetto sees signs of coyotes in his own neighborhood. Near his family truck repair shop, he said coyotes killed a litter of feral cats, leaving behind only their paws.

A month ago, he was called to rescue a 2-month old coyote pup whose parents had been hit by cars. Benedetto said the animal was old enough to make it on its own. After checking it over and giving it a meal and a night's rest, he released it.

``You can't wipe them out,'' he said. ``That's one animal that will never be extinct.''

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