Is the Coyote Takeover of New York City Imminent?

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Although rare, coyote sightings within the five boroughs date back to the 1990s. (Photo: Dru Bloomfield [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

As millions across the Northeast batten down the hatches last month and braced themselves for another winter storm, many New Yorkers were still reeling from news that another concern had blown into town — and it goes by the name Canis latrans.

The Big Apple’s urban menagerie — raccoons, salamanders, parrots, frogs, turkeys, “super roaches,” Chihuahua-sized rats, an army of squirrels large enough for a full-on coup d'état, et. al — is diverse, dynamic and sometimes surprising. It’s also an urban menagerie that, with the exception of a few rare cameo appearances over the years, has been blissfully free of the coyote.

However, during the month of January, two separate coyote “incidents” have rattled Manhattan residents. Earlier this month, a “feisty” lady-coyote was reported wandering the streets of the Upper West Side. Following a bungled 90-minute chase across the neighborhood, police officers finally managed to corral and tranquilize the wily creature, named Riva, in an enclosed basketball court at Riverside Park. Following her capture, Riva was handed over to Animal Care & Control of NYC, which provided her with a physical exam and a meal before releasing her into a deeply wooded area of the Bronx.

This past weekend another female interloper — a rather pretty one at that — was spotted trotting around the perimeter of a Con Edison power plant adjacent to Stuyvesant Town, a large and densely populated apartment complex on the east side of Manhattan. After a chase that was shorter than the one earlier in the month, the coyote was apprehended and handed over to the same animal control agency. Following an examination, the agency released the animal into an “appropriate wilderness area” in the Bronx.

Again, this is not the first time that coyotes have roamed city streets. In 2010, a year ripe with coyote anxiety, coyotes were spotted loitering in Central Park, on the campus of Columbia University and on the West Side Highway near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel (a toll-evading commuter from Jersey perhaps?). That same year, coyotes made headlines north of the city in suburban Westchester County, one for biting young children and another for killing toy poodles.

Most New Yorkers have never encountered a coyotes except at the Museum of Natural History. (Photo: Raul [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

While there have been a small handful of uncomfortable — but non-deadly, to humans at least — coyote encounters since 2010, including this month’s captures, they’re still something of a rarity in the five boroughs (save for the Bronx, where all errant coyotes are apparently deposited). Compared to cities such as Chicago where thousands of wild coyotes roam the city’s downtown core, it’s somewhat of a non-issue.

The same goes for Los Angeles. I can tell you, first-hand, of the pure, unadulterated fear that comes with pulling into the parking lot of your Cahuenga Pass apartment complex at 1:30 a.m. only to be surrounded by a trio of shiny-eyed carnivores descended from the Santa Monica Mountains.

Hell, in Portland, coyotes even ride public transportation.

So where, exactly, are New York City’s coyotes wandering in from?

Mark Weckel, an ecologist and doctoral student at the City University of New York, has a good idea.

Along with his colleagues, Weckel has tracked the migratory patterns of coyotes in and around New York City partially through setting up cameras in targeted city parks. In 2012, he suggested to the New York Times that the animals, traveling in small packs of three or four, have slowly made their way down from eastern Canada via the Adirondack Mountains, through the northern suburbs and into the city itself where they mainly reside deep inside of city parks, far removed from people.

In attempt to further expand their range, Weckel believes that they will continue to travel further east, eventually leaving the asphalt confines of the five boroughs and reaching Long Island proper — the last major landmass in the United States to be colonized by coyotes, according to a fascinating article on the urban coyote co-authored by Weckel. And to be clear, Eastern coyotes, are largely hybrids — coywolves, if you will — as they carry a hefty amount of gray wolf DNA.

While the notion of coyote-wolf hybrids further colonizing New York City and beyond may give most New Yorkers pause, Weckel explains that there is an upside to their unsettling presence: as top predators, they help to thin out all the more pesky and prevalent urban critters such as rodents and raccoons. “What happens is that when there’s a top predator, it will help control other levels of the food chain,” Weckel tells the Times.

And although the likelihood of a New Yorker coming face-to-face with a coyote on the middle of Lexington Avenue is nil, it helps to keep in mind (just in case!) that one should act aggressively — puffing oneself up, standing tall, waving arms, yelling and throwing things if necessary — instead of running away screaming in such a situation. Despite their reputation, coyotes, unless rabid, are generally more scared of us than we are of them. They much prefer the taste of garbage to human flesh and, with the exception of Central Park, are wary of overly touristy areas — just like the natives.