DENVER – A coyote ambling into a Chicago sandwich shop or taking up residence in New York's Central Park understandably creates a stir. But even here on the high plains of Colorado, where the animals are part of the landscape and figure prominently in Western lore, people are being taken aback by rising coyote encounters.
Thanks to suburban sprawl and a growth in numbers of both people and animals, a rash of coyote encounters has alarmed residents.
Wildlife officials are working to educate the public: Coyotes have always been here, they've adapted to urban landscapes and they prefer to avoid humans.
"Ninety-five percent of this problem is a human problem, and we really need to focus on that 95 percent to solve it," said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
Since December, four people in the Denver area have been nipped or bitten by coyotes. A fifth told police a coyote lunged at him.
State wildlife officers have killed seven coyotes. An eighth was killed by a sharpshooter hired by Greenwood Village, in Denver's southern suburbs.
"These are coyotes that were born and raised in the 'hood," said Liza Hunholz, an area manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Colorado, says there are more people and less habitat along Colorado's Front Range, bringing the animal and people populations into closer proximity and producing what he calls "an unprecedented scare response."
"The communities seem to be really feeding one another," said Bekoff. He has studied coyotes for 40 years and believes that in some cases dogs are mistaken for coyotes.
Coyotes once were found primarily on the Great Plains and in the Southwest, but have expanded their turf to most of North America. Populations of wolves, a fierce competitor, have shrunk, and swaths of forest have turned into coyote-friendly open spaces.
After generations of urban living, some coyotes navigate subdivisions as easily as the cactus and scrub oak of the high desert where their ancestors roamed. Experts won't even try to guess how many coyotes there are nationwide.
Coyote sightings have skyrocketed in Greenwood Village. Last year, police received 186 reports, including 15 clashes with pets. Already this year, there have been 142.
"People are afraid to let their pets out or their children to walk to school," said Greenwood Village City Manager Jim Sanderson.
Jacque Levitch, of south Denver, was bitten by one of three coyotes she said confronted her and her Labrador retriever, Taz, on Feb. 21. "I hit it with my right fist and right forearm," Levitch said.
Taz was all right. Levitch had to endure rabies shots. She said her neighbors now carry big sticks and golf clubs.
"If nothing is done, I can only see the problem escalating," Levitch said.
In New York City, a coyote pup was found in the Bronx last year, and in 2006 police captured a coyote in Central Park. In California's San Bernardino County, two toddlers were reported injured in separate coyote incidents last year.
One toddler was killed in California in the 1980s in the country's only known fatal coyote attack.
WildEarth Guardians' Rosmarino thinks in most cases it's people who need to change their behavior. She has organized volunteers in Greenwood Village and other cities to walk through parks to shoo coyotes and make them more wary of people.
Most coyotes do everything they can to avoid people, said Stan Gehrt (GURT), an assistant professor at Ohio State University's School of Environment and Natural Resources. That's true even in Chicago, where Gehrt has led a study since 2000. About 300 coyotes there have been radio-collared and tracked.
The coyote that walked into the Chicago sandwich shop in 2007 got a lot of attention. But Gehrt said few people are aware of how many have lived in Chicago for decades. One of his subjects has a hiding spot near the downtown post office and thousands of people pass within yards of it each day.
"Even though they live in urban areas and figure out how people work ... it doesn't mean they're necessarily becoming more aggressive toward us," Gehrt said.
They also haven't changed their diet. Gehrt expected to find urban coyotes eating a lot of garbage and pets. But their scat shows rodents are still the meal of choice, followed by deer, rabbits and birds.
Coyotes view pets such as cats and dogs as competitors, not food, Gehrt said. Most coyotes are submissive toward dogs, though some will stand their ground — especially during breeding season, when they may see dogs as rivals for mates. Mating season peaked in February, when some of the Denver-area incidents occurred.
Residents are warned to not feed coyotes, to keep dogs on short leashes, and to yell or throw rocks at coyotes so they associate humans with bad things. Bird seed may attract mice and voles, which then can draw hungry coyotes. Don't leave out pet food and garbage, and don't leave pets alone.
A coyote that bit a boy snowboarding on a golf course in Erie, 26 miles north of Denver, had been fed by golfers.
Reducing the number of coyotes doesn't work, Rosmarino said, because the animals breed more and have bigger litters when their population declines. The U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services killed more than 90,000 in 2007 to stem livestock attacks.
Relocation also doesn't work, Gehrt said. Coyotes moved from Chicago to the country headed back to the city.
"The coyotes are here, they've always been here and the only way to deal with them is to understand them and make them afraid of you," said Ned Ingham, a Greenwood Village retiree and one of Rosmarino's volunteers. "We live in an area with wildlife."