PORTSMOUTH — She’s already lost a cat to a coyote. Now Filomena Tougas is worried her small chihuahua terrier dog might be next.
“Basically I’m frightened of them,” said Mrs. Tougas of coyotes. “They’re beautiful animals, but I don’t trust them. I don’t go out at night now.”
She once spotted a coyote near her home at 11 a.m. — usually a sign that a coyote has become bolder and more comfortable with its surroundings.
“This is a big problem,” the Kensington Avenue resident said.
Mrs. Tougas was one of about 50 residents who turned out to a coyote informational meeting at the Common Fence Point Improvement Association Community Hall last week. Karen Gleason and Jackie Sherman from the neighborhood arranged for Numi Mitchell, lead scientist and project director of the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS), to speak about coyote management practices because many residents have reported seeing or hearing an increasing number of the animals in the neighborhood.
Domenic Restaino of Norwood Avenue said coyotes don’t exactly hide anymore in Common Fence Point. “I see them quite often as I leave my home in the pre-dawn hours,” he said. “Most often I see them along the access road, along the railroad tracks. More often, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, they can be heard between midnight and dawn, howling.”
Added Ms. Gleason, “This is a hot topic. I’m sure some of you have kids and small animals and are concerned as am I.”
Ms. Gleason started the meeting off by asking how many people in the hall had seen a coyote. About half the hands went up, and six stayed there when attendees were asked if they had seen one during the daytime.
Ms. Mitchell said she started NBCS — which captures coyotes and outfits them with GPS tracking devices to learn more about their behavior — because she had the same questions as residents. What she’s learned over years is that controlling coyotes’ source of food dictates their habitat and behavior.
“The resources that these animals use is the key to the whole issue,” she said. “Less food, less puppies. More food, more puppies. We know that what makes coyotes really abundant is food.”
Unfortunately, too many homeowners enraptured by coyotes’ beauty still deliberately put food down for them, or they’re careless with food they’ve left out for their pets or other wild animals.
Portsmouth, following Middletown’s lead, instituted a no-feeding ordinance in February 2013 in hopes of stemming the increasing presence of coyotes near local homes. In doing so, the town became only the second municipality in the state to outlaw the feeding of non-domesticated animals.
The ordinance states that “No person shall knowingly feed or in any manner provide an attractant to coyotes or other non-domesticated animals.” Under the ordinance, it’s OK to feed pets outdoors as long as they eat all the food immediately, the remaining food is removed when the animal is finished eating, or the pet is fed in a secure cage or other enclosure. No one may knowingly leave, store or maintain food or attractant in a place accessible to coyotes or other non-domesticated animals.
(Birdseed is OK, said Ms. Mitchell, as long as you’re not leaving piles of it in your yard.)
Failure to comply is punishable by a fine of not more than $50 for each day of the violation. Police and/or the animal control officer are in charge of enforcing the rule.
Although not everyone is complying with the ordinance, the new rules at least give the town the teeth of enforcement. Ms. Gleason’s husband, Town Council member David Gleason, said the no-feed law came in handy in the recent case of a 90-year-old woman on Vanderbilt Lane who was feeding feral cats, a problem Ms. Mitchell touched upon during her presentation. (There are nearly 40 feral cat packs on Aquidneck Island, she said, and people put down all kinds of food for them — even deli meats.)
“There was nothing to say she couldn’t do it until that ordinance went into effect,” Mr. Gleason said.
Ms. Mitchell said it takes only one person to leave food out — even compost that isn’t fenced or boxed in — to create a coyote problem in one neighborhood. The food gives coyotes a reason to concentrate in a certain area. They stay put and, as they become more comfortable, are more likely to come after cats and small dogs, she said.
“Suddenly they’re not acting like wild animals anymore. They’re coming up on your porch and chasing your pets,” said Ms. Mitchell, who urged residents to report any cases of large amounts of food being left unattended outside.
Also subsidizing local coyotes’ food source are dead farm animals.
“This is a Portsmouth problem. There are farmers here and they try their best and they can’t get rid of a 2,000-pound cow, so they put it in a compost pile,” said Ms. Mitchell, who showed videos and photographs of coyotes eating dead cows in Portsmouth and Jamestown.
“When we talked to farmers about not dumping sheep in the fields … things started immediately to change,” she said. “The pack went from roaming one square kilometer to about 10 square kilometers, and that’s what you want. You’ve got the same number of coyotes in a larger area and you’ve decreased their density.”
Roadkill that hasn’t been picked up also contributes to the coyote problem. There are 1,200 roadkill deer alone each year in Rhode Island, she said. The NBCS has been working with the state Department of Environmental Management to clear off the carcasses in a timely fashion, she said.
Coyotes are also beginning to learn how to take deer out. “They’re getting better and better at it every year,” said Ms. Mitchell. “It’s actually a good thing, but what’s not is the collateral damage of neighborhoods.”
Addresses behavioral concerns
Several residents asked Ms, Mitchell what to do if they see a coyote. “If there was a coyote in my yard I would say ‘GET OUT OF HERE!’” she said as she stamped her feet. Rarely will a coyote not run away, she said. If you’re holding a small dog, pick it up, she added.
Coyotes don’t hang around in one spot in hopes of going after a pet, according to Ms. Mitchell. Rather, they’re in the area because they’re already getting food.
Coyote attacks against humans are rare, she said, adding that she knows of only one case of a pack of coyotes killing a person.
“There’s never been a case of a person being eaten. People have been bitten,” said Ms. Mitchell, adding that most bite cases involved coyotes who were being fed by humans nearby.
Very few coyotes have rabies, she said, as they’re not susceptible to the local strain. There’s been only one recorded case of a rabid coyote in Rhode Island, according to Ms. Mitchell.
Several residents asked about hunting coyotes as a management tool. That doesn’t work, said Ms. Mitchell, who said a Middletown resident once shot 47 coyotes in one neighborhood, only to see just as many coyotes as before.
There are seven to eight Aquidneck Island coyote packs, including south and north Portsmouth packs. It’s difficult to know how many coyotes are on the island, she said, because NBCS can only track those it catches.
At one point, of course, Aquidneck Island never had any coyotes. Ms. Mitchell said the animal was once more of a western species but arrived in Rhode Island in the 1960s due to its naturally expanding range. When someone asked how they got on the island, Ms. Mitchell said coyotes can swim — or they might have walked over on the bridges.
“There was no toll then,” quipped Mr. Restaino.