Warning: Suburban coyotes view your pets as intruders
While walking her unleashed 12-year-old Maltese, Daisy, in her front yard on a chilly November night, Carol Cincinello noticed the silhouette of another animal.
Daisy, who was within 10 feet of Cincinello, suddenly yelped as a coyote sprang seemingly from nowhere and snatched her in its mouth. Horrified, Cincinello screamed and chased after the coyote then called police.
The responding officer saw the coyote with Daisy in its mouth but was also unable to save the dog.
"It's upsetting, very upsetting," Cincinello said, adding that her 14-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son were so shaken by Daisy's death that they won't let her take their new dog Dixie out at night.
Cincinello was one of three Wheaton dog owners to report coyote attacks on their pets in a two-week span in November and December.
Experts say it's coyote season in the suburbs, the time when young males separate from their families and search for their own place to live in preparation for the mating season next month.
That's not good news for cats and small-to medium-sized dogs.
"Coyotes at this time of year are trying to establish a territory, a mating territory," said Jack MacRae, naturalist for the DuPage County Forest Preserve. "Good territory doesn't have a lot of other dogs in it. They do go after dogs that they look at as intruders in their space."
The number of coyotes in the suburbs spiked in the early 1990s, and today about 2,500 to 3,500 coyotes live in the Chicago region, MacRae said.
"Coyotes have learned suburbia is better than rural areas," he said, adding that the animals are attracted to the diversity in the landscape and accessibility to a variety of food. "Every community in the Chicago region has coyotes in it."
A family will typically live in one location throughout the year, but when males turn about 6 months old in the early fall and winter, they are forced to leave the den and create their own territory, MacRae said. Females will occasionally stay with parents until the next litter is born the following spring.
While coyotes may seem rampant this time of year, they are still present -- but mostly unseen by humans -- during the summer months, when they are busy taking care of their young.
"Increased sightings and reports may not necessarily mean more coyotes," MacRae said, adding that the forest preserve always gets an increased number of calls after a story about coyotes appears in the news.
MacRae said he's not convinced coyotes are killing cats and small dogs for food, but Brad Lundsteen, owner of Suburban Wildlife Control, said he has found pets completely devoured by coyotes.
"With a lot of snow, they have a hard time finding food," he said, adding that the company, which serves Kane, DuPage and Cook counties, receives several calls a week about coyotes.
While their numbers may not have grown in recent years, coyotes' boldness has.
"Twenty years ago, a car horn, a door slamming, sent a coyote fleeing. Now it doesn't," MacRae said, adding that coyotes are always testing what they can get away with; if nothing negative happens to them in a location, they'll keep coming back.
Cincinello said that was the troubling part of the coyote's attack on Daisy.
"What scares me most is that they just don't seem to have the fear of human presence," she said, adding that for Christmas she gave her neighbors air horns to use if they see coyotes near their homes.
While there is no way to get rid of all the coyotes, MacRae said people who don't want them moving into residential areas should take on the responsibility of scaring them off. The process is called "hazing."
"I think we have to ramp up hazing techniques," he said, explaining that it is necessary to use new methods to scare coyotes out of backyards, such as waving an empty garbage bag in the wind.
Many experts say hazing is a more effective method of combating coyotes' move into highly populated areas than trapping or killing.
However, some municipalities, including Wheaton, have tried such methods. There, a trapper was hired in late 2010 to capture and euthanize a small number of coyotes.
Michael Dzugan, Wheaton assistant city manager, said the trapping ceased after the city council received negative feedback from residents and people outside the city who disapproved of that approach.
MacRae said it's not likely to succeed, anyway.
"The amazing thing about coyotes is they tend to rebound and increase their numbers shortly after trapping ... it's just their behavior and their adaptability," he said, adding that when coyotes are killed it results in more food for the remaining coyotes and birthrates increase.
MacRae said he could recall only Grundy County as an area where locals attempted to kill coyotes to reduce their numbers. A bounty was offered and about 40 were killed quickly -- but no one really noticed a drop in sightings.
In early 2011, Wheaton adopted a public-awareness coyote policy, which provides residents with useful information about coyotes and prohibits people from feeding the animals.
Wheaton also asks residents to report coyote sightings and attacks on pets to police. The city keeps all reports on record and regularly alerts the media about attacks.
It appears that Wheaton may be more proactive than other towns when it comes to coyotes.
Joanne Aul, animal control supervisor for the Naperville Police Department, said in an email that in the past two years, Naperville has received nine reports of dogs being attacked by coyotes, but news releases were sent out only in summer 2012.
Other governmental agencies, like the Lake County Health Department, categorize attacks on pets by any animal into one number and don't provide public alerts about the attacks.
Schaumburg Police Sgt. John Nebl said while coyote attacks on pets are rarely reported in the village, he can't recall a time in the last seven years when an alert has been put out about coyotes.
Officials in St. Charles and Barrington say they haven't received any reports in the last two years of coyotes attacking small pets, but if reports were made, a public statement would be issued as a safety precaution and to raise awareness.
But it all boils down to pet owners' diligence.
"I don't think if you just see a coyote, it warrants a call to the authorities," MacRae said. "I don't think humans have to worry at all about coyotes, other than we need to watch our pets."
Ÿ Do not feed coyotes. This can happen unintentionally if you have a messy bird feeder. That may attract rodents, which then attract coyotes.
Ÿ Keep dogs on a leash. Don't let domestic cats run loose if coyotes live nearby.
Ÿ Do not run from a coyote. Instead, shout or throw something in its direction.
Ÿ Report aggressive, fearless coyotes immediately to police or animal control officers.
Source: The Cook County Coyote Project