Sprawl of the Wild

A coyote boom leaves suburban residents howling.

East 79th Street Kennedy's DownUnder in Playhouse Square (East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue) Friday, May 11, through Sunday, May 13



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A slavering beast eyes its next victim.
A slavering beast eyes its next victim.
This 529-acre expanse in western Lorain is nothing special, as nature goes. Once farmland, the field is still neat, with rusted tractor parts more common than wildflowers.

The site may not be paradise, but it is significant: It's one of the last open spaces left in Lorain. A squinting trespasser might conjure up images of birds trilling over the muddy brook, of prairie grass, thistle, and dandelions. The pickup trucks whizzing along Meister Road to 7-Eleven or Burger King can seem miles away.

But now the land that once nurtured soybeans is about to grow houses. A group of developers is pitching plans for "Martin's Run," a new suburban enclave in an area better known for blight.

The partners envision townhouses, apartments, an assisted-living center, and cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of vinyl siding and tasteful brick accents. It could mean more than 5,000 new people -- a big boom for a battered industrial city that has been losing residents for almost 30 years.

Unlike other housing projects, however, the group most affected by development plans won't be city officials, who see a new era beginning, or neighbors, who loathe the apartment component. The real change will hit a pack of coyotes that has made the acreage its home.

City officials believe at least eight coyotes live on the site. Some neighbors say they haven't noticed. Others are anxious.

"I'm very fearful of the coyotes," says Janet Latimer, who is legally blind and partially disabled by a stroke. "I don't know if they're lurking in the hedges. I've seen 'em as close as 50 feet away, just looking at you."

That's when Latimer flees to the house.

"They get on their haunches and look at you, and it's like they're saying, 'Maybe I didn't get that cat, but I'll get you,'" Latimer says, her voice trembling. "They haven't attacked a person out here, but you never know how they'll react and what they'll do. I've seen them kill a deer and drag it back to the woods. I've seen them chase cats. It is a bad situation."

Lorain's coyote problem is far from unusual. Residents from Solon to Strongsville have spotted the animals in their backyards, and most aren't happy about it. They say dogs have been attacked, garbage knocked over, and stray cats eaten. Some, like Latimer, are frightened.

Once unique to the West, coyotes are everywhere today. They live in all 88 Ohio counties and every state in the continental U.S. And almost everywhere, they are considered a nuisance.

Coyotes came to Ohio for two reasons. First, Midwestern forests were bulldozed to create flat, open spaces -- much like the grasslands of the West -- even as the West itself was gobbled up for strip malls and suburbia. Second, pest control nearly wiped out the coyotes' only real rival, the gray wolf.

"It's a territorial thing," says Bill Beagle of the state Division of Wildlife. "Whoever's the biggest and baddest will do well. Wolves were bigger and badder, but they're nearly gone. And the coyote is very adaptable. It's really the Alfred E. Neuman of the animal world."

Coyotes have adjusted remarkably well to the edges of civilization. They thrive on mice, rabbits, and raccoons. House cats are a tasty treat. In hard times, garbage will suffice.

Even the coyotes' soundtrack changed. In the old West, they howled in response to other coyotes. In the modern Midwest, they are more likely to respond to an ambulance siren, says Tom Stanley, chief of natural resources for the Cleveland Metroparks.

"The traditional way to count coyotes was to record howls, play them, and see what response you got," Stanley says. "In urban areas, the tape of a siren is sometimes the best response you get. That's how comfortable they've become."

But although coyotes have adjusted -- even thrived -- in the suburbs, their neighbors haven't taken as well to them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture kills about 70,000 coyotes annually, 20,000 in Texas alone. In order to protect local ranchers, the government has sanctioned everything from cyanide to strychnine to aerial hunting.

More passive states like Ohio consider coyotes "varmints" and provide an endless open season for their hunt. In this state, the only barrier to shooting every coyote in sight is city ordinances restricting firearms.

The never-ending coyote hunt has generated little public outcry. Coyotes are too numerous to be endangered and too wily to foster much sympathy, though they're generally less dangerous than dogs.

"We refer to that as 'the Bambi syndrome,'" says Stanley, who hears vocal protests of deer hunting in the Metroparks each year. "You have charismatic wildlife and wildlife that aren't so charismatic. There are people who support coyotes and want them to have a chance to run free, but there aren't nearly as many as the deer supporters."

Even the Sierra Club has declined to take on the coyote issue. "It just hasn't come up," a spokesman at the state office says. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources does not condone killing coyotes, but it has done little to discourage it either.

Tom Gassner, who served almost 27 years as Solon's animal control officer, watched coyote complaints explode after that city's population doubled.

"No offense, but usually it's a woman, and usually she sees something on TV," Gassner says. "She'll call up and say, 'I have little kids,' or 'I have a dog.' Every time they see a coyote now, they panic."

Media reports have focused on the coyote as a fearless killer. One of the most notorious examples was a Fox 8 story that described coyotes preying on a dog. The segment ended with a child's swing, swaying empty in the breeze. The link was clear: First they'll get your pet, next your kid.

Parents reacted by calling City Hall and demanding action.

"We have a lot of wealthy and educated people in Solon," Gassner says. "Some of them are so wealthy and educated, they've skipped the basics in life. They think every raccoon has rabies. They think every coyote is going to go after their kids or their little dog."

A coyote did kill a child 20 years ago in Glendale, California, but such violence is extremely rare. The Division of Wildlife must rule an animal a menace to public safety before it will remove it, Beagle says. But Ohio has yet to find a coyote fitting of that label.

"Really, you have a much higher risk of being attacked by your neighborhood dog than by a coyote," Beagle says. "You should consider yourself lucky if you see a coyote."

Gassner says he never encountered a dangerous coyote. Chuck McCleary, Strongsville's animal control officer, recalls a coyote once attacking a local fox terrier, but he thinks the attack could have been prevented. "In my opinion, the coyote was egged on by seeing the dog tied outside for a long period of time. The coyote cased the house and knew it would be easy."

The dog survived after his alarmed owner chased away the coyote with a broom.

"And that's what needs to be done," McCleary says. "If you make a coyote feel uncomfortable, he's going to leave you alone."

But even McCleary has acquiesced to Strongsville's concerns. After numerous complaints, the city set traps this spring. "With people's concerns and the amount of calls we've gotten, we had to try to appease the residents," he says. For almost two months, the clumsy box traps have straddled the city's border with the Metroparks. Coyotes have stayed away.

Perhaps that's for the better, says David Gaillard of the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Montana. Since coyotes are monogamous, eliminating one may only trigger the start of a new family or create a renegade "lone wolf" coyote who travels from place to place, mating -- and snacking -- at will. ODNR literature also suggests that, when coyotes are killed, other coyotes will mate earlier and have more babies.

"Their pack structure is a nice mechanism for keeping a rein on their territory," Gaillard says. "If you have ones that are stabilized, that keeps the renegades out. If you kill one, there's only another one that will come after that. It's not a real solution."

For the coyotes living in what will become Martin's Run, time is running out. Lorain Deputy Safety/Service Director Jos´ Escobar says he had no choice but to hire a professional trapper this spring. City officials fretted that the upcoming development would send greater numbers of coyotes into residential areas, this time more hungry and desperate.

"They have their young ones, and they need to get food for them," Escobar says. "Apparently, they were already coming into people's yards."

When city officials announced plans to kill the coyotes, they received zero complaints. Instead, people called to thank them.

"I thought we'd have at least a couple do-gooders trying to stop it," Escobar admits, laughing. "But people were happy about it . . . People out there feel safe now."

As for Latimer, she won't rest easy until every last coyote is gone. The traps may be set, but she continues to worry.

"I still have fear, of course," she says. "They haven't caught them all yet. That's what they need to do if they want me to feel safe."

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