For one Chicago area resident, breaking into jail was the easy part.
A few days before Christmas, Cook County Sheriff’s Office directors and staff cornered a would-be escape artist they couldn’t have expected. A coyote, which officials say must have jumped a fence, found itself trapped by layers of chain-link and razor wire inside a yard on the Cook County Jail campus.
“We were concerned about how we’d catch this guy,” said Kenneth Trebilco, a Cook County Sheriff’s Office director. “We had to get him out. During perimeter checks, the last thing you want is to have an officer walk out in the yard and be looking into the eyes of a coyote.”
Animal control officers captured the foiled escapee, a female, without harming her beyond injuries she had already sustained. The “Christmas coyote,” so dubbed by Sheriff's Office staff, has since returned to the wild after a stint at Flint Creek Rehabilitation in Barrington.
“What was he doing here in the first place? My own pet theory is that there are geese out there, and that he was looking for a Christmas goose,” said David Devane, a Sheriff's Office executive.
Chicagoans who recall the “Quiznos coyote”—who earned minor fame by walking into one of the sandwich chain’s downtown establishments in the spring of 2007—might have speculations of their own.
Stanley. D Gehrt, assistant professor at The Ohio State University’s school of environment and natural resources, offered a more nuanced explanation.
“Coyotes have clearly moved into the city, and that was not the result of any particular group of people or individuals interested in establishing them there,” he said. “Coyotes have decided to do that, and so it’s a natural experiment. We don’t know what the final outcome will be.”
Since 2000, Gehrt has studied coyotes as principal investigator of the Cook County Coyote Project. He explained that there are no “concrete explanations” for the increased visibility of the animals, but rather a number of theories and possible contributing factors.
Among these is the coyotes’ own social structure, he explained.
“They maintain territories as family groups and exclude outsiders, so when one goes solitary and leaves one of these groups, the social system pushes that individual toward what you might consider less hospitable habitats, in this case, cities,” Gehrt said.
“Once they became established in cities, it turned out cities weren’t all that bad as far as coyote life is concerned, so they’ve been thriving,” he added. “In all the major metropolitan areas, the same phenomenon has been occurring.”
For Gehrt, one of the biggest surprises of the study has been the extent to which unknowing city dwellers live right up next to coyotes.
“When we began our research we didn’t realize how many coyotes there were in the urban landscape, and they were living in such close proximity to people on a regular basis,” he said. “Most of the people we watched while we were radio-tracking coyotes had no idea these coyotes were there.”
Quentin Crabtree, a police officer with the Cook County Forest Preserve, confirmed Gehrt’s observation.
“They are more of them than people realize,” he said. “A lot of people think they’re dogs. If more people realized they’re coyotes, we’d all get more calls because people usually think coyotes will attack like wolves.”
In his experience, Crabtree has learned coyotes go to great pains to avoid having to deal with human beings at all.
“Our wildlife conservation department has had to trap them for different things,” he said. “I know of one who was trapped and chewed his foot off and survived. Have you ever seen a three-legged dog run? They can run."
Crabtree acknowledged that coyotes often get negative press.
“They’re not wolves,” he said. “Sometimes they get a bad rap, but they’re not going to come and attack you. They’re always moving and they’re very smart, very cautious. That’s why there are so many of them,” he said.
Despite their best efforts at going incognito, urban-dwelling coyotes engage in the occasional conflict with people. One area of contention both Gehrt and Crabtree acknowledge is the habit the coyotes have of occasionally taking family pets.
“They’ll take little dogs, cats, other small mammals,” Crabtree said. But Gehrt insisted many people wrongly perceive the prevalence of these incidents. Throughout his many nights observing coyotes in action, he said he witnessed a contrary phenomenon.
“The most common thing we see is coyotes avoiding dogs altogether, or it’s actually the dogs chasing the coyotes off, even little tiny Chihuahuas and terriers,” he said. “If coyotes were that interested in people’s dogs, you’d be hearing about a coyote attack every day in every neighborhood.”
In general, Gehrt advises keeping pets inside, especially at night. He says keeping cats inside at all times is probably good measure if you know coyotes are about. Gehrt also stresses the importance of general awareness.
“People need to know that even though they’re living in a city, it doesn’t mean they’re not living next to coyotes,” he said. “If they’re aware, maybe they can be more conscious about not leaving food out for them, or about watching over their pets more diligently, or even their children.”
Does Gehrt think the negative publicity and the misunderstandings could ever drive coyotes out of the area?
“Humans have had an antagonistic relationship with coyotes for over 100 years, before they ever moved into cities,” he said. “We’ve thrown pretty much everything we can at them, and they thrive. Once they get established somewhere, you’ll never get rid of them.”
If Gehrt is correct, it seems the pack is here to stay.