WESTERLY — Don’t feed them, don’t cower in fear and use common sense.
Those were three of the central points made by the town’s animal control officer and a state wildlife expert during a presentation on coyotes to the Town Council Monday.
Animal Control Officer Art Smith said the population of coyotes in the town has increased in recent years, most likely because of relatively mild winters, which makes it easier for coyotes to find food in the colder months and leads to larger litters of coyote pups.
He also acknowledged an increase in reported sightings and of the population of coyotes in the Watch Hill, Avondale and Misquamicut areas.
“Watch Hill is is a part-time community. Eight months out of the year, most of the year, it’s not busy at all. It’s a haven for not just coyotes but fox, deer and racoon,” Smith said.
And, he said, the sightings tend to increase in July when adult coyotes seek more food than usual as their pups are usually weaned and starting to eat solid food. Smith and Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Management, said nearly every problem between humans and coyotes is driven by coyotes’ hunger.
That drive can put small pets and small livestock at risk, the experts said. Smith stressed that the owners of dogs that weigh less than 20 pounds should not allow their pets to roam freely. During the past three years, he said 8 to 10 dogs have been killed by coyotes and 15 to 20 dogs were injured. In every case, Smith said his investigations revealed the dogs had been left to roam alone in their yards or in one case on a 40-foot-long leash behind its owner.
Coyotes, generally, will not attack people, Brown said. Rather than cower in fear or run away or run indoors, Brown advised people who encounter coyotes to yell at them and use stern body language.
“We need to, as people, just as a general rule, harass them at every opportunity we get. Sometimes just establishing boundaries is important to changing their behavior,” Brown said.
State law, Brown said, gives property owners broad latitude to shoot coyotes when an animal’s behavior warrants it, but foot-hold traps and snares are prohibited by law. The use of poison is also prohibited and can lead to accidental poisoning of domestic pets, Brown said.
Councilor Philip Overton, a seasoned outdoorsman who just returned from a hiking trip in Alaska, said coyotes rarely present a threat to people, but he also advised residents to keep an eye on their small pets. The greatest concern, Overton said, “is people aren’t used to them.”
Councilors Jack Carson and Edward Morrone both described hearing about especially aggressive coyotes in the Watch Hill and Misquamicut areas in recent years. “Sometimes individual animals demonstrate bad behavior and it’s a good idea to target them,” Brown responded.
Carson asked if the town could be held legally liable if a coyote caused injuries to people after the town was advised of aggressive behavior. Town Attorney William Conley Jr. said the town’s responsibility is to perform “a duty of care that is reasonable under the circumstances.”
Brown and Smith offered the following additional tips:
They also reminded pets owners to have their animals vaccinated and to report all contact between coyotes and people or pets.
Smith said his department receives hundreds of coyote-related calls every summer. Reports of aggressive coyotes are responded to expeditiously, he said.