WESTERLY — An ordinance that would prohibit the feeding of wild animals might help curb incidents of brazen coyotes swooping into residential neighborhoods, according to Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva.
“If you do have something in writing that someone can look up and we can promote it, it may be helpful,” Silva told the Town Council on Monday.
The proposal follows a second summer season in which reports of coyotes roaming backyards and injuring or making off with cats and dogs has received scrutiny by the council and statewide attention.
Officials have routinely asked homeowners to secure garbage and to refrain from leaving food out for coyotes or other wild animals — but not all owners or occupants have followed this advice. An investigation that began with the loss of a small dog in Misquamicut on Aug. 28 led to a citation from the state Department of Environmental Management after meat scraps and bones were found in the yard of a neighboring property owner.
The coyote in the Misquamicut incident was particularly aggressive, according to the dog’s owner, John Burke, of Staten Island, a New York City firefighter. His family was staying in a summer rental when the coyote took the dog off the back porch in the presence of Burke’s other dog and 2-year-old daughter. Burke himself was standing about 15 feet away as the coyote ran into the woods.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said Burke told him in an email that he followed the coyote into a wooded area and had physical contact with the animal but was unable to rescue his dog before it was taken deeper into the woods.
Burke hired a search team, which found the carcass about 24 hours later; a dog that aided in the search detected the bones and meat in a yard two properties away. The DEM was called and issued the citation.
Charles Brown, a DEM wildlife biologist, said Wednesday that intentionally feeding wild animals makes them overly comfortable around people. “Feeding wild animals, including coyotes, changes their behavior and movement patterns and when they are active, and leads to a whole series of problems,” he said.
Brown said his department has received other reports of property owners in Westerly leaving food out for coyotes, but has not been able to document the incidents aside from the one in August. “We’ve certainly seen it in other communities as well...if you see coyotes that are bold and brazen it’s often directly related to feeding,” he said.
On Monday, some members of the Town Council said they feared coyotes were a threat not just to small animals but to young children as well. “We don’t want our pets or our children harmed,” Councilor Karen Cioffi said.
Councilor William Aiello said he was also concerned about the safety of young children.
Councilor Philip Overton cautioned against “fear mongering” and noted that problems with coyotes are rare in states like New Hampshire, where residents are familiar with the animals.
On Wednesday, Brown said it was “unlikely” that a child would be attacked by a coyote. He said he was not aware of any attacks on children by coyotes since the animals started to be observed in the state in the mid-1960s.
“I’d think about it in terms of other risk factors. You’re more likely to be bitten by a dog,” Brown said.
Rooney said that he would work with Silva and other town staff members to develop an ordinance to prohibit feeding wild animals. The staff will also develop a procedure for asking rental agencies to inform their customers of the presence of coyotes and steps to take to ensure safety, Rooney said. Visitors from urban areas “don’t know that wildlife is so close to them” when they visit or rent in the town, Rooney said.