WESTERLY — Approximately two weeks into the state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions, the Westerly Police Department received a call that the agency never had before: reports of a coyote wandering through the streets downtown.
The animal, which several residents told officers wandered right down the middle of the road, seemed not to have a care in the world. The incident was just one of multiple wildlife sightings in recent weeks, according to Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey, and as efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus continue, the police are warning residents to remain alert to protect their pets and loved ones.
“We are without a doubt getting more calls regarding wild animals and especially coyote sightings in town,” Lacey said. “We estimate that as a result of the restrictions, the traffic volume in some areas has reduced as much as 75% to 80%, and that has led some animals to be more comfortable coming out where they hadn’t before.”
According to Westerly resident Donna Powers, who wrote a letter to editor in The Westerly Sun after witnessing a coyote just outside the downtown area on April 5, the sighting was an unexpected one for sure. Around 2 a.m., she said she was looking out her window when she saw “a large (actually beautiful) coyote padding down the street as if he owned it.”
Powers had shared her perspective in hopes of alerting area residents and helping neighbors protect their pets. Lacey said that as of Tuesday evening, there had fortunately not been any reports of attacks and that all callers simply reported sightings. He said the increase has led the agency to seek to educate the public, however, in an effort to prevent incidents from occurring.
What makes the sighting rare, officials said, is that coyotes are generally shy and somewhat secretive animals.
According to information provided by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, coyotes in more urban and suburban environments prefer to travel through, and remain in close proximity to, areas with abundant hiding cover. This could include powerline rights-of-ways, urban stream corridors or parks and other open space areas.
Taking shortcuts through suburban backyards to and from food sources is common, the DEM fact sheet notes.
Under certain circumstances, however, coyotes may also be aggressive. Lacey said that’s why his department has been sharing information and warnings both through social media and with those who call to report sightings.
“There’s not a lot we can do, especially without any incident or attack. But we have worked hard to reduce those incidents and we want to make sure the public is aware so that they can take precautions,” he said.
For the town, coyote presence has been a hot topic in recent years. After a number of attacks in 2017 and 2018 that included the death of numerous pets in the Watch Hill and Bradford areas, a Facebook group named the Westerly Coyote Report was founded.
The group had more than 1,200 members at one point, and it led to a concentrated effort by police and members of the Town Council to address the problem. As a result, businesses were encouraged to keep their dumpsters or trash receptacles locked and secure, and a letter to business owners, done in partnership with the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, detailed a new town ordinance prohibiting the feeding of wild animals.
The town also installed warning signs in Watch Hill and other areas where coyotes had become urbanized.
Lacey said that proved very important in curbing the number of incidents and added that there have not been any significant attacks in recent years. He said to continue the success, however, the police will need cooperation from local residents.
“We want to remind people to eliminate any food sources and to never leave your pets out unsupervised, especially at night,” Lacey said. “We want to make sure people are remaining safe.”
The Westerly Police Department offers the following advice for local residents in order to help prevent a coyote attack:
- Close all dumpster doors and lock/clip side doors, which coyotes can open. Make sure garbage bins are closed and wildlife resistant.
- Keep an eye on all small pets, especially at night, and make sure children stay away from wildlife.
- If you see any wildlife, make noise. Use whistles, air horns, yell or even bang pots and pans to scare them away.
- When walking, make sure you carry your cell phone and bring something to make lots of noise.
- Check your property during the day if possible and make sure there aren’t any places for them to hide or make dens.
For more on coyotes, visit the Rhode Island DEM website at http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/bnatres/fishwild/pdf/coyote.pdf.