WESTERLY — Over a 22-month period from January 2017 through October 2018, 13 complaints of coyote-pet "physical encounters" were filed with the Westerly animal control officer, Art Smith, including reports of five dogs that were killed.
As it turns out, October 2018 was also the last time that Smith would take a complaint that included evidence of an attack.
The Westerly police on Wednesday confirmed that it has been approximately 13 months since the last documented coyote incident in town. Smith said he hopes that policy changes made over the past year will help keep that streak alive for months to come.
"This was always our goal, but admittedly, the plan has seemingly worked better than we had initially hoped," Smith said. "We implemented a plan that looked to address concerns in several different ways and we will continue to implement components of that plan moving forward."
The fact that there has been no recent reports does not necessarily mean that no attack has occurred. Smith confirmed that numerous coyote sightings have still been reported — including within the past two weeks — but the police department has not received documented evidence of an attack.
The state Department of Environmental Protection also confirmed that there has been no record of a reported attack in Westerly in last 13 months. However, Charles Brown, a DEM wildlife biologist, has said that his department is not the responding agency when attacks occur, and thus would be far less likely to receive such information from the public.
Brown said he believes that the town's coyote plan has had a positive impact. "It's an incredible turnaround really," he said. "I think there are a number of reasons for it, including aspects such as hosting information sessions to help the public better understand what to expect and how to avoid attracting them."
Coyotes have been the topic of numerous discussions before the Town Council, and on social media over the past several years. Members of the Westerly Coyote Report, a Facebook page that was shut down on Sept. 3, tracked the animals and shared their experiences.
The group had more than 1,200 members at one point, and in closing the page, administrator Paul Dewey credited the town's efforts in helping to alleviate what he called "the habituated coyote problem."
Smith and Brown cited a concentrated effort to eliminate food sources and inform the public of coyote dangers. Businesses were encouraged to deep their dumspters or trash receptacles 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.
Smith also asked real estate agents to leave a written message at rental properties or speak with home buyers or vacation renters, alerting them to the presence of coyotes. "There was pushback from one or two, but not nearly as many as we would have expected. I would say 99 percent of those we contacted were on board with the idea right away," he said.
Despite these efforts, several local residents told the Town Council in June that the coyotes were still a problem. Misquamicut resident Amy Stowe described an incident involving a coyote that jumped over a fence and into her backyard while she and her dog were outside on a summer evening. The coyote grabbed her dog by the neck but let go when Stowe yelled at the animal. The dog required immediate care from a veterinarian, she said.
Rob Scaglio, founder of the Westerly Coyote Report, thanked Smith and Chief of Police Shawn Lacey during the meeting, but said he doubted that problems with habituated coyotes would diminish unless there was a planned effort to kill them.
Smith said Wednesday that efforts to hunt coyotes were simply not feasible, especially at the cost to the town, and have proved to be unnecessary. Residents have a right to hired professionals to track and kill coyotes, he said, but would be responsible for the costs.
Keeping a streak of zero attacks is good news, but Smith said he knows it won't last forever. At this point, he said, the goal is to continue educating the public and raising awareness in order to keep the impact of coyote encounters to a minimum.
The latest sighting in Westerly, reported about two weeks ago, involved a family with a small dog who reported that two coyotes were staring at the home around 2 a.m. from the edge of a wood line in the backyard. When an man opened a door and yelled at them, however, Smith said, they took off running.
"This is what we want to see, coyotes that are timid of humans," Smith said. "When they urbanize, coyote behavior can become a problem and that seems to be what happened in Westerly. We are finally seeing behavior that would be considered far more normal."