Coyote attacks alarm New York suburb

The attacker pounced from behind a large rock as 3-year-old Erika Attar played outside her home. “Mommy!” shrieked a playmate as the girl struggled to break free. Erika’s father dashed across the yard, and the startled predator vanished into the dusk.

It was the sort of crime associated with an urban jungle, not a tranquil suburb. But it was one of two such attacks in four days, and the descriptions of the suspects were identical: brownish-black hair, pronounced nose, amber eyes and long, skinny legs — all four of them.

Police issued an alert to warn locals of what had become frighteningly clear: Rye has coyotes, and the ones prowling the leafy town have engaged in some un-coyote-like behavior, such as ambushing children in residential neighborhoods. On June 29, the Tuesday after the first attack, two coyotes dashed across a sidewalk and leapt on Emily Hodulik, 6, as she played outside her home.

“This is an extraordinary situation we’re dealing with,” the police commissioner, William Connors, told a town meeting. “There will always be a crisis … but this is certainly the most unusual one I’ve encountered in 30 years in this business.”

Both girls survived with cuts and scratches, but the meeting underscored the fears of locals and the concerns of wildlife experts. Just as people in the seaside town in “Jaws” wondered when it would be safe to go back into the water, Rye residents wonder when it will be safe to go back outside.

“We don’t know what the future is going to hold,” Kevin Clarke, a wildlife biologist from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said as he fielded questions at the meeting. Will sprinkling wolf urine on the ground deter coyotes? Maybe. Are coyotes paddling across the Long Island Sound from Connecticut? Doubtful. When will this be over? Nobody knows.”

Wildlife is no stranger to New York City, about 30 miles south of Rye, or to its suburbs. Black bears, white-tailed deer and coyotes have lived near residential areas for decades, but encounters with their human neighbors usually are accidental. That seems to be changing, at least for coyotes, who have popped up everywhere from Manhattan’s cafe-lined streets to Columbia University to the golf courses, cemetery and main drag of downtown Rye. Dogs, cats and now children have been targets.

“What happened … is really nothing short of a nightmare,” said Stephen Hodulik, the father of Emily, who endured rabies shots and whose injuries might have been far more severe had her mother not been nearby.

The town’s response has been a campaign that includes shoot-to-kill orders if police encounter coyotes. That has left many wildlife experts and some locals uneasy given that human habits — littering, letting cats and small dogs wander outside, leaving pet food in the backyard — are blamed for presenting irresistible lures to coyotes.

“I think it’s a good sign that we have these animals because it shows we’re doing a better job of protecting habitat for wildlife in urban areas,” said Patrick Thomas of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Coyotes such as the one that dodged police in March for 24 hours before being captured in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood are using grassy highway medians and expanding parkland to wander into the city, Thomas said.

“If you’re going to have green spaces and woodlands, you’re going to be sharing that space with wildlife,” he said.

But Thomas sympathizes with Rye and conceded that when coyotes behave abnormally, human safety must take precedence.

At All Paws, a pet store in downtown Rye, shop owner Claudia Baker said if attention had been paid earlier to the coyotes, police wouldn’t have to patrol the streets at night ready to shoot them.

“What makes me sad is that for months, people’s dogs and cats have been attacked by coyotes, but it took an attack on a child to make anyone pay attention,” she said as her black lab, Murphy, lounged on the shop floor. “That sounds callous, but our dogs are our children. It didn’t have to get to this point.”

Simply tranquilizing the animals and releasing them elsewhere won’t fix the problem because the coyotes prowling Rye clearly have lost their shyness around humans, city officials say.

In addition to the shoot-to-kill orders, the campaign includes measures that sound more suitable to a counter-insurgency campaign than an animal infestation. Helicopters equipped with infrared heat-seeking devices have been called in for aerial surveillance to assist ground forces pursuing coyotes; traps have been set in wooded areas; a special coyote-focused police unit has been established.

Summer day camps have received special attention. Counselors are urged to carry air horns to blast at approaching coyotes. The police commissioner, whose daughter is a camp counselor, said children had been instructed “that if a dog, say other than a white fluffy poodle, appears,” they should alert an adult.

But no coyotes have been shot, evidence of their elusive nature and of the risks of waging urban warfare in a populated suburb.

Shortly after Erika was jumped, police spotted a coyote in the cemetery but couldn’t open fire because of nearby traffic. The night after Emily was attacked, officers saw a coyote trotting through a golf course, a woodchuck in its mouth.

As the police car drove parallel to the animal, the coyote occasionally stopped and glanced at its pursuers, holding tight to its furry prey. When the car stopped and an officer aimed his gun at the coyote, Connors said, it dropped the woodchuck and “took off like a shot.”