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    Illustration by Rachel Sinclair

    Strategizing and finger-crossing probably won’t save our quest. Wildlife and magazine deadlines rarely operate in sync, National Geographic excluded. No matter. I meet Jason Nally, a private-lands biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, on a sunny spring morning at Cherokee Park in an attempt to spot a small group of coyotes that have broken a decades-long peace accord between wild dogs and humans, the canines’ aggressive deeds snatching newspaper and TV headlines along the way. “There’s some people who are very, very afraid and very, very angry right now,” Nally says before we start a hike through the park.

    Since April, what’s believed to be three coyotes have attacked three dogs, growled at adults and scared the heck out of neighbors living in the hilly, lush land between Big Rock Park and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. (It’s likely the same group of coyotes that has been reported near St. Louis Cemetery in the Highlands and Seneca Park.) Residents who’ve lived in the area for decades say they’ve never experienced such troublesome behavior from coyotes, animals that usually humbly blend into the urban ecosystem.

    Dressed in his uniform of khaki and green, Nally leads the way on a rocky trail along Beargrass Creek. The boyish, jovial 41-year-old with hints of gray in his red beard hopes for a face-to-face with the coyotes. “I want to see how the animal acts if I don’t back away,” he says. Coyotes’ instincts should alert them to slink away from people. For whatever reason — and Nally has his theories — this group doesn’t always do that.

    We begin our journey at 7:45. The animals have been most frequently spotted between 7 and 11 in the morning. Nally stops. “That’s a potential den site,” he says, pointing to a desk-drawer-sized gap in some rocks. We peer in. Nothing. Cherokee Park acts as Costco for coyotes: squirrels, mice and chipmunks in bulk for eating, water to drink and hollow tree trunks or dense thickets galore for shelter. No wonder they love it here. And for urban coyotes, city life — with its cars, bicycles and joggers — is wallpaper. “It really doesn’t freak them out to have us around,” Nally says. They do their thing. We do ours. But it’s becoming pretty clear this rogue threesome needs to remember how to coexist in peace.

     

    Hero was no match for the coyote lurking near her yard one night in late May. The 10-year-old Australian shepherd mix that Gail Dehli rescued from the Humane Society had just been let out one last time for the night. Their home backs up to Big Rock and Hero’s always itching to explore and herd creatures. An electronic fence usually thwarts her curiosity.

    Dehli heard barking. It was 10 p.m., too dark to see what critter sparked Hero’s ire. Then came an odd sound, sort of a high-pitched bark, echoes of animals tangling in the wilderness. Hero, a 40-pound dog, was likely larger than the coyote — most adults rarely exceed 30 pounds; most of their body is fluff. But they’re wiry, strong. “They’re the most athletic little 30-pound dog you could imagine,” Nally says, adding they can easily bound a standard chain-link fence if there’s something they want.

    Silence. The scuffle ended. Hero approached Dehli bleeding badly, her hind legs mauled. A patch of flesh about the circumference of a softball had been torn off one leg. Dehli wrapped Hero in towels and sped off to a veterinary emergency room where Hero received multiple stiches. She was finally released at 4 a.m. with antibiotics and a hefty vet bill.

    Dehli has talked with Nally since the attack. She’s learned that, come late spring, coyote sightings spike because Mom and Dad have typically three to seven pups, meaning more mouths to feed. A few months later in the fall, when pups are kicked out of the den, coyotes again emerge more visibly as pups search for new territory to settle. But learning about typical behavior doesn’t reconcile this particular coyote’s aggressive actions. “If our situation was the only one,” Dehli explains, “I’m not sure I’d be so concerned.”

    She has friends who’ve spotted coyotes on the streets of their Seneca Park subdivision. In April, a woman told the Courier-Journal a coyote went after her Boston terrier and “stalked” them for a half-mile. And a few weeks after Hero’s attack, another dog on her street fell victim. Hilary Noltemeyer’s dog, Pilot, an Australian shepherd and poodle mix, was out for a walk at 10 a.m. on a Sunday when a coyote growled and pounced from the bushes, puncturing Pilot’s back legs. Urban coyotes are usually nocturnal, as to help avoid nuisances like cars and people. So the morning attack shocked Noltemeyer, especially since the woman walking Pilot was nearly six feet tall, a stature that should intimidate. Noltemeyer wants something done. “I’d hate to wait until someone gets hurt,” she says, noting that small children live throughout the area and often use the park. (Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare.)

    But Dehli and Noltemeyer, like many residents in the area, feel conflicted. Cherokee Park is a wondrous neighbor. Nature deserves respect. Punishment feels cold in a place known for harmony. They have one neighbor who’s ready to rid the coyotes guns blazing; others are calling for peace, education on animal behavior and understanding. Noltemeyer has looked into hiring a private company to set traps on her property but that can cost up to $4,000. (Nally says setting traps inside Cherokee isn’t a good idea as they might catch dogs running around off-leash. Also, research shows that killing or trapping an adult coyote can decrease competition for mates in a given territory and ultimately lead to coyotes breeding earlier and having larger litters.)

    “Honestly, I don’t know what I want to happen,” Dehli says one morning as she and Noltemeyer sit on a bench at Big Rock. Noltemeyer points to a young couple with a petite lab mix walking along a nearby trail. “I’m watching these people right there,” she says. “That dog is just a little bigger than Pilot, and I suppose a coyote could go attack that dog too.” I ask how Hero and Pilot are doing. Pilot’s fine, though Noltemeyer’s kids are a bit skittish. One night her young daughter asked her to pull the car into the garage before they got out. Hero’s still got one wound that’s healing. “At first, she’d hardly step off the patio. Now she’s off looking for wildlife to chase,” Dehli says with a tired laugh. “I’m like, Hero, haven’t you learned?”

     

    Nally and I head off-trail, up a steep knot of brier. “This is where I think the den is,” he says once we crest the hill and see the Presbyterian Seminary. He’s had two reports of coyotes barking or approaching folks walking their dogs here. Perhaps, he says, it’s just protective parenting. “They view any four-legged predator as potential competition for resources and a potential predator for their young,” he explains. But the coyotes’ behavior could be due to something else — an association of humans with food. “That conditioning is hard to break,” Nally says.

    Earlier in the walk, we passed a heap of trash — Oatmeal Creme Pie wrappers, fast-food bags and soda cups. The coyote is an opportunist. It will take advantage of an easy meal, be it trash or pet food or birdfeeders left outside. “Fortunately, they stick with their natural sources the vast majority of time,” Nally says. He hasn’t ruled out that someone is intentionally feeding the canines. Nally’s heard a story from a few years back of a woman who lived near the zoo who was hand-feeding coyotes and other wildlife. Not surprisingly, coyote sightings went up in the area.

    One thing is certain: Coyotes are here to stay. They arrived in Kentucky from the West about 40 or 50 years ago and are all over Louisville. (Earlier this year, a small dog was attacked in Glenview.) Every city, even New York, has urban coyotes. And Nally is quick to defend their presence. “They’re filling a void in the absence of other large predators like wolves that used to live here,” he says. “They help maintain a little bit of balance in that whole food web.” (Another nod to these wild dogs: They ain’t such wild dogs. The males are monogamous and help raise the pups.)

    No sightings at the seminary. As we head back on the trail, Nally stops two middle-aged blond women dressed in complementing shades of hot-pink and black running gear.

    “Can I ask you guys a question?” he asks. “Have you all encountered aggressive coyotes while you’re out and about?”

    Their eyes pop, mouths fall open. Both blond heads swivel left and right.

    “No, but honestly we don’t ever look around. We’re gossiping too much,” one of the women replies with a smile.

    “I have seen, honest to God, guys who take off their pants and run,” the other woman says, chuckling. “They flash.”

    We share a laugh, but Nally gets back on task, administering advice. “If it’s in the field and it’s not paying attention to you, just don’t do anything. But if that coyote stops, looks at you, approaches you, barks at you, it’s a good idea to raise your hands, clap your hands, walk toward it,” he says. “I know it’s counterintuitive because the first thing you want to do is run.”

    “Oh,” the ladies say, nodding.

    “To keep the coyote safe, and everyone safe, it’s good to train that coyote to be afraid of humans again,” he continues. “If it keeps on approaching you, get a stick, throw rocks, haze it until it’s gone out of sight.”

    Hazing, that’s the main response to the coyotes as of mid-June. Nally wants to meet with running and other outdoor groups to teach them how to instill a little fear back into the animals. He also plans on posting signs in the park, a list of tips: don’t back away, keep your dog on a leash, don’t leave food outside. Whether more severe steps will be taken, he’s unsure. “We always value human life over wildlife,” Nally reports in an assuring tone. I’ll learn later that in the week prior to our hike, coyotes were laying low. Maybe they had caught enough fame. More likely, they had caught a fawn. In late spring and early summer, deer birth their young. Cuteness doesn’t influence the food chain.

    Our mission fails. No coyotes spotted. But that is how it should be. It’s a boring ending. And a natural one.

    This originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find you very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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