A coyote is seen in Chicago in 2011. Coyotes, though plentiful throughout New Jersey, generally avoid humans – unless they become rabid or too habituated to humans, experts say.
Three reported coyote attacks have taken place over the last seven months in New Jersey.
For an elusive creature that has slowly crept in and taken up residence among people throughout the Garden State over the last few decades, the attacks are exceedingly rare — and might best be explained by rabies.
A man working in his Saddle River yard was attacked from behind Monday by a coyote, which bit him on the leg and ran away, said Capt. Jason Cosgriff of the Saddle River Police. The coyote was acting completely out of character for his species — it was seen out during the daylight, and it had attacked a neighbor’s dog and behaved aggressively toward other dogs, authorities said.
Such behavior can be symptoms of rabies, according to authorities. The coyote was later cornered and killed, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is currently testing the animal’s brain for the disease. Results are expected this week, police said.
If the animal tests positive, it would be the second such animal attack explained by the disease in seven months. In October, a rabid coyote attacked a cyclist and then a hunter, who killed it with a knife and bow, in Chester.
Rabies would help explain the attack on humans, since coyotes generally avoid human contact. They prefer to move in the shadows, and survive as wily, opportunistic feeders — eating rodents, livestock, and carrion, according to state wildlife officials.
Before 2006, only one attack was recorded — a woman walking dogs in Boonton in 1999, who was bitten by a coyote after she fell and broke her leg, according to state officials.
Gray wolves used to inhabit the state — but were killed off by hunters and farmers in the early part of the 20th century, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The niche was gradually filled, mile by mile, by the coyotes.
Coyotes in New Jersey and New York are generally larger and have more color variation than their cousins out west, wildlife experts said. They can grow up to 55 pounds, and range in coloration from gray to blonde, red to black. Biologists believe that the coyotes cross-bred with wolves to make a kind of hybrid species currently seen in the Garden State.
To an onlooker, the coyote looks like a small German shepherd with a longer snout, and a black-tipped, bushy tail. A key feature to the untrained eye is its posture: the coyote holds its tail low, whether it’s standing, or moving.
If not rabid, they are deterred by bright lights and loud noises. Biologists say precautions can be taken against coyote dangers:
* Keep pets indoors at nights – particularly cats.
* Don’t leave food out – and don’t feed feral cats, since they are a food source for the coyotes.
* Homeowners should keep their yards well manicured. Wood piles, debris, or overgrown areas can be breeding grounds for mice, rabbits and voles – which are some of the main food sources for coyotes.
* Never feed coyotes – they can become too habituated to humans, and therefore dangerous.
According to a report last year by the Division of Fish and Wildlife, more than 100 coyote sightings have been reported over the years, from towns in Cumberland to Sussex counties, from West Milford to Jackson.
Tony McBride, a principal biologist with the state’s division of Fish and Wildlife, said that coyote attacks typically peak during the spring and fall.
“Coyotes are typically secretive animals not often seen or heard,” McBride wrote in 2006. “Although usually nocturnal, coyotes can be seen any time of day, especially during the breeding season for late January into early March.”
The annual special-permit hunting season for coyotes ran from Jan. 1 through March 15, according to the Division.