Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The 1999 Coyote

A week ago when I posted news of a coyote's arrival in Central Park, I mentioned an article I had written about the park's last coyote visitor. Looking over this old piece I was struck by the similarities between the two coyote episodes: the choice of Hallett Sanctuary by both animals and the huge forces it required to capture each of the beasts. I'm hoping that the 2006 coyote doesn't end up in a zoo like the 1999 one did.

PS I posted news of a wild turkey in Central Park two days ago. Hearing that news, website correspondent Mai Stewart wrote:

Good thing the coyote's gone, otherwise we'd really have a wilderness event in CP!

Here's the article:

[This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 8, 1999]

Last Thursday an odd visitor showed up in Central Park. You may have seen him on the news that evening or on the front page of the New York Times the following morning. The color photo by Dith Pran reveals a man dressed in protective clothing who is cowering in the background while a few steps away, leaping gracefully over some clumps of grass, his mouth gaping, ears erect, bushy tail between his legs, is a large,furry, brownish grey canid. A coyote.

A surprising variety of creatures -- raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels, mice, rats, 5 species of turtles, at least 6 kinds of fish, and 22 species of birds are year-round residents of Central Park. A far greater number are tourists, among them 4 kinds of bats and some 170 species of birds. They pay regular visits, but for perfectly good reasons having to do with food supply they wouldn't want to live here.

Occasionally, some wildly unexpected creatures show up. A few years ago a South American gull whose northernmost boundary is Lima, Peru stopped in at the little water body near 5th Ave and 59th Street officially called The Pond. [It turned out that the bird had come from the Bronx Zoo where an outdoor aviary had collapsed.]

Only last week [April 2,1999] a flock of 17 big green and red parrots were seen swooping around the park, flying in formation like planes at an air show. They have been identified as Mitred Conures,[Aratinga mitrata] a species that usually resides in the mountains of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. This particular flock seems to have permanently relocated, and spends its winters in the vicinity of Rosedale, Queens.

How did a coyote find its way into Central Park? Once a resident of the American West, Canis Latrans [the species name means "barking dog"] has dramatically expanded its range and may now be found throughout the northeastern states.] An animal with a deeply ingrained fear of humans might conceivably have come down from the wilds of Westchester, where coyotes have been sighted.. It could have skulked from green patch to green patch through the wilds of the Bronx, swam across the Harlem River into Inwood Park and then Riverside Park on Manhattan's wild west side. But how on earth did he get from there to Central Park with no connecting strip of green? Crosstown bus?

Unlike the gull or the parrots or just about any of the park's exotic visitors of the past, the latest rarity was not exactly given a warm welcome. Before the birders' grapevine could notify the park's tightly knit nature community of the thrilling arrival, a posse of policemen, park workers, public officials, and news reporters commenced to hunt the coyote down. And although he was finally captured, in the process he proved to be just as wily as his famous cartoon prototype.

Regina Alvarez, a Section Supervisor for the Central Park Conservancy, was one of the many participants in Central Park's first Coyote Hunt. A personable young woman with a genuine interest in wildlife, Ms. Alvarez often acts as a liaison between the park's powers-that-be that might see a dead branch as an eyesore to be removed and its vigilant community of regular birdwatchers who regard it as a potential home for a woodpecker.

"We had heard rumors earlier about a coyote in the park, but nobody was sure whether it was an April Fool joke," Ms. Alvarez relates. "At about 10:40 a.m. I heard one of the guys who works at the Castle reporting on the walkie-talkie that he'd just spotted the coyote at the Marionette theater. I dropped everything, got into my golf cart and scooted across the Great Lawn. "When I reached the Delacorte bathrooms I heard on the radio that the coyote was heading for the Ramble. That animal was so fast! As soon as somebody said 'He's at the Castle' somebody else said 'No, he's here at Bow Bridge,' and then 'No, he's at Balto," and then 'No, he's at the Hallett Sanctuary.' The coyote got from the Castle to Hallett in less than 2 minutes."

The Sanctuary is an enclosed nature preserve on the west side of The Pond. By the time Ms. Alvarez got there a large number of people had already gathered: At least 25 police officers from the Emergency Service Unit were there. They were filling their dart guns with Ketamine HCl, a widely used veterinary tranquilizer.

Neil Calvanese, Central Park's Chief of Operations, and its preeminent tree expert was there, together with Dennis Burton, the park's Woodland's Manager. Also people from the Parks Dep't, from the ASPCA and the Center for Animal Care and Control. Commissioner Stern was there. So was the Borough Commissioner, some deputy commissioners, and lots and lots of reporters.

The coyote had been seen entering the Sanctuary through a hole in the fence on the west side. When Ms Alvarez arrived she saw Van Thon, another Supervisor, closing up the hole.

Ms. Alvarez continued her narrative: " Maria and Russell--she's the Great Lawn Manager and he's the Turf Care Supervisor for the park--and I were told to spread out around the sanctuary and tell on the radio when we see the coyote. Neil and the commissioner and the guys with the darts went inside the sanctuary.

"Then I saw him --a beautiful, big, healthy animal. Really big. When he saw they were chasing him he did the smart thing -- went right back to the hole he had gotten in through. But he saw they had closed it. So he kept running.

"You could tell that nobody there knew how to hunt down a coyote. Every time the animal appeared everybody made so much noise that they'd scare him off. The animal was basically going around in circles, but they kept waiting in these odd spots where they couldn't get a good angle.

"The whole thing was so exciting because this never happens in the park, and it was exciting to see a kind of animal I'd never seen before. But I also felt terrible. He was just trying to live. They weren't trying to kill him, but I still felt awful. I actually think everybody was sort of rooting for the coyote. We couldn't help being impressed that it took so many people to catch one animal.

"Then I heard that he'd escaped, got out of the sanctuary. Unbelievable. He emerged on the south east side of the sanctuary and began swimming! I think that's when they darted him. But still he managed to get by the big crowd standing there, and he began running north along the East Drive. He made it all the way to the Rumsey Playfield. Then the drug really began to take effect. "But even after a circle of policemen surrounded him, he still resisted for quite a while. Finally they subdued him and strapped him on a stretcher. They took him away and that was it."

The coyote was taken to the Bronx Zoo's Wildlife Health Center where he will remain until further notice. James Doherty, the zoo's General Curator was most welcoming. "I'm delighted to know there's a coyote in New York City. It add to the richness of a place. The city is big enough to have raccoons and woodchucks and coyotes -- a great variety of animal life.

In a phone interview on Tuesday Mr. Doherty reported on the condition of the Central Park coyote. "The animal is a young male and weighs 35 pounds. He looks to be in very good condition. Nice teeth, good flesh. No broken bones. No erratic behavior that might indicate rabies.

"Ideally he'd be reintroduced into some wilderness area upstate. But most of those regions already have a coyote population and wouldn't accept him. He needs a good place with no other coyotes. The difficulty is finding such a place."

All at once I thought of a place that might serve the bill perfectly, a place with no coyotes, God knows, and a place, moreover, where the coyote would serve a useful function: Central Park itself.

The park's most intractable problem happens to be unleashed dogs. Though it is illegal to let a dog run unrestrained in Central Park, the rule is broken rampantly and, in the early morning hours, with the tacit approval of the Parks Department. Meanwhile, the great numbers of dogs running free wreak considerable damage on the park's turf and plantings. Unleashed dogs also pose a threat to the park's wildlife. Two weeks ago an unleashed dog killed a male pheasant that was the new mate of a female that had lived near the Conservatory Garden in lonely splendor for the past two years. The new pair had just been about to start a family.

When asked how a coyote might survive in Central Park the zoo's Mr. Doherty answered: "Coyotes avoid people. There'd be no reason for people to worry on their own account. He would probably ea squirrels and rats and possibly stray cats. He'd probably get dogs that were off the leash. But it would be unlikely to attack a dog on a leash with a human at the other end..."