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Science & Environment

Why Coyotes — Up To 4,000 Of Them — Are Turning Up In Chicago

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you were to stroll down the 700 block of North Fairbanks Court in Chicago, you would be in the heart of one of Chicago's busiest and most urban neighborhoods. It's blocks from Chicago's Magnificent Mile, home to high-end stores, lots of traffic and lots of people. And if you were in the area on an evening earlier this week, you could have been bitten by a coyote.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Or, as some people say, a coyote. Two people have recently been bitten by coyotes in the city, including a 5-year-old child.

CORNISH: To find out why coyotes are turning up in the city, we turn to Stanley Gehrt. He's the head of the Cook County Coyote Project and a professor and wildlife extension specialist at Ohio State. Welcome to the program.

STANLEY GEHRT: Thank you.

CORNISH: When I've been to Chicago, I can't think of a place where I thought, this is a good spot for a coyote to live. Help me understand where this population is in and around the county, what you've learned about them.

GEHRT: What we learned is that any place in the county could potentially have coyotes living there and probably does. When we began the research, when the coyotes were still becoming established, it was a bit easier to predict, like, where coyotes would occur and where they wouldn't - so green spaces. And Chicago does have a number of green spaces. Every one of those definitely houses coyotes. But what we didn't realize is that coyotes are so good at what they do that they actually can live in the developed areas even without green space. They're really good at finding little nooks and crannies to hide in during the day and then come out at night.

CORNISH: So what do you make of these latest attacks?

GEHRT: Well, we'll see. There's still some facts that are unknown, but it is kind of similar to some other attacks that have happened in other cities. Often, what happens is that a coyote may begin taking food from people. Once they lose their fear of people, then it's a very slippery slope toward boldness and aggression.

CORNISH: Help us understand how people should react to this and how the city of Chicago is reacting. Are people being told to hide their trash or stay away from animals if they see them? What's the suggestion?

GEHRT: Well, people are being told that they should be aware of coyotes in their neighborhoods. They should try to remove any type of food that might be drawing those animals toward them. Definitely, the feeding is a big issue, so if anyone is doing that, that needs to be stopped.

CORNISH: Do people do that on purpose?

GEHRT: Yes, they do. We have really good examples of some people that are well-intentioned. They think they're doing the animals a favor, and they're putting food out.

CORNISH: Finally, you mentioned this is not just a problem for Chicago. Can you tell us some of the other places that are dealing with this population and what it says about the future of the urban populations for these animals?

GEHRT: Well, all major metropolitan areas now have resident coyote populations living in them. In some cases, they may be fairly well-established, like in Chicago. In other cases, they may still be going through the colonization phase or the early stages, but all cities have them. The vast majority of cases, there's not really any issues whatsoever. Bites on people are extremely rare. In some places where it has occurred, such as Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Ariz. - those are all cases where there have been bites on people and in some cases in the Northeast. Compared to what the probability is in terms of the number of coyotes and the number of people that are living near each other, it is very rare.

CORNISH: All right. Well, Stanley Gehrt is head of the Cook County Coyote Project.

Thanks so much.

GEHRT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRACE JONES SONG, "PRIVATE LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.