Coyote sightings and attacks are on the rise in Fairfield and across the state, but a local forum Wednesday night armed people with information on what to do about it.
"Fifteen years ago, when we heard about coyotes attacking a dog or having a confrontation with the public, that was news," said Chris Vann, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, who gave a 90-minute presentation at the forum in the Education Center. "We hear about coyotes attacking dogs now every week, sometimes multiple times a week."
Arthur Hersh, who has lived in Fairfield's Stratfield neighborhood for more than 50 years, said sightings of coyotes in his neighborhood were rare until three or four years ago. He said coyotes and foxes now regularly appear in his yard.
"They're in my backyard like dogs and cats," he said.
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, told the gathering, "It's definitely different. I grew up here, too, and never heard of an animal being attacked by a coyote. Now I hear it every week."
There is no firm number for coyotes inhabiting Fairfield, as well as other parts of Connecticut, but reports of sightings and attacks on dogs and cats have increased across the state, Vann said.
In 2005, 32 pets were threatened or attacked and, in 2010, more than 50 pets were attacked, Vann said. In Fairfield, 16 sightings were reported and 10 pets were attacked in 2011-12. Eight of the attacked pets were unsupervised small dogs, according to literature given out at the forum.
"The Fairfield coyote problem is certainly one that's caught my attention," Vann said.
Coyotes have yet to attack a child in Connecticut, but two coyotes attacked a 6-year-old playing in a yard in Rye, N.Y., in 2010, and a coyote attacked a 5-year-old walking across the street with a friend in Middletown, N.J., in 2008, Vann said.
In Nova Scotia in 2009, a coyote bit a 19-year-old hiker so severely and so many times that she died from the attack, he said.
"The first child a coyote attacked in New Jersey was a toddler," he added. "It's hard to believe coyotes would consider people as prey. However, that is one reason coyotes have attacked children."
Vann said he's seen a coyote den at Brooklawn Country Club and that a den also was reported on Tuller Road, although he didn't see that one. He said coyotes typically create dens in wooded areas, but will also settle underneath buildings or decks in developed areas.
Connecticut is home to eastern coyotes, which are bigger than western coyotes. They bred with grey wolves in the past and have DNA from wolves, Vann said. He said eastern coyotes migrated to the Northeast from the Great Plains and now are "widely distributed all throughout the Northeast and into Canada."
Grey wolves are not found in the northeast U.S., but are in southern Canada, Vann said.
"We don't expect grey wolves to come down and re-populate New England," he said.
Vann said coyotes are predators and hunt small prey like squirrels, turkeys, baby deer, rabbits, feral cats and small pets. He said a single coyote isn't equipped to kill a large animal, though a pack of coyotes can kill an adult deer. He said parts of white-tailed deer carcasses have been found in the stomachs of many dead coyotes, but that food had primarily been scavenged and not killed by coyotes.
Coyotes typically attack pets when they are let outside, either to roam in the case of a cat, or to relieve itself in the case of a dog, Vann said.
"People let a dog out at 10 p.m. to do its duty and, boom, it happens, in the blink of an eyelash," he said of a coyote attack. "Young dogs certainly are targeted. Coyotes can attack a big dog; we've had Labradors and Great Danes" attacked, he said.
But coyote don't always attack pets as a source of food. Coyotes may view a dog or cat as competing for the same prey, Vann said. Coyote attacks on leashed dogs are rare, he said.
"Pet safety is the biggest thing we're emphasizing," Vann said.
He said cats should be kept indoors or in yards that have fences that a cat cannot climb over. Dogs should be leashed, supervised and not let out at night, Vann said.
"Your invisible dog fence doesn't stop the coyote from coming in," he said.
Vann said pet food shouldn't be left outdoors and that humans who feed coyotes, which was the case before an attack outside a Branford McDonald's restaurant in 2006, aren't doing fellow humans any favors.
"The basic story is an animal that is fed becomes more and more bold, more and more confident that they don't need to avoid a person," he said. "You can get an animal that's food conditioned become more aggressive."
People who feel comfortable trying to scare off a coyote can use loud noises or throw objects at the animal, and those walking dogs can carry a walking stick or can of pepper spray to deter a coyote attack, Vann said.
Hiring professional trappers is becoming more common, though that requires a permit from the DEEP. Trapped coyotes aren't relocated; they're killed, Vann said.
"The hazing makes them more nocturnal and secretive," she said.
Hersh wasn't convinced hazing is a good idea.
"I would take issue with the general public getting involved with this type of animal, hazing them. I don't think we understand this type of animal," he said.
Police Chief Gary MacNamara said, "If you see them and you're comfortable, make noise, knowing that the animal may attack you."
"There may come a time when one of the options is the animal has to be removed from the area. ... We've had a trapper out here unsuccessfully trying to do that. When you start to have pets disappearing, that is devastating to people in the community."
Vann said hazing coyotes is not likely to be effective in the long term. He said no state wildlife agency has abandoned "practical methods for controlling wildlife populations," indicating that he was referring to trapping.
Vann said coyotes are not going away. They have no natural predator in Connecticut, he said, and people have to learn to live with them by educating themselves and taking precautions.
"They're here to stay. In many places, coyotes are here to stay," he said. "They consider your yard as now a part of their territory, and they're going to use it."
State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, asked Vann if mountain lions can be found in Connecticut, and Vann said the DEEP's position is that Connecticut does not have a mountain lion population and does not anticipate having one anytime soon.
But MacNamara said a mountain lion that migrated from the Dakotas was killed on the Merritt Parkway in Milford in 2011, and Kupchick said a hunter in Easton had filmed a mountain lion carrying a deer in its mouth.
MacNamara, however, dismissed the relevance of whether mountain lions are a predator of coyotes.
"So there's the solution. We'll pour mountain lions into the area to get rid of coyotes," he quipped.