The quiet hamlet of Chappaqua in the Westchester town of New Castle, about an hour's drive from New York City, seems an unlikely setting for a bitter political battle. Although it is home to three of the country's most formidable political warriors—Bill and Hillary Clinton and New York governor Andrew Cuomo—the town's own political history is largely lacking in drama. For years, the Democrats ran for local office uncontested. The worst you could say about the town hall meetings was they were boring.
Then the coyotes came.
People who have lived in Chappaqua for decades say they first began seeing the coyotes about ten or fifteen years ago, slinking through the woods on the fringes of their properties. At first, residents didn't know what to make of the newcomers, or even what to call them. Among the lawyers and financiers who make up much of Chappaqua's citizenry, wildlife identification isn't a strong suit.
No one knows exactly how many coyotes currently call the area home, though it seems like everyone in Chappaqua is a coyote expert. Some of the residents are understandably afraid of the animals, citing the threat of coyotes both to small dogs and children. But there are others in town who fear more for the coyotes, and the sparring between the two camps has taken on a vicious edge, with accusations of cruelty and callousness, unanswered demands for public apologies, and a Facebook post including the unfortunate phrase "coyote jihad." (That post has since been deleted.) The Clintons, who bought a $1.7 million mansion here in 1999, have yet to publicly take a stand, and did not reply to several requests for comment. Still, with coyotes spreading throughout the country, it's a fight that's taking on regional implications, and even national ones.
"This is our town's 'Jaws.'"
News of the disappearances spread gradually at first—a Shih Tzu here, a toy poodle there. The town administrators told people there was nothing much they could do. Then one Sunday morning in May 2013, an exceptionally brave or desperate coyote snatched a golden doodle named Ruby right off a family's porch.
The local news reported that "pet peril" had "struck suburbia." At a contentious town hall meeting, which was captured on video, Rob Greenstein, a gruff personal-injury lawyer who has since become the town supervisor, narrowed his eyes and declared, "This is our town's 'Jaws.'" (Coincidentally, in March, Steven Spielberg's sister called the cops on a coyote that turned up in her Riverdale backyard, some 20 miles from Chappaqua.)
Real-life coyotes, unlike Hollywood sharks, rarely attack people. In 2009, researchers at Ohio State University compiled an archive of newspaper articles and scientific reports on coyote attacks in the United States, and counted 142 reports of attacks on humans between 1960 and 2006. The number of fatalities is unclear, but is thought to be very, very small.
Still, many people in New Castle, which includes Chappaqua and the smaller hamlet of Millwood and is home to some 17,500 people, fear it's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt. Ann Styles Brochstein, a mother of two whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as the "CFO" of "the Styles Brochstein household," conjured the haunting scene of a child "running to get a ball in the woods and —"
She stopped abruptly, as though to spare me the description of the gruesome horrors that would follow. "We don't see why we should have to wait until a three-year-old child is attacked to do something," Styles Brochstein said.
Over the last year, the canine-on-canine attacks in Chappaqua fueled an escalating series of attacks between humans, culminating in a bitter standoff between two town-appointed committees. The first, a coyote "task force," hoped to persuade the town to hire wildlife professionals who specialized in trapping and killing aggressive coyotes. The second, a conservationist group, believed that the town should restrict lethal measures to animals that had injured humans in unprovoked attacks, even if that meant sparing the lives of coyotes that have killed people's dogs.
Earlier this month, the New Castle town board disbanded the groups and voted on a compromise. As part of the plan, the town has agreed to only trap coyotes that appear on public property, and only if the coyotes seem especially dangerous.
So far, this solution hasn't done much to heal the rift between townspeople. When I asked Maggie Howell, the executive director of Westchester's Wolf Conservation Center, how she accounted for the hostility between the two sides, she said she didn't hold the coyotes responsible. "People," she said. "That's the biggest problem."***
Americans have been fighting over the fate of wild animals at least since the dawn of the conservation movement in the 1800s, and perhaps no two species have provoked more controversy than coyotes and their cousins, wolves. Chris Nagy, a wildlife biologist who served as a consultant for Chappaqua's coyote conservation committee, pointed out that "wild dogs have a very variable place in people's mind and our culture, from pure hatred and demonization to really intense love." If there's any doubt where Nagy stands, there's a tattoo of a coyote on his arm.
Ironically, the demonization of wolves is in some sense responsible for today's coyote problem. In the 19th century, ranchers and hunters wiped out nearly all of the wolves in the 48 states. With wolves out of the way, coyotes began migrating east from the plains, slipping into territory the wolves had lost. In southern Ontario, the coyotes encountered a beleaguered population of surviving wolves, who, in their desperation to reproduce, mated with their smaller, weaker relatives, giving rise to a hybrid animal that combined the adaptability of the coyote with wolf-like strength. This new breed of canine, which some scientists call the coy-wolf, is what Eastern suburbanites are referring to when they speak of coyotes.
Coy-wolves tend to weigh about 15 pounds more than ordinary coyotes, with tawny fur that sometimes runs grey around the belly and lower flanks. Like humans, these creatures are smart, resourceful, and highly social, which perhaps explains why some humans are so passionate about defending them. They travel along power lines and railroad tracks, rear their pups in parks, woodlots, and on golf courses, and feed on chipmunks, mice, car-mangled deer carcasses, and yes, the occasional cat or dog.
In the suburbs, where food may be easier to come by than in the wilderness, people sometimes report seeing the animals peering through their windows at night, like burglars planning a break-in.
Urban coy-wolves, or coyotes, tend to be nocturnal. But in April 2007 one bold individual, later nicknamed "Adrian," quietly entered a Quizno's restaurant in downtown Chicago at lunchtime. Adrian was later captured and released at a wildlife rehabilitation center near Barrington, Illinois, roughly 40 miles northwest of Chicago.
Coyotes have been spotted in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and, as of last year, in each of three Bronx parks, according to city officials. In March, a coyote was spotted on the roof of a bar in Queens; the next month, as many as three different coyotes led cops on chases through Chelsea, Battery Park and the Upper West Side. Experts say it's only a matter of time before they settle in Long Island, the last major coyote-free land-mass in the United States.
"My radar is pretty sharp when it comes to situations in which a person or a group is facing unjustified attack and mistreatment"
The same qualities that makes dogs such ideal pets—their apparent interest in humans, their aptitude for learning through observation—is partly what makes coyotes so frightening to people, especially in areas where residents aren't all that accustomed to wildlife. In towns throughout the liberal Northeast, the coyote's arrival has put many conservation-minded suburbanites in an awkward position. People who compost their cucumber peels, use energy-saving light-bulbs, and generally espouse the importance of conservation are saying, literally, "not in my backyard."***
Joyce Stansell-Wong's backyard borders a wooded hill overlooking the quaint brick storefronts of downtown Chappaqua. In October, 2013, she was standing on the property when "something like a German shepherd" strolled past her at a distance of about ten feet, brazenly looking her right in the eye, she said. A month later, she was on the train to Manhattan when she got a call from the babysitter, who told her that the family's Chihuahua, Papi, had gone missing. Stansell-Wong was devastated.
"Had I known this would happen, I never would have moved here," she said. "I would have stayed in Brooklyn."
A CBS NY news report on Chappaqua's wildlife encounters
As a member of the town's coyote "task force," Stansell-Wong spent hours talking to scientists, police officials, trappers, and school administrators. Last fall, she and the other members put the final touches on their formal recommendations to the town. For the most part, the proposal consists of precautionary measures aimed at allowing people to coexist with coyotes—for example, sending out text alerts whenever a coyote is spotted. "I know we can't get rid of every coyote in New York State," Stansell-Wong sighed. "But when a situation escalates, action has to be taken."
The task force had four members. They were all moms and dog owners, and they have each recently acquired a pair of silky, rust-colored, coyote-fur gloves. The rival group, a "conservation committee," was led by Victoria Alzapiedi, a former civil-rights and gender-equity lawyer who saw the fight to protect the town's coyotes as a natural extension of her earlier crusades. "My radar is pretty sharp when it comes to situations in which a person or a group is facing unjustified attack and mistreatment," Alzapiedi explained.
Alzapiedi hoped the town would encourage residents to feed their dogs indoors, never let their pets outside unattended, and enclose their yards with six-foot fences fitted with coyote-proof aprons curling over the top. Styles Brochstein, who was a member of the anti-coyote task force, joked that the fences reminded her of Attica Correctional Facility, a supermax New York State prison.
"They're not something Walpole sells in their catalogue," she said dryly, referring to a high-end purveyor of fences, pergolas and gazebos.
In February, the two groups were scheduled to argue for their competing proposals at a town hall meeting. But in the meeting hall that evening, before the discussion began, Greenstein, the town supervisor, glared at the audience and announced that the board had recently become aware of some "inflammatory rhetoric" shooting around online. Earlier that day, a local Patch site had published a letter from Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based group, urging people to protest the task force's presentation. The letter characterized the proposal—sight unseen—as "misguided and hateful," a "backward and violent coyote kill plan." On Facebook, a member of New Castle's pro-coyote committee went further, denouncing the plan as a "coyote jihad."
The coyote-control group had taken the angry words to heart, and had canceled their town hall appearance. "I could see PETA types showing up to the meeting and throwing blood on us," said Stansell-Wong.
In fact, with one side absent from the meeting, the scene at the town hall turned out to be pretty tame. Greenstein and Alzapiedi exchanged some strong words of disagreement, but there were no mobs of protesters, no buckets of blood. The only people you could even identify as activists were a few middle-aged women in comfy sweaters. They were handing out buttons reading, "Keep calm and coexist."