If a coyote or a fox is frequenting your yard and threatening your pets these days, there's a good chance you can blame them for it.
Far from the popular notion that humans are encroaching on animals' natural habitats and forcing them into areas they wouldn't normally go, Department of Environmental Protection biologist Chris Vann says the reverse is true.
"Over the last 12 to 13 years, the trend is what I would primarily describe as coyotes moving into areas that have been developed for long periods of time," he said. "Coyotes are dispersing into these developed habitats. They're very adaptable. I don't blame the problem on us increasingly encroaching into coyote territory. It's actually the opposite."
Vann suggested that because of their adaptability, animals like foxes and coyotes will head wherever food sources exist. In areas like Fairfield County, filled with large rural residential properties with many acres of land, there is an abundance of habitat and food (including pets) to sustain them. So they are drawn to it.
"Those areas provide an abundance of habitat and wildlife," Vann says. "They have a lot of prey base (deer, turkey, rodents)...we're not in California yet...they're not living in downtown, very urban areas. But we do get coyotes that travel into these [suburban] areas and can exist in some very nontraditional habitats."
And Vann suggested that when that occurs, the animals can become aggressive. Evidence of that can be found in multiple incidents around western Connecticut recently. The town of Oxford released a statement this week "to make residents aware of reports of a number of coyotes in the Jensen Farm Road area, and at least one attack on a dog."
"That was the dog that was getting torn apart by two coyotes," Oxford Animal Control Officer Sandy Merry said of the case.
Merry said that despite that incident, her office has received no complaints before or since and that there is very little rhyme or reason as to how many run-ins residents may have with nuisance wildlife each year.
"I'm not telling you for the rest of the summer we're not going to [have incidents], but as of now nothing's even been spotted since," she said. "One year we had a couple months straight that we had complaints. Some years we don't get any. We don't really do anything on the town level to cull. But if we have the time, we'll go patrolling."
But Vann said otherwise. In fact, he said the rising number of nuisance wildlife encounters and attacks is a bit troubling.
"The trend [of coyote encounters and attacks on pets] over the last decade has been an increasing number of incidents and an increasing number of attacks," he said. "It certainly is a big concern. We are working as closely as we can with homeowners that are dealing with serious problems."
The DEP has issued larger numbers of special trapping permits to help keep nuisance wildlife populations in check. But the complaints keep increasing. In 2007, Vann said his office, the DEP's nuisance wildlife division tasked with processing such reports, fielded close to 300 coyote-related complaints.
"I just got off the phone with a woman whose dog was killed in Fairfield two days ago," Vann said on Friday. "Another man's dog was killed in Easton yesterday. So, the complaints are rolling in. Are the complaints more severe this year than in years past? There is a gradually increasing number of dog attacks, yes...we are seeing more and more aggressive activity."
In Newtown, officials have been seeing a surprising number of foxes, with as many as two to three calls and encounters a week coming in to animal control officer Carolee Mason. She said that is more than in any of the seven years she's held the post in town.
"Around now, the breeding season starts and they're having pups and they're very aggressive and acting like typical parents," Mason said. "They don't want anything happening to their cubs. They just want everybody to stay away. So, we have to be cautious and on guard all the time."
Mason said the burden really falls on residents to protect their pets and be vigilant about watching their children. She knows firsthand as she lives in the area on 54 acres of wilderness and goes outside "with a flashlight and a leash" when she lets her Jack Russel terrier out.
But she holds no ill will toward any of the nuisance wildlife. In fact, she actually respects the animals.
"Foxes are supposed to be great parents," she says. "Basically, they're just trying to survive and just want to raise their kits in peace. So if you see them outside, make a lot of noise so they run away.
Mason and Merry both said the time to absolutely get a wildlife official involved is when you suspect a sick animal. In those cases, animal control officers can intervene and trap the animal. It can then be diagnosed and sent to one of many animal rehabilitators in the area, or disposed of as necessary.
At the end of the day, residents the threats coyotes and other wild animals can pose as a part of life, because they most definitely are in the western part of the state.
"It's pretty ovious that most of our complaints come from southwestern Connecticut," Vann concluded. "There are a lot of coastal communities, a lot of land use trends in that area, zoning densities, that provide the animals really good habitats."
Information on living with coyotes and other nuisance wildlife, as well as contact information for the DEP, is available here.