LINCOLNVILLE — After Wendy Rolerson McCusker let her pet border collie outside last Friday morning, she said she suddenly heard the dog’s bark turn from territorial to terrified.
It was the coyotes, McCusker said she thought before running onto the deck to try to scare the growling, yipping wild canines off with her shouts.
“It was really scary. I thought they were going to kill her,” the Youngtown Road woman recounted a week after the incident. “My voice didn’t scare them … I thought I was just going to listen to her get mauled to death.”
Luckily, McCusker thought fast and rang the doorbell, which lured in her pet but not the coyotes. Her dog came home with a little limp but no other damage. Yet it was enough to make McCusker want to warn others about her experience with the wild animals, which have long lived in the woods of Lincolnville and many other parts of Maine.
“They’ve always been around,” she said. “They just seem more aggressive now. We’re not going to have outdoor cats. That’s basically just coyote food … I don’t want to kill the coyotes. But I don’t want my cat, dog or child to be killed, either.”
Geri Vistein of Brunswick, a Maine wildlife biologist who educates people about coyotes, said that while this kind of thinking is not uncommon, it’s based more in fear than fact. Having worked with California-based Project Coyote, she is passionate in her desire to educate, inform and help humans learn how to live near coyotes.
“People see coyotes as acting aggressive when they’re just being curious,” she said. “What it can do is build and build and build and create a bit of a hysteria. Sadly to say, this hysteria leads to killing them.”
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, at least 12,000 coyotes live in Maine. The medium-sized canines expanded their range into the state in the 1930s, after the demise of the wolves, which used to be the area’s largest canine predator.
“These intelligent and adaptable animals now occupy almost every conceivable habitat type, from open agricultural country to dense forest to downtown urban areas,” the department’s coyote fact sheet states. “Despite ever-continued human encroachment and efforts to eliminate coyotes, the species has maintained its numbers. The coyote’s tenacity tries the patience of some and the admiration of others.”
Coyotes are opportunistic scavengers that eat small animals like snowshoe hare, mice, rats and squirrels, as well as grass, fruits and berries during the summer and fall, according to the department. They generally hunt at night and occasionally kill domestic cats, dogs and other wild predators that might compete with them for food or threaten their den and pups.
Vistein said that coyotes are important in the ecosystem, but they are so new to Maine that most people don’t know how to live with them.
“I speak to many of our farmers here in Maine who want coyotes on their farm. They understand how valuable they are,” she said.
She said coyotes are highly social and intelligent. They live in family groups in a distinct territory, hunting rodents and other small animals and leaving people alone. But people should be aware that coyotes and domestic pets do not mix, Vistein said. She recommends keeping cats inside and staying close to dogs when they are outside.
“Wild carnivores are saying you need to be responsible for your domestic animals,” Vistein said. “You never want your dog to interact with coyotes, ever. You don’t want that interaction to even start.”
Another recent human and coyote interaction in the midcoast took place at dusk this summer in a wooded area in the rural town of Union, where a family lived in a camper while building a new house. Jackie Johnson said that she and her 13-year-old daughter were sitting in their screen room outside the camper with their bulldog when they heard howling behind them. Then another, chirping cry and another howl. Altogether, there were four coyotes sounding off around the camper and screen room.
The family figured the coyotes were attracted by the smell of the food they had grilled for dinner, and weren’t scared off by the Christmas lights up outside or the sound of the generator. They waited for about 15 minutes then snuck back into the camper for the night.
“We were definitely surrounded,” Johnson said. “They were really close. I thought it was pretty awesome. My daughter was pretty scared.”
John DePue, a furbearer and small mammal biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said last week that it’s hard to know if the coyote population is growing or if people just perceive that it is, as the animals move into more areas close to humans. He also emphasized that other animals can be responsible for disappearing house cats, including fishers, bobcats, raccoons, owls and dogs at large. He encouraged people to stop feeding their domestic pets outside.
“You’re basically luring animals in close to your house,” he said.
If people have an immediate concern about a coyote, they are asked to contact the Maine Warden Service at 800-452-4664.