By Sachi McClendon
Rachel Mesch was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot with family and friends on her porch in Riverdale on the evening of October 14 when her small dog, a 12.5-pound Morkie named Phoebe, raced toward her neighbor’s yard. Phoebe had just been let off the leash for a moment and, atypically, didn’t respond to Mesch’s calls.
“We heard those two screams,” Mesch said. “But then – and this was the scary part – there was absolute silence. No sound at all.”
Shortly after the Sukkot group began searching for Phoebe, Mesh’s daughter and some of her guests spotted an animal roaming the streets of Riverdale. It was a dog, but not Phoebe. What they saw were two coyotes.
“At that point, you know, my husband and I looked at each other and we sort of understood what was happening,” she said.
Mesch got a call from 311 the next day saying Phoebe had been found dead on Fieldston Road not far from her home. While Mesch never saw the perpetrators directly, she is aware that coyotes killed Phoebe.
“So many people in the neighborhood feel nervous at night when they go for a walk,” she said. “You know, I was probably 10 feet away from them without realizing it when I yelled for her. Maybe 15 feet,” she said.
This attack has raised safety concerns among residents of the Northwest Bronx, while also renewed discussions about the coyote’s history and presence in the city’s only mainland borough.
“Based on the number of habitats available, we estimate that there are 20 to 30 coyotes living in the city at any one time. There’s just so much space available,” says Dr. Carol Henger, an ecologist who studied the animals for her dissertation.
However, coyotes haven’t always called the city home. In fact, the animal is more native to the Midwest and only began to expand its range about 100 years ago, when gray wolves, the coyote’s competitors, were wiped out.
“The Bronx was the first area they settled in — probably in parks like Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Park,” Henger said. “Then they found their way to Riverdale.”
“I saw her on 232nd Street. On Independence (ave). I saw her on the 231st. I see them walking down 232nd. I see them everywhere,” said Bob Zolt, who trains in the area early in the morning. “I carry an LED flashlight. And I have something else I won’t tell you. It’s not deadly. I’m just saying you don’t know what you’re about to find at this hour.”
While Zolt does exercise due caution, Henger says there are several other ways to scare the animal away. “Make yourself big. Wave your arms. yell at her Clap her,” she said. “And definitely don’t run away, because that awakens the hunting instinct in many predators.”
Don’t feed them food either. “This is the most important thing: don’t feed a coyote,” she said. “Because then it will get used to people and they will expect food. That’s where you bites happen.”
That doesn’t mean the coyotes don’t eat human-sourced food. A resident who lives just off Henry Hudson Parkway in Spuyten Duyvil found out after realizing her building’s rubbish had been stolen.
“One of the sacks was pulled back onto the lawn and I saw a big gaping hole and a lot of rubbish all over the streets,” Isobel Dizengoff said. “It turned out to be a coyote. We have security cameras and it was caught on video.”
In fact, Henger recently published a paper on the diet of urban coyotes and found that one major protein kept appearing in the human diet. “Chicken was common,” she said. “We eat a lot of chicken. I’m sure there’s just a lot of chicken waste lying around that’s easy for them to get hold of.”
Still, Henger’s article showed that even these urban coyotes only supplement their diets with human food and don’t directly rely on it. “I was surprised at how many types of food I found,” she said, listing animals including rabbits, raccoons, marmots, squirrels, possums, and then several different species of birds.
Still, the predator’s presence in the city doesn’t sit well with some residents.
“It’s worrying. I think the authorities need to be more involved,” said Dizengoff, whose trash has been invaded by coyotes. She said she contacted 311, Councilman Eric Dinowitz’s office, and the state Department of Environmental Protection to see what could be done about the coyote, but received no responses.
However, Henger says the coyotes are here to stay, and even if there were a concerted effort to get rid of the predator, the animal is quite resilient. “If there are a lot of coyotes in the area, the litter size will be small. But when there’s a lot of hunting – and their numbers are small – they have larger litters. You have an opportunity to just keep recovering,” she said. “So we have to figure out how to live with them.”