The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 1, 1999


The Carlisle wilderness: predators in our backyard

On an afternoon in late August, in broad daylight, our Cairn terrier Malcolm was attacked by a coyote in our backyard on Curve Street. He and his brother MacGregor had just been let out for their usual quick trip to the bush. Within minutes, when we called them back, MacGregor was on the doorstep, but Malcolm was in a wooded area about 25 feet from the house standing next to a coyote. He ran toward us and the coyote disappeared into the woods. We saw immediately that he had two deep slashes on his head, but did not appreciate at the time that he was also badly bitten in the throat. Sadly, several days later, the deep puncture wounds and crush injuries to the neck proved fatal.

Malcolm was an average-sized Cairn, weighing just under 20 pounds, but healthy, feisty, and ready to chase anything that moves. We did not witness the attack, but assume that the dog saw the coyote, ran to himmaybe with a few territorial expletivesand was caught totally off guard when the coyote lunged for the kill. A family dog just doesn't expect this. Neither did we.

This story did not surprise wildlife biologist Susan Langlois, who heads the Fur Bearer Program at MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife). Coyotes moved into western and central Massachusetts in the 1950s and have since become established in all towns in the state, as well as the Elizabeth Islands. "They are extremely adaptable in a variety of habitats, including urban and heavily populated areas," said Langlois. "They thrive in towns [like Carlisle] where home lots have cookie-cuttered the forest. Suburbia provides garbage, compost, road kill and small pets." Coyotes routinely prey on cats and will attack dogs, usually over a territorial dispute.

Langlois' group does not count the coyote population, but studies trends. With no significant predators, their population has been slowly but steadily expanding for decades. They were largely unaffected by the recent epidemic of the raccoon rabies strain. Unlike other fur-bearing species managed by MassWildlife, the coyote population is difficult to control. Langlois' group adjusts the length of hunting season in response to population changes, but this had relatively little effect on coyote numbers. The hunting season for coyotes in Massachusetts is November 1 to the end of February.

Recently in Carlisle, there have been one to two dozen sightings of coyotes per year. At night, some residents have heard howling, singly and in chorus. Many cats have disappeared. Dr. Peter Morey of the Carlisle Animal Hospital remembers only one other dog attack, on a friendly 50- to 60-pound pit bull terrier. The Carlisle Police have received very few coyote calls. Since coyotes are shy and reclusive, the relatively few encounters mask what is undoubtedly a substantial community.

MacGregor is adjusting. He eats well and snuggles with us at night. But he seems to have forgotten how to walk on a leash. He always followed a tail.

Maya Liteplo is a Curve Street resident and former reporter for the Carlisle Mosquito. Regular readers might remember the story she wrote when a deer smashed through a sliding glass door into her home.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito