Among Us

By Mary Battiata
Sunday, April 16, 2006

As coyotes settle into the Washington suburbs, they provoke awe, anxiety and a fundamental question: Do they have to adapt to us, or we to them?

In the meticulously planned community of Fallsgrove, there are six homeowners associations to gavel through disputes over fence heights and the proper color for window shutters. A property management company oversees most of the raking and mowing. Nature has been trimmed and shaped into a tidy border for narrow streets of tall townhouses and cluster homes. Most days, the only sign of wildlife is the squirrels that race around the community pool.

So it was with some astonishment that Cheryl Hays looked out her kitchen window at about 8 one morning last fall and saw what looked to be a large dog in the yard, about five feet from the back door. For a moment, still groggy with sleep, she thought: "Why is that dog in my back yard?" Then she remembered. Three weeks earlier, at about 6 a.m., she'd heard barking and looked out her bedroom window to see a pair of coyotes trotting purposefully down the middle of Long Trail Terrace, toward Jersey Lane. "They were walking up people's driveways, sniffing around the houses!" Hays said. She heard a third coyote barking from a grove of trees on the other side of the house, and when she ran to look there, she saw not one but three coyotes. That meant there were at least three, and possibly five, coyotes sniffing around her house that morning. "They were in driveways, front yards and brazenly on the street!" she e-mailed a neighbor.

As most of Fallsgrove already knew, coyotes were afoot in Rockville. A trapper hired by the Fallsgrove property management company had already caught and killed at least 12, and possibly 14, around the 252-acre subdivision before a lawsuit by the Humane Society of Montgomery County temporarily shut him down. Two more coyotes had been hit by cars nearby.

And, although coyotes had not attacked anyone, their mere presence had provoked volleys of alarmed e-mail among community residents. Coyotes had circled one prominent Fallsgrove homeowner, J. Thomas Manger, the county's chief of police, and his kids on a walking path. (Since confirming the incident, the chief has declined further public comment about it.) One of Hays's neighbors phoned her to report that she, too, had been followed by coyotes, while walking her toddler and two border collies.

Hays, a real estate agent with a determined air, petitioned her homeowners association to raise the fence height limit from four to six feet, arguing that the extra two feet might make it harder for the coyotes to move around. She called the trapper to ask if he planned to return. (He didn't.) And she called the Rockville city manager to request that the city encircle an eight-acre green space in the middle of the development known as the Preserve with something even higher -- an eight-foot cast-iron fence.

Neither the city nor the homeowners association thought drastic fencing measures were needed. "The homeowners association seems to think that I am the only concerned person in the neighborhood," she e-mailed a neighbor. "It is appalling to me that the homeowners association and the city refuse to acknowledge the public safety issue to family and pets." Instead, Hays complained, local officialdom seemed set on a wait-and-see approach.

Hays, 34, stood in her tiny side yard on a recent evening and peered out into the dark corridor of grass between her house and the one next door. "They come through here and head to the shopping center dumpster," she said of the coyotes. "It's just like they're commuting!" Eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child, Hays wondered out loud how she was supposed to share her world with wild coyotes. "It's crazy! These are the most expensive homes in Rockville, and we're like hostages! We bought here for the walking paths. Well, how am I going to deal with a coyote on the path when I'm out there with an infant in a stroller, a toddler and a dog on a leash?"

Hays shook her head. "I don't think people should kill them -- I'm an animal lover. But it's just frightening."

A few blocks away, one of Hays's neighbors was having similar misgivings, but from the opposite point of view. Aubrey Bursch, a 27-year-old accountant and multimedia specialist, a newlywed who spends her spare time volunteering at a wildlife hospital, was less worried about the coyotes than about her neighbors' reaction to them. Things already seemed so charged -- trapping, the lawsuit and more than a dozen dead coyotes. And the coyotes hadn't even attacked anyone. Eyewitness reports of coyote encounters were sketchy and adrenaline-tinged. The fact was that no one in Fallsgrove, none of her neighbors, and not Bursch herself, knew very much about coyotes. The trapper had retreated angrily to his house on Maryland's Eastern Shore and wasn't talking publicly.

Bursch had joined the Humane Society lawsuit that put a temporary stop to the trapping. To her, the trapping seemed something of a rush to judgment. Everyone knew that Fallsgrove, only a few years old, had been built on the old Thomas Farm, a rare large parcel of agricultural land in the lower county. It was not far from two parks. Which made Bursch and others wonder: Wasn't it possible that Fallsgrove, not the coyotes, was the intruder? Wasn't it possible that Fallsgrove owed the coyotes some degree of accommodation? Or at least a thorough investigation of the problem before eradication began?

And what about the rats? Everyone in Fallsgrove knew there was a rat problem in some sections of the development. People stepped over them getting out of their cars. Wasn't it possible that this rat buffet had something to do with the proliferation of coyotes at Fallsgrove? And, if so, didn't it make sense to clean up the rat problem before wholesale killing of coyotes began?

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