The animal making its way through the woods of Rock Creek Park one evening a few weeks ago could have been a dog, maybe a fox. But its long nose, upright pointed ears and bushy, black-tipped tail gave it away as a more exotic relative: coyote.
With that sighting by National Park Service naturalists, a wildlife milestone was crossed. Once a creature of the open prairie, the coyote now is officially present in the District.
Coyotes have been entrenched in the D.C. suburbs for years, and reports of their arrival in the capital have been building for months. In June, a Rock Creek Park maintenance worker thought he saw one. Twice in August, dogs running off leash in the park were attacked by animals thought to be coyotes. Then, on Sept. 19, naturalist Ken Ferebee and two colleagues conducting a deer census at dusk made the official ID, near Beach and Bingham drives in Northwest.
The animal was grabbing acorns off the ground and chewing them. It did not seem alarmed that people were nearby. The naturalists heard yelping from across the street, a sign of a possible den, though none has been found.
"We thought it was pretty neat," Ferebee said. "We always expected them to show up here, and they show up all of a sudden."
News of the sightings -- and of the dog attacks -- is zooming across the upper Northwest neighborhoods west of the park. Some people wonder whether their children or small pets are at risk. Others are amazed to see a bit of the Wild West on city streets.
"In the past week, I've gone to six or seven parties and I've mentioned it to people," said Frank Buchholz, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "Everyone -- one degree of separation -- knows something about the coyotes."
Buchholz had a glimpse of a coyote himself, when he and his son were driving on Oregon Avenue, which borders the park. It was the day after the naturalists' sighting, which he did not know about at the time. The animal was standing on the side of the road.
"We both looked at it and said, 'Coyote,' " he recalled. "Then we thought about it. Disbelief settled in. Plus, I'd never actually seen a coyote before."
Peggy Keller, interim chief of the D.C. Health Department's unit that handles animal issues, said her office has received recent calls reporting sightings in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, but officers have not been able to confirm them. She urged people to keep their distance from wild animals and to report any problems with them.
Coyotes are what wildlife scientists call "generalists." They reside on the open range and in big cities. They can live in storm drains or desert burrows. They eat anything from dogs to doughnuts. For that reason, experts say, although individual nuisance animals can be removed, it would be impossible to drive all of them away.
They can carry rabies, though that is uncommon. They rarely attack people, experts say, and when they do, it is mainly in places where people feed them. But they will make a meal of free-roaming cats, and will attack off-leash dogs because they view them as competitors.
Kathi Kolbe learned this the hard way. On Aug. 16, she and her son were walking in the northern end of Rock Creek Park, near Oregon Avenue. Their two King Charles spaniels roamed off leash nearby, something that is not allowed in the park but widely done. Suddenly, she heard barking, one dog ran back to her and then came the "brutal and gruesome" sounds of an attack.
She yelled out -- "Never, even in childbirth, have I screamed like that" -- and the second dog broke free. She looked back to the ridge where the sounds had come from and saw two forms that she now thinks were coyotes.
Her 30-pound dog, Tucker, had puncture wounds around his head and rump. He needed sutures for his wounds and would not leave the house for two weeks. Now, if Kolbe sees people taking dogs into the park, she warns them to keep their dogs leashed and close by. Park officials have posted warning signs.
"I don't go in the park anymore. I can't risk it," Kolbe said. "You don't expect in an urban environment to have to think through this kind of issue."
In some places, dances with coyotes have gone on long enough to change behaviors. John Hadidian, an official of the Humane Society of the United States, said he has heard that among domestic cats in Tucson, "the ones that survive" have learned to travel along fences and rooftops where coyotes cannot reach them.
People in coyote country should learn new rules, too, he said: Keep dogs on a leash, and do not let cats roam outdoors, especially at night. Secure trash, and do not leave pet food out. Admire coyotes from a distance in the park, but chase them away with noise from back yards. Be aware that they are most active at dawn and dusk but could be around at any time.
"I would just as soon not see a coyote," said Anne Renshaw, another neighborhood commissioner who lives west of the park and whose sister lost her cat to one in Massachusetts. But, she added hopefully, "perhaps the coyote coming back into the area will help with the deer problem."