Early Sunday evening, a 2-year-old girl was bitten and dragged by a coyote as she sat in her Arlington yard. Ten minutes later, another 2-year-old girl was scratched by a coyote less than a half-mile away.
Both girls were treated for their injuries at an area hospital and returned home. But the brazen and terrifying attacks have sent a clear message that backyards, woods, and play areas, even in densely populated suburbs, are home to coyotes and other wild animals.
One of the world’s most adaptable animals, coyotes have learned to live in urban environments. And as they become more accustomed to their surroundings, and with plentiful amounts of discarded food, they can grow less fearful of their human neighbors, wildlife experts say.
“They’re out there, and they’re here to stay. The best thing we can do is learn how to live with them,” said Elizabeth Magner, an animal advocacy specialist for the MSPCA. “We all need to be aware of the wild animals around us.”
State officials estimate that as many as 11,500 coyotes are living in Massachusetts, and they’ve been reported in every city and town on the mainland. Only Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, to date, have failed to record a sighting.
Three attacks have occurred in Arlington in the past month, and police believe that a single coyote was responsible. On Wednesday, Arlington officers and the state Environmental Police continued to search for the animal, primarily in a section of town-owned woods near the sites of Sunday’s attacks.
Only one other attack with injuries has been reported in the state this year. On Aug. 11, a 3-year-old girl was bitten on Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown. The animal was shot and killed by rangers who responded to the incident.
“The risk of having that kind of encounter is very, very low. You’re more likely to be bitten by a cat or dog that you think you know,” according to Marion Larson, spokeswoman for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Since 1998, 22 coyote attacks that resulted in injuries have been reported in Massachusetts, Larson said.
Coyotes arrived in Massachusetts in the 1950s after decades of migration from the Midwest, and they have expanded steadily in the state. Now, they’re roaming wherever there’s enough food to feed the family — from rural Massachusetts towns, to the suburbs, to denser developments in the cities. A den even has been reported at Logan Airport.
“One of the reasons that we’re seeing more coyotes in the eastern part of the state is they’re searching for new habitat,” Magner said.
And searching for food. Birdseed on the ground, drippings from the grill, and garbage placed overnight in trash cans on the sidewalk are attracting coyotes, nearly all of which would rather run from a human being than confront one, wildlife officials said.
“It all has to do with food and cover and shelter,” Larson said. “We need to clean up our act because we’re providing food, sometimes unknowingly, to a whole bunch of wildlife. We’ve got a trash management problem.”
The more interaction that coyotes have with people, the more likely the animals are to become accustomed to them, and perhaps less likely to scamper away. Experts do not recommend that people run from coyotes because the animal might instinctively give chase.
“The good news about wild animals is there is a natural fear and avoidance of people,” Larson said. “But if a coyote is feeling comfortable enough to lounge in your yard, that’s the time to remind them that they’re not welcome to hang out and chill.”
Yell at the animals, train a floodlight on them, douse them with water, or bang pots and pans together, wildlife officials said.
“You’re not hurting it psychologically. You’re sending a message,” Larson said. “It’s like training your dog.”
Still, the sight of a coyote is enough to cause many suburbanites and city dwellers to look for an escape route. The animal is a predator, and up to a quarter of the DNA of the Eastern coyotes that live in Massachusetts comes from interbreeding with wolves as they moved this way.
The coyote’s prey is typically small animals — rodents, raccoons, skunks, and the occasional household dog or cat. Why the coyotes in Arlington and Provincetown targeted young children is a mystery, Larson said.
“You can’t discount the possibility that this could have been a predatory situation,” Larson said.
Although the attacks in Arlington appear to be an outlier, they remain a worry, Arlington police Captain Richard Flynn said.
“It’s an animal that doesn’t have a fear of humans for whatever reason,” Flynn said. “We’re hopeful we can locate this animal.”
The coyote population in Massachusetts appears to have stabilized recently, partly due to self-regulating reproductive behavior. Coyotes have the ability to adjust litter sizes based on the amount of available food, wildlife officials said.
The state does not cull the coyote population, Larson said, but residents are permitted to hunt them with firearms or arrows from mid-October to early March. Over the last decade, between 400 and 750 coyotes have been harvested each year, state officials said.
Cage or box traps also are permitted in November, but this means of capture is extremely difficult. From 2014 to 2020, only three coyotes were reported trapped in the state. Foothold traps, which are more effective but can cause pain, were banned by Massachusetts voters in a 1996 referendum.
Despite their unnerving reputation, coyotes play a major role in keeping habitats in balance, wildlife officials said.
“They’re a really important part of the ecosystem. It’s great that we have a healthy coyote population,” Magner said. “They help to regulate the populations of smaller animals, which helps to regulate other animals and plants and boost diversity.”
Last weekend’s attacks would frighten any parent, she said, and the rarity of such encounters should not diminish the alarm surrounding them.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t worse,” Magner said. “I shiver to think of it.”
But now that coyotes have taken up permanent residence in the Boston area, learning more about them and their behavior will be important, she said.
“Like any wild animal, the best path is to learn to coexist as best we can,” Magner said. “A pleasant, wonderful gift is to happen to see one going through the woods.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.