Coyotes stalking the suburbs, like great whites off the coast of Cape Cod, have a way of making New Englanders very nervous.
In October, for instance, Quincy neighbors on the Nextdoor.com discussion forum got talking about a photo of two coyotes tussling in the shallows of Quincy Bay. “They’re around most nights, so be careful,” wrote one user. “I was walking my dog to the field, and Coyote was running,” wrote another. “Please stay safe!”
The concern is understandable: Several frightening incidents this year have made headlines. In August, a child was nipped by a coyote, and three coyotes were spotted ganging up on a dog. Earlier this year, a woman was harassed on a Provincetown beach for almost 10 minutes while trying to fight the animal off with a stick. Then in September, two toddlers were attacked on the same day by a coyote in Arlington, including a 2-year-old who had been playing in her backyard. It’s enough to make people wary, terrified even.
But as is the case with sharks, coyote attacks are more rare than they might seem. Since 1998, a total of 24 coyote incidents in Massachusetts have resulted in injuries, according to the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. That’s more common than shark attacks—eight of which have been recorded in Massachusetts since 2000—but minuscule compared to the hundreds of dog attacks each year. In the recorded history of North America, coyotes have killed two people. Meanwhile, between 500 and 700 coyotes each year are killed by hunting in this state, according to MassWildlife estimates, out of a total population of around 10,500 coyotes.
But if you really want to know something about coyotes in New England—and the problems they can cause for people—the person to talk to is Jonathan Way, a high school teacher and researcher who studied coyotes in Massachusetts for decades until a series of disputes with his neighbors and state officials upended his scientific career.
Way is the kind of person some call dedicated, others call unreasonable—all seem to agree he is stubborn. Among other coyote biologists, he developed a reputation for dogged fieldwork and detailed observations of individual animals, dozens of which he trapped and fitted with radio collars. He even coined the controversial term “coywolf” to describe the eastern coyotes that live in the Northeast, which he helped prove are in fact part wolf. Locals knew him for his hundreds of public presentations about coyotes’ habits and habitat, as well as his fierce criticism of what he saw as state wildlife agencies’ outdated approach to managing coyotes, which includes allowing hunters to kill them.
But Way’s activities also got him into trouble with more than a few people, including his neighbors and town officials in Barnstable, who didn’t appreciate that he baited and trapped coyotes in his backyard. Then there are the officials from MassWildlife who chafed at his tendency to bend—and, they say, break—the rules.
In 2009 and again in 2014, the agency denied his applications for a permit to continue trapping and collaring coyotes around Cape Cod, which Way says amounts to retaliation for his criticism of the agency, and which ground his career to a halt. According to MassWildlife, no other researchers are currently permitted to study coyotes in the state.
As a result, at a time of heightened anxiety over the animals, there is a dearth of new information about eastern coyotes in Massachusetts and how to get along with them. And if the recent run-ins between people and coyotes are any indication, that’s something everyone—coyotes included—could use.
COYOTES ARE RELATIVE newcomers to the Northeast, and arrived here after a long trip from the West. As eastern forests were replaced with farmland and wolves and pumas were eradicated through the 19th and early 20th centuries, coyotes moved in. With their eat-anything diets and ability to travel long distances, they did well around humans. They turned up in Massachusetts in the 1950s, and eventually spread through the state, even finding their way across the Cape Cod Canal.
Coyote numbers gradually increased over the decades in part because of all the free food we provide them — livestock, trash, pet food, and, yes, pets. That’s why experts offer simple advice for managing coyotes: Don’t feed them, keep the cat inside and the dog on a leash, make noise if one gets aggressive. Coyotes don’t bother people out of spite, but because they’ve been habituated to us.
In 1985, the first coyotes on the Cape were reported at Otis Air National Guard Base, just a few miles from Barnstable High School, where Jonathan Way would soon be a track star with a budding interest in canid biology.
Way encountered his first coyote during a project for his ecology class in 1992. As he was watching for deer on a scrubby stretch of beach just north of town, a coyote emerged from the dunes. It was “the purest elation. It’s hard to describe,” Way recalls. “It stared out at me. It was trying to figure out what I was, and I was trying to figure out what it was.”
And indeed, what it was, exactly, wasn’t obvious. And Way made it his mission to find out. After high school, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a track scholarship (he ran a 4:13 mile). There, he wrote a thesis about the new coyotes on the Cape and was introduced to radio telemetry, which would transform his research. He followed that with a master’s degree in wildlife conservation and ecology at the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in education and environmental studies at Boston College.
As Way would later help discover, coyotes moving east had overlapped with the diminishing populations of wolves. While wolves and coyotes prefer not to interbreed, genetic evidence shows that some lonely wolves settled for coyotes, and even a few dogs. The result is the distinctive creature now found in the Northeast. Pluck a coyote from New England today and sequence its DNA, and it will be, on average, about 60 percent coyote, 30 percent Eastern wolf, and 10 percent dog, maybe with a bit of gray wolf mixed in for good measure. “It is a beautiful gradient showing the diversity of coyotes, and how flexible they are as a species,” says Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary geneticist at Princeton University.
Perhaps Way sensed some of this complexity, because that run-in on the dune would keep him chasing coyotes for the next 30 years, even though his fascination would come at a cost for his professional and personal life.
“We started in the very beginning trying to tell him there was more besides coyotes and wolves,” says Peter Auger, who taught science at Barnstable High School, and mentored Way through much of his academic career. “But he had, and still does, a tendency to get off in the direction of thinking the world revolves around coyotes.”
IT’S A SUNDAY in October, and Way is rummaging through the basement of his home, which is full of coyote figurines and photographs. He wants to show me something. Now in his mid-40s with earnest, deep-set eyes, Way brings out what looks like a dusty TV antenna with a handle—it’s the radio telemetry rig he once used to track coyotes. “I’m ready to go,” he says.
In his driveway, Way shows me how he used to wedge the antenna in the window of his truck, wiring it to a receiver box he kept on the passenger seat. For hours at dawn and dusk, when coyotes are most active, he would drive around town toggling between frequencies, each band corresponding to a particular radio collar fitted to a coyote. With enough pings, Way could plot their territories and movements, and begin to make sense of their secretive social lives. Way’s sister made a sign to put on his truck: Eastern Coyote Research.
Over the years, Way came to know packs—the Osterville pack, the Sandwich pack, the Hyannis pack—each with its own family dramas. And he came to know individuals. There was Cake, Walnut, Casper, Ice, and more than 60 others that he named after the streets where he’d caught them. Way knew where they ate, where they slept, and where they gave birth. He knew who was the breeding female in charge, and who was a mere slouch. He witnessed battles between packs, and hundreds of hours of play at rendezvous sites, many of them chronicled in a book he self-published in 2007 called Suburban Howls.
He became convinced coyotes have a kind of culture, transmitting information about feeding and denning sites between generations. “If I was doing my work for the past 12 years,” he says, “I’d have much more data and information on that.”
While at Boston College, Way obtained a permit from MassWildlife to raise a litter of coyotes in captivity as part of an exhibit, “Treasures of the Sierra Madre,” at the Stone Zoo in Stoneham. This was related to a grander vision Way had for an “Eastern Coyote Discovery Center,” modeled on the International Wolf Center in Minnesota. “Mission: To promote the conservation of the Eastern coyote through education and research,” he wrote on a diagram of the center he submitted to MassWildlife.
In 2002, Way got word of a litter of newborn pups in Falmouth and went to pick them up. Since the coyote enclosure at the zoo was still under construction, he brought five of them to his house. He raised them there for three or four weeks until the enclosure was ready, which, it turned out, wasn’t allowed. While the research protocol from Boston College said he could raise the pups at home, his permit from MassWildlife did not. This would become a sticking point with Way’s future permit applications.
Over the next three years, Way raised the litter at the zoo, bottle-feeding them and growing ever closer to them. “I knew them so well I could actually recognize them by scent,” Way says. A video from the time shows Way lying on the rocks in the enclosure surrounded by the coyotes, and howling with them.
“He was a coyote dad,” says Numi Mitchell, a biologist who leads the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study in Rhode Island. “There was something transformational about that for him.”
But as the coyote pups grew larger, the zoo’s administration became concerned about safety. When Way would leave the enclosure, the coyotes started to behave aggressively toward each other, says John Linehan, the president of Zoo New England, which operates Stone Zoo. In 2005, Way was bitten by one of the coyotes, and the zoo decided it was no longer safe for him to enter the enclosure. Instead, he had to observe the litter through the fence.
Way was heartbroken. “It was,” he later wrote, “like visiting family members in jail.”
THAT WAS JUST the beginning of Way’s coyote troubles.
In 2008, after he set a trap baited with meat scraps behind his house in Barnstable — a practice that had become part of his routine — a female coyote caught on and brought along her pack. The neighbors noticed. Eighteen of them signed an angry petition sent to the town of Barnstable and MassWildlife, complaining about the danger they felt the pack posed to pets and children—and about the “coyote man” responsible for it all. A Barnstable health inspector visited, and Way agreed to remove the traps. But the damage was done.
Though Way had permission from MassWildlife to trap on his property, the public outcry motivated a closer scrutiny of his work. The agency “should keep good records as to his compliance, or lack thereof, given the attention being paid to the issue,” one official wrote to colleagues.
The conflict came to a head in 2009 when Way applied for permits for the next year. Until then, he had been working under a permit held by Eric Strauss, an urban ecologist then at Boston College and Way’s doctoral adviser. Because Way had completed his doctorate in 2005, MassWildlife determined he was no longer affiliated with the school and denied his application. The agency also cited several additional factors, including complaints from neighbors, failure to label traps, taking two coyotes to an animal hospital without informing the state, and trapping two coyotes in the weeks after his permit had expired.
Way sent a letter to MassWildlife appealing the decision and disputing the violations. “I am extremely concerned that I am being deliberately targeted because of my views toward hunting,” he wrote. He couldn’t understand why a research permit was denied, when hunting permits were issued all the time.
When his appeal didn’t work, Way wrote a furious letter to then-Governor Deval Patrick. “The state (MDFW) is shutting down a PhD level scientist and making it almost nearly impossible for me to do this research,” he wrote, “while letting anyone shoot and kill unlimited numbers of these animals for six months a year.”
About those fraught years, Mike Huguenin, MassWildlife’s current assistant director of wildlife, says that Way’s criticism of hunting had nothing to do with the agency’s decisions to deny his permit applications. “He’s conducted an awful lot of research over the years under the permits that we’ve issued to him,” Huguenin says. “There have been a couple of denials because of the protocols and procedures which everyone has to adhere to.”
This perspective is largely supported by internal documents obtained from MassWildlife, the town of Barnstable, and the University of Connecticut, as well as interviews with people familiar with Way’s work. But it’s also clear some had a low opinion of the research. In a 2009 e-mail, then-MassWildlife deputy director Rob Deblinger wrote that Way’s attempts to study coyotes in captivity “proves that Way is not a very careful ecological/biological researcher.”
Many of Way’s colleagues believe that Way’s advocacy for coyotes had something to do with his troubles securing permits. “The state felt, and they were straightforward with me, that he was taking an advocacy role for the coyotes that fell outside of the traditional sciences,” says Strauss, now a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In 2009, the Cape Cod Times published an editorial arguing Way shouldn’t get a permit for a coyote pen outside his home, though “not because penned coyotes are particularly dangerous,” the editorial read. “No, he shouldn’t be granted a permit because he loves the animals too much.”
Way admits he has often had a political agenda to help animals he sees as worthy of protection, though he argues that is not incompatible with his work in science, so long as the research methods and analysis are valid. “Everybody has a line,” he says. “It’s just how vocal you are about that line.”
“He has done so much research, but he’s also very outspoken,” says Louise Kane, an animal rights activist on the Cape who has worked with Way. “I think it’s a hard line for him sometimes to decide whether he wants to cross the border.”
THE PERMITTING SETBACK in 2009 came just as Way’s research was starting to bear fruit. Soon after his permit was denied, he published a study in the journal Northeastern Naturalist with a group of researchers from Canada on the genetic makeup of eastern coyotes. The study was the first to suggest the term “coywolf” to describe the eastern coyote. In later work, Way would assert that the creature was distinct enough to be considered its own species, and therefore should be protected as such. And even if not a distinct species, he and others argued, coywolves look enough like wolves that they should be protected to prevent accidental hunting of any actual wolves returning to the northeast.
These findings attracted attention and controversy, with many scientists strongly disagreeing with the assertion that “coywolves” were a new species, arguing eastern coyotes are better characterized as a subspecies. “They don’t meet any criteria for calling them a distinct species of coyote,” says vonHoldt, who has studied coyote-wolf hybrids.
Still, Way was quoted in The New York Times. He was getting published. And he was also running out of time.
Without permits, he could still follow the coyotes he had already collared. But the collars had a battery life of three years. Without trapping more, his research would die with the devices’ batteries.
Later that year, Way sought help from his former adviser at UConn, ecologist Morty Ortega, believing an official affiliation with a university would aid his case. Ortega helped Way get an affiliation, and they submitted a research protocol together to a university committee. But the approval process stalled when the committee became confused about the nature of Way’s affiliation, internal documents from UConn make clear.
Turning elsewhere, Way eventually gained affiliation with Clark University in Worcester in 2013 with the help of William Lynn, an ethicist who later published several papers with Way, including one arguing for species status for the eastern coyote/coywolf. Way and Lynn’s research protocol was approved by the university, and Way submitted it to MassWildlife, along with a new permit application. It felt to Way like his last chance.
Before making a decision on Way’s new application, however, MassWildlife officials arranged to meet with the Clark committee. An e-mail sent to the committee described Way’s past violations, including a section on the coyote pups Way had briefly kept at his house 13 years earlier.
Lynn, who was at the meeting, says the officials were very negative and disparaging of Way. He also felt there was an implicit threat from the agency officials: If you push for this, you’ll lose other research permits from us. “If Jon [was] violating protocols, he [needed] to get on board,” Lynn says. “But legitimate research should not be shut down because people see that it may underwrite policy perspectives, political values, or ethical concerns that they don’t agree with.”
Tom French, the now-retired MassWildlife official who led the meeting at Clark and oversaw much of the permitting process, disputed in an email the claim that MassWildlife targeted Way for his views on coyotes. “For me, his characterizing the agency as an archaic, hunter-driven, special interest organization is a particular jab,” French writes, calling MassWildlife’s endangered species program “one of the most progressive in the country.”
MassWildlife ultimately denied Way’s permit application, and the Clark committee soon rescinded its approval of his research protocol. Then, while he was out on a run near a Hyannis pond, a hunter mistook him for a deer and shot him. It felt like a fitting end to a troubled year.
STANDING BY THE pond where the accident took place eight years before, Way shows me the scars where the shotgun pellets had nearly taken off his finger, and gouged the back of his neck. “This experience alone has got me so angry,” he says, adding that the hunter had a criminal record.
In recent years, life for Way has become frustrating in other ways. The inability to do his work on coyotes weighed on him, and on his relationships. He left a teaching job at Barnstable High School, and worked for UPS for a bit. He fell out of touch with scientific colleagues, and got divorced. The inability to continue his work “wrecked me,” he writes in a recent e-book he published on his website. “I have been in mental hell for over a decade, and continue to be.”
He worked as a seasonal ranger on the Cape Cod National Seashore for several years. But he got into trouble with park administrators after he ghostwrote and circulated an online petition that sought to ban hunting in the park and implored the Seashore to hire him as a carnivore biologist. More than 8,000 people signed, but Way wasn’t invited back.
One bright spot for Way was a campaign he helped organize to ban coyote hunting competitions in Massachusetts. In 2019, under pressure from protesters and elected officials, MassWildlife voted to change its regulations to ban the competitions, as well as add a clause prohibiting “wanton waste” to the rules on hunting, requiring any hunter who kills a coyote to use it for something, such as for its pelt or for taxidermy. Despite the changes taking effect last year, Way still believes there should be an additional rule limiting the number of coyotes an individual hunter can kill.
Although everyone agrees hunting coyotes doesn’t threaten population size and might even increase it (In the West, an old saying goes: “Kill one coyote and two come to its funeral”), Way worries about the impact the killing of individual coyotes can have on pack stability and coyote “culture.”
“They have less culture because there’s less longevity in a given area,” he says.
FOR THE PAST three years, Way has taught science at a high school across Buzzards Bay, making the hour’s drive from Barnstable early each morning. He developed a zoology unit on coyotes, and brought his antenna to school, challenging students to find the radio collars he’d hidden around campus.
Unable to track coyotes in Massachusetts, Way has considered going west once his son goes off to college in a few years; he has contacts who work in Yellowstone National Park. He has also started making regular trips to Maine with a group searching for evidence of wolves returning to the state from Canada.
But Way has never lost hope that he might get his research going again on the Cape, which, after all, remains his home. “It’s an ecosystem in its own right,” he says. “And it’s my ecosystem.”
Most of the officials involved in the earlier permitting issues have since left MassWildlife, and Way says he has had encouraging exchanges with the agency’s new deputy director. Having a permit would help him to restart, to rebuild bridges with colleagues, and apply for research grants and funding, he says. “It would go a long way to getting my life back.”
In a region that’s seemed to grow increasingly afraid of coyotes, Way has never lost his love for them. “As you track coyotes, they teach you so much about the landscape,” he tells me as we drive across the imperceptible border separating two rival coyote packs.
Way has spent his life in this place, and knows its streets, but coyotes know it differently. The bog behind the sewage plant is a place to rest. The slivers of forest between the houses form an invisible highway. The territories superimposed over the human grid remind us there is more than one way to delineate the world.
“They know all these places, hence I do too,” Way says. “I’m thinking like a coyote.”
James Dinneen is a science and environmental journalist based in Somerville. Find him on Twitter @jamesNESW. Send comments to email@example.com.