Globe Local

Suburbanites are living on the wild side

Josef Pittner/Shuttershock
Take precautions because coyotes can be attracted to garbage, bird feeders, and small pets.

When Elaine Decoulos was growing up in Boxford in the 1970s, she said, “the only thing we worried about was a mosquito coming out at 6:30.”

Since she returned two years ago to live with her parents, she’s battled deer in defense of her new landscaping, fled from a coyote, had a run-in with beavers, and picked up a tick-borne illness.

“I feel burdened and overwhelmed by the wildlife,” said Decoulos, 57. “It’s nerve-racking.”


If you’re of a certain age and feel like you never used to see turkeys, coyotes, bears, moose, deer, rabbits, and other animals in your suburban town or urban city, you’re probably right.

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By the time baby boomers came along, wild turkeys had been extirpated from Massachusetts for a century. The remaining 50-odd black bears were confined to the Berkshires, moose were mostly gone, and coyotes had barely arrived. White-tailed deer were rarely seen in most suburbs, and rabbits hid in thickets instead of lounging on lawns.

And up until the 1970s it more or less remained that way, according to wildlife biologists at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Massachusetts Environmental Police
This bear up a tree in Newton was eventually tranquilized and removed.

But with changes in habitat, animal adaptation, restrictions on hunting and trapping, and the strategic reintroduction of extirpated wildlife, these animals have become a fact of life in many communities around Greater Boston.

Just this spring, town officials in Braintree voted to allow deer hunting on town conservation land overrun by the animals. A young bear spent several hours perched in a tree in Newton. And Swampscott police recently urged residents to take precautions after a teenager reported being bitten by a coyote in the woods.


In the last couple of years, the news has featured a moose running through Belmont, a rabbit evading State Police on the Zakim Bridge in Boston, and a flock of turkeys in Randolph circling a dead cat in almost ritualistic fashion.

The result is fascination for some residents, frustration and fear among others, and a lot of head-scratching for city and town officials just trying to manage the burgeoning fauna within their boundaries.

Because of the way Massachusetts is settled, growing wildlife populations are particularly likely to come into contact with humans, said Paige Warren, an associate professor of environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“We lead the nation in wildland-urban interface,” said Warren, a specialist in urban and surburban ecology. That’s a term scientists use for the intersection of wildlife areas and human developments.

Massachusetts is one of the most forested — yet most densely settled — states in the country, Warren said. Both wildlife and human populations have increased in suburban areas over the last half-century, she added, leading to more interaction between the two.

Pembroke 05/ 01/2017: A wild turkey walks across a front yard in Pembroke. Photo by Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe (south)
Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe
A wild turkey walks across a front yard in Pembroke.

At Tufts Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton, veterinarians treated a record number of animals last year, including six black bears, eight coyotes, and 36 wild turkeys. That was double the number of animals they had treated five years earlier.

Some animals have surprised biologists by how effectively they’ve been able to adapt to suburban and urban environments.

“It was expected that turkeys were going to expand and do quite well in rural areas,” said David Scarpitti, a biologist from MassWildlife, who said turkeys were reintroduced in several locations in the state from the 1970s through the 1990s. “I’m not sure anybody really knew or had the foresight to see that they’d be so [common] in urban and developed areas.”

The ultra-adaptable coyote has done equally well, expanding through the entire state since it first appeared from the Midwest about 50 years ago, said David Wattles, another biologist at the agency.

Both species have probably reached full expansion, state wildlife experts said. Moose have also repopulated their natural range in the state.

The return of white-tailed deer to Massachusetts has been particularly controversial, especially in some eastern towns, according to David Stainbrook, a biologist at MassWildlife who specializes in the species.

As the deer population has increased, so have fears about the prevalence of ticks, which can carry Lyme disease and other illnesses. Critics also cite the damage deer do to forests and gardens.

“Deer were a unique thing for people to see 25 to 30 years ago in a backyard,” Stainbrook said. “Now they are eating everything out of the garden, and people are fed up with them.”

REMOTE TRANSMISSION -- REMOTE TRANSMISSION--- 3-20-2003:Methuen, MA:GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/JIM DAVIS.......DOUBLE DEER........Two deer (separated by a tree) who came out of nearby woods to graze in the front yard of a Spring Valley Road home almost appear to be a two headed animal. Library Tag 03272003 Globe NorthWest 1 2
Jim Davis/Globe Staff file
Two deer graze in the front yard of a Methuen home.

Hunting is the primary check on the growing deer populations, since their other main predator, wolves, are long gone, according to Stainbrook.

But state and local limits on hunting and trapping have allowed deer and other species such as coyotes, moose, beavers, and black bears to significantly expand in some places, state biologists said.

Black bears, for example, were described as “secretive and seldom seen” by a Globe Magazine article in 1985. Today, after about 50 years of significant hunting restrictions, bear habitat has have expanded right up to the western edge of Interstate 495, Wattles said, leading to increasing sightings in the suburbs west of Boston.

With a growth rate of around 8 percent a year, the bears were responsible for 332 complaint calls to the Massachusetts Environmental Police last year, more than any other category, including 243 for deer.

There’s anecdotal evidence that people are increasingly frustrated by the influx of wildlife into their communities, said Katrina Bergman, executive director of the New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth, which treats sick and injured wildlife.

“A real intolerance from people is increasing” in the last decade, Bergman said. “It’s a lack of education, a lack of people going out of doors . . . an intolerance because of fear.”

Wildlife experts said some of those frustrations are avoidable, since the intentional — and unintentional — feeding of animals is what keeps them coming into neighborhoods. Biologists at MassWildlife point to bird feeders (a favorite of bears and turkeys, especially) and unsecured trash as reasons for the exploding wildlife populations ever closer to humans.

However, many people appreciate the species that visit or take up residence in their neighborhoods. There are those who are glad to see a rabbit on the lawn and will defend the critters in the halls of local government.

“Let’s leave the bunnies out of it, please,” warned a Cambridge city councilor at the same September meeting where a fellow councilor accused wild turkeys of conspiring against him.

The council was grappling with what to do with all the wildlife that has been encroaching on the city of 105,000 people: turkeys, rabbits, geese, deer, coyotes, squirrels. But a vote to explore animal control options was delayed by a proposal to exclude bunnies.

They were most likely referring to the eastern cottontail, which is more comfortable in the open than the native New England cottontail, which is in decline across the state.

“Bunnies are fantastic,” said Councilor Leland Cheung, in support of the amendment. “My daughter loves them.”

Lucas Phillips can be reached at