Even before a two-year-old was snatched from a Dallas porch by a hungry coyote, the parents in the neighborhood knew something terrible was bound to happen.
The coyotes that usually stayed in wooded areas or a nearby creekbed had been coming closer and closer. One was spotted by a doorbell camera stealing a food delivery bag off a porch. Another was seen following children on their walk to school. Another stood on an elementary school playground with a squirrel in its mouth.
The neighbors had been calling 911, the city’s animal services department, even biologists from the state’s parks and wildlife department, but it seemed like no one would do anything.
“We’ve known about this for a while,” said Rebecca Bickett, who runs a Facebook group for neighborhood moms. “I don’t know, I’m not a wildlife expert, but I’d expect some kind of escalation if aggressive wildlife is reported.”
Dallas, like many American cities, is home to several packs of urban coyotes. They normally stay in the shadows, unseen by people. Also like many American cities, Dallas did not have a plan for how to respond to reports of aggressive coyotes.
Dallas animal services had received the calls from residents in the White Rock Valley neighborhood of north-east Dallas, but later said many of the reports were of perfectly normal coyote behavior. They said that in areas with lots of unintentional feeding – trash bags on the curb, pet food left on a porch – coyotes can become unusually comfortable with their neighbors.
On the afternoon of 3 May, one of those too-comfortable coyotes dragged a toddler off a porch, sending the two-year-old into critical care at a nearby hospital.
The city of Dallas quickly blamed neighbors for making food accessible to the coyotes. In a Facebook post soon after the attack, the city’s animal services department said “residents were routinely handfeeding and petting” the coyote, but has walked back those claims in the weeks since.
The neighborhood fought back, saying they had tried raising the alarm to no avail.
“It was insulting,” Bickett said. “I don’t want to use the term ‘gaslight’ because I feel like it’s been worn out, but that’s exactly what it was.”
Such an attack is exceedingly rare. Coyotes are skittish and secretive. They usually don’t want to be seen by humans, much less attack them.
Yet the attack on the Dallas toddler, experts say, is the kind of thing that could happen anywhere. The city is scrambling to put together a plan that would help officials respond more quickly to aggressive wildlife while educating residents about how to live peacefully with their wild neighbors.
White Rock Valley is an upper-middle-class neighborhood tucked between green spaces in north-east Dallas. Mid-century craftsman homes line the blocks, although in the past few years property flippers and new-build mini-mansions have brought construction to the neighborhood. White Rock elementary school, in the center of the neighborhood, butts up to a runoff creek with plenty of shade trees.
It is perfect urban coyote habitat.
Karin Saucedo is a Texas master naturalist and wildlife photographer who has researched coyote behavior for years. She also grew up in White Rock Valley, and had been spending more time there with her father recently.
She had seen coyotes brazenly walking through her dad’s yard. She saw social media posts of residents concerned about the behavior of the local pack, and tried to respond with the tools she knows to use to keep both people and coyotes safe. She talked about removing food sources and “hazing”, or making loud noises and acting aggressively toward the animals to scare them away from humans.
“But I don’t have a badge,” Saucedo said. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
It’s only when coyotes become comfortable around humans – often because they have found an easy food source – that they become aggressive. Sightings during the day or coyotes that approach people rather than running away are all signs of aggressive coyotes, says Sam Kieschnick, a Dallas-based urban wildlife biologist with Texas parks and wildlife department.
“When a resource is available, they utilize it,” Kieschnick said. Especially in that neighborhood, he said, food was available for the local coyotes, so of course they stuck around.
In 2018, Kieschnick was called to Frisco, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas, when several coyote attacks were reported there. It was the first time he could recall ever hearing about a coyote attacking a person in the state. Several coyotes there were killed to eliminate the rogue pack.
After the attacks, officials in Frisco wrote up a comprehensive urban wildlife management plan, with strategies to help people and their local fauna coexist.
Authorities used a similar strategy in Dallas this month after the toddler was attacked. First, Dallas police and a biologist with the US Department of Agriculture killed four coyotes.
Now, the city is drafting a coyote management plan focused on a hotline for reporting coyote sightings. There’s also a new focus on educating the public about what’s normal coyote behavior, what’s not, and how humans can safely live with the canine scavengers.
Dallas Animal Services said 10 calls came in about coyote sightings in the neighborhood between the beginning of February and the attack on the toddler in early May. That’s fairly common. When trees are bare and coyotes begin moving more in springtime, sightings are not unusual.
But things became more concerning for residents in recent weeks, especially when coyotes began following young children in the neighborhood rather than running away. Occasionally an animal services officer would come to the neighborhood, but when they left, the coyotes came back.
“We did everything we knew to do,” Bickett said.
In Chicago, biologists have been researching urban coyote behavior for more than two decades. The Urban Coyote Research Project there is one of the longest-lasting studies of the species.
The city of Chicago has used that research to develop its own management plan for the species. Like Dallas’s effort, it starts with educating residents. Next, it encourages people who see coyotes to haze them. Finally, it discusses lethal removal options for overly habituated coyotes.
Wildlife experts say the lethal option is only for the most extreme cases.
“If someone is bitten, then there’s no debate. That’s the proper response,” said Stanley Gehrt, the principal investigator of the Chicago project and a professor of ecology at Ohio State University. “Obviously there’s a reason the animal behaved that way and if you don’t address that you’ll have to remove another animal down the road.”
After the attack on the toddler, a Dallas city councilman organized a community meeting at the elementary school in White Rock Valley. Outside, blue ribbons wrapped around all the trees on the block in support of the child, who was still in the hospital. Inside, city officials tried to explain how the coyotes had become so bold and what the government was doing next.
Residents like Bickett and Saucedo were there, too. Many wanted to hear an apology for pointing the blame at residents.
“We knew we needed to protect our pets. What we didn’t know was that we needed to protect our children,” said Kathy Stewart, a 28-year resident of the neighborhood. “I want to know what changed.”
For the biologists, the answer comes back to food. The city still says that “well-meaning animal lovers” may have been putting out food for the coyotes intentionally. Adam Henry, a USDA biologist who helped hunt the coyotes in Dallas, said some may have become used to finding food at the new construction sites throughout the neighborhood, and pointed to the doorbell footage showing a coyote grabbing a food delivery bag.
“We’re seeing a dawn of a new creature,” Henry said. “They’ve gotten habituated to finding it on those front porches.”
Bickett brushes aside the claims over the pandemic-era food delivery as part of the reason for more aggressive wildlife. She says if it had become a common practice for the coyotes, she would have seen it on other cameras, not just the one clip that was distributed to local TV stations.
But Saucedo said that the coyotes she studies can become used to a new behavior after just one positive interaction with a human.
“Once he realized he could get a reward on a porch, he’s going to be curious about any porch,” Saucedo said. “It just takes one person, one neighbor to unintentionally feed a wild animal.”
At the meeting, many of the residents wanted to know why the city didn’t already have a plan for managing coyote behavior. They have been a part of the ecosystem for decades, and are often spotted in residential areas throughout the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Where the city is on its response is in the exact same place where every other community that has a wildlife problem starts out,” Henry said. “That’s how government works, any government. We’re always behind the curve.”
“So White Rock Valley is the first community in Dallas to ever have this problem?” asked Kristy Feil, who has lived in the neighborhood for 19 years. “I mean, we’re the first?”
The truth is, yes. The city officials couldn’t say definitively that in all of Dallas’s history there hasn’t been an attack, but violent coyote interactions are so incredibly rare that it’s not surprising it took so long for them to form a plan. Urban coyotes are, the vast majority of the time, out of sight and out of mind.
“I’m starting to understand why we’re having more of an issue recently,” Feil said after the meeting. “There’s no one to blame. We’ve just got to figure out how to handle it.”