RYE, N.Y. — The wary but tolerant relationship between humans and coyotes is changing in a New York City suburb, where two attacks on little girls have police officers shooting at the animals and parents keeping their kids inside on summer evenings at the urging of authorities.
Years of easy living in the suburbs may have dampened coyotes' fear of humans and prompted the unusual behavior, experts said. But in the short term, "This is a threat to public safety, and we are treating it as such," said William Connors, police chief in Rye, about 25 miles northeast of midtown Manhattan.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has given Rye permission to shoot coyotes on sight and to kill any that are trapped, said Kevin Clarke, wildlife biologist for the department. Three shots have been fired since Friday, Connors said, but no coyotes have been brought down.
He advised residents not to allow small children to play outdoors, and to stay within an arm's length of children who do.
The police chief said there was no sign the coyotes were rabid, although he believed both girls were being treated for rabies as a precaution.
The latest attack was Tuesday night, when a 3-year-old girl playing in her backyard – which borders the heavily wooded Rye Nature Center – was jumped from behind by a coyote.
Her playmate, 4-year-old Stephanie Ellis, said Wednesday, "I saw the coyote attack her. ... She was lying on the ground and the coyote was on top of her. I was kind of scared so I ran." Stephanie cried out for her mother, and she and the victim's father chased off the animal.
The girl was bitten on her neck and torso, Connors said.
On Friday night, a 6-year-old was mauled by two coyotes and suffered bites or scratches on her thigh, shoulder, neck, ear and back before her mother could scatter the animals, Connors said.
Since 1970, coyotes have been moving steadily south from sparsely populated areas of upstate New York into the suburbs of the nation's largest city, but they normally avoid human interaction.
"This is very unusual behavior," Connors said. "Wildlife experts tell us that the danger with wild animals like this is when they lose their fear of humans."
Coyotes are a permanent feature of many suburbs and should be tolerated, Clarke said, but "we should not necessarily tolerate their presence in our backyards and around our children."
Dan Bogan, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University's Department of Natural Resources, studied coyotes in Westchester, a posh suburb, for several years and said, "Probably one of the best ways to keep people safe is to instill some kind of healthy respect in coyotes."
Connors said he hoped shooting and trapping the animals would "rekindle that fear of human interaction."
News media reported only 142 coyote attacks on people in the U.S. and Canada between 1960 and 2006, according to a study published last year by Ohio State University researchers. In 2008 and 2009, four Denver-area residents were bitten over four months. The only known fatal coyote attack in the nation killed a California toddler in the 1980s.
In rural areas, where coyotes are often hunted, the animals realize their numbers are culled when they interact with humans, Connors said.
But in suburbia, they have their natural prey including rabbits and birds and rodents, "but they also have some easy sources of food: garbage, people leave pet food out, some people even feed them," Connors said.
One coyote necropsy showed that the animal had eaten pork chops, he said.
"Put together easy sources of food and humans that don't harm them, and ... it emboldens them and they lose their natural fear," he said.
Michelle Dutra, a nanny in Rye, had a 22-month-old boy named Baker in a stroller near the scene of Tuesday's attack, a well-to-do neighborhood. "I'll keep him in the stroller," she said. "No walking. And I'll have him inside before dark."
Another neighbor, 85-year-old Paul Verille, said he has seen coyotes for years while playing golf.
"I see them all the time on the course, at a distance, and they would take off," he said. "Now they're more brazen." He said his eight grandchildren come over often to play on a backyard trampoline, and "I'll keep a close watch. That's all you can do."
Clarke said he worried about "the species as a whole being implicated, and a whole witch hunt" being carried out.
"Not all individuals are dangerous," he said.
But Connors said that after a coyote attack, "You can't really establish which animal is involved and which is not. ... We are presuming at this point that all coyotes are dangerous animals that may harm our children, and we will treat them as such."