Donald Trump has a $269m golf course in New York City that is regularly prowled by feared, largely nocturnal individuals that instinctively prey upon those they deem smaller and weaker.
We are, of course, talking about coyotes.
The shrewd canines have spread so far from their ranges in the western US that they are now making unlikely homes in cities on the east coast, including beside the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, a landscaped sward frequented by visor- and chino-wearing golfers in the faintly incongruous setting of the Bronx.
Donald Trump Jr may be an avid hunter but killing coyotes isn’t permitted in New York
“The staff at the golf course think the coyotes are cool,” said Chris Nagy, a wildlife biologist and co-founder of Gotham Coyote, a collaboration of researchers who study coyotes in New York. “But there’s a point where if the coyotes are getting annoying and worrying the golfers, then they’ll change their minds.”
As humanity chews through landscapes for housing, farming, roads and mining, ecologists have warned of the Earth’s sixth great extinction, with about a million species now endangered. But some creatures have proved flexible in the face of this onslaught, even blossoming in the new circumstances.
Coyotes, unfussy eaters that can cover large distances in search of a suitable home, are one of the winners in this denuded age.
Cities like New York and Detroit, where redevelopment or economic blight has left urban sites bereft of humans, are increasingly being colonized by coyotes, as well as other opportunists such as raccoons, opossums and even bobcats. Researchers have found a riot of non-human carnivores dwelling in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Washington DC.
New York’s coyote families
Ferry Point Park is a pleasant respite from the city, dotted with redbud trees and affording a grand vista of the Manhattan skyline across the East River. But it is hemmed in by the dense housing of the Bronx and cleaved in two by the Whitestone Bridge, which funnels thousands of cars through every day.
It is perhaps surprising that this park, like several in the Bronx, can play host to highly urbanized coyote families. Coyotes, a smaller relative of the grey wolf, weigh up to 50 pounds and are popularly associated with the wide open spaces of the American west. But the animals are highly adaptable and, having thrived rather than dwindled from human expansion and persecution, have pushed east, making it to New York state in the 1940s.
In 2012, Nagy and his colleagues got confirmation via camera traps that coyotes had established themselves in New York City itself, although this shift probably happened earlier. Since then, coyotes have turned up in lower Manhattan and on the roof of a bar in Queens. Last year, one intrepid animal was seen roaming the streets of Harlem before being cornered by police in midtown Manhattan and tranquilized.
“We’re finding coyotes like almost everything or at least can survive on almost everything,” Nagy said as he trudged through the scrub and reeds in search of the Ferry Point camera trap.
“A pack of wolves would need, like, the whole county. But not coyotes. They’ve lived kind of underfoot of both wolves and people for thousands of years. And so they’ve evolved to survive metaphorically running among the feet of the giants.
“They’re my favorite animal. And I liked them before I started studying them. They’re clever. We’ve tried our best to eradicate them and they’ve thwarted us at every turn. I really admire that, I guess.”
The park, and the adjacent Trump golf course, has become the favoured locale for a coyote named Neil by researchers. Nagy’s camera traps showed that Neil and a female companion had pups last year, only for the female to then die. The pups, probably lacking proper supervision, were seen scampering on the greens once they were safely clear of golfers.
“They were wandering all over the place in the morning,” Nagy said. “And so when the first round of golf would start, the pups were running around the course. We heard stories that the pups were taking sandwiches out of people’s golf carts.”
Coyotes don’t do well in urban areas unless they learn to be circumspect around people, so the pups soon limited their roaming to earlier hours of the night. Donald Trump Jr may be an avid hunter but killing coyotes isn’t permitted in New York, even if you are attempting to sculpt a placid vision of nature on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that your family business built on a former landfill.
Nagy finds the camera trap, strapped to the base of a tree, and removes its casing. Before he replaces the batteries he flicks through the viewfinder to see what it has captured in the previous two months. There is a startled-looking rabbit and an obese raccoon before Nagy lets out an “oh”.
Along with Neil there appears to be a newcomer – what could well be a female mate. “So maybe he found a girlfriend,” Nagy said. This female, remarkably, has seemingly penetrated miles of dense urban sprawl to stumble across Neil and potentially start a new family.
There appears no obvious end to the onward march of coyotes in New York, although the busier tourist drawcard of Central Park in Manhattan might prove tricky due to the animals’ wariness of humans.
Coyotes will almost always run away from human activity, although they will stare down dogs if they approach dens and there is a very small chance of an attack on people if they are seen as a source of food.
“We encourage all New Yorkers and visitors to respect coyotes and give them plenty of space,” said a New York City Parks spokeswoman. “Healthy coyotes that are not fed or otherwise conditioned to approach humans will do their best to avoid human contact. They can even be beneficial to humans by helping to control the rodent population.”
Most people who live in cities don’t see or even think of coyotes but the ongoing expansion of urban wildlife provides an opportunity for a more harmonious relationship to nature, evolved from the days when bison were nearly wiped out or when bears were routinely slaughtered.
“In a broader sense there needs to be a reckoning of how we relate to the rest of the living world,” Nagy said.
“Our theory with coyotes was: kill them all, they’re no good. And they’ve not allowed us to do that. So now we have to think, I hope, a little bit more logistically about it.”