Imagine my shock when I first heard about Pierre, the coyote that had been spotted in Central Park, in my own urban backyard -- in a place that seemed way too near.
After all, during my childhood summers in the more remote pine forests of the Catskills, the coyote was the beast I feared most. Back then, I was occasionally awakened by a distant eerie howl that echoed in the dark night. "Listen to that," my father, the wildlife lover, would observe with fascination. "A coyote." For me, a city girl, then about 7 or 8 -- who was already convinced that the Loch Ness Monster lived in the nearby lake -- that response was not reassuring. And his talk of bobcats in the area didn't help allay my trepidation.
Then came the day I was roused from my reading by an unspeakable noise -- a frantic yelping and a high-pitched, ear-piercing screeching, accompanied by howls of pain. I saw a mixed-breed mutt and a coyote engaged in a fierce fight in the broad daylight right on the newly mowed lawn. The animals reared up on their hind legs. Then the coyote dashed off into the forest, leaving the dog mauled. Its owner fired a fatal shot to get the dog out of his pain. I will always remember the starkness of the blast that reverberated in the silence of our country retreat.
However, as I looked at that recent newspaper photo of the coyote captured in Central Park -- tranquilized, strapped to a stretcher, with its paws hanging over, its pointy ears, its expression docile rather than fierce -- I felt pity rather than fear. The story of the plight of the lone animal as a terrified fugitive -- pursued by animal workers, police (not to mention a helicopter) -- dodging back and forth among my familiar childhood haunts: the Wollman Rink, the Great Lawn and the Mall, where he finally collapsed -- seemed incredible. And to many in the city, including myself, it was even heart-rending.
After all, the photo is cute; the creature seems harmless, looks much like a scruffy dog. "It's kind of neat," a friend said about the incident. "They should have left him alone," was another city-dweller's sentiment.
About the latter point of view, I wasn't too sure. So I asked Parks Commissioner Henry Stern what he thought. "It's an extraordinary incident in the city's biological history," he said, echoing the general amazement and fascination of New Yorkers at finding a wild animal in their midst. But he also talked about the incident tongue-in cheek, citing it as another one of the advantages of the city's leash law: "to save your dog from being eaten." He really wasn't kidding:
Indeed, there was a danger posed by Pierre, and we could not have left him there. According to the National Wildlife Foundation, coyotes have been known to attack small dogs and other small animals and even small children in urban centers all over the country; in recent years, the number of attacks have been on the rise. The presence of Pierre, which seemed odd to New Yorkers, was but a reflection of what was happening all over the country.
While some species of wildlife have declined with development, coyotes -- much like Wily E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon -- are extremely adaptable creatures. Originally from the West, they have spread all over the country and even to the cities. In the state of New York, they have been migrating southward, showing up in recent years in the suburbs, such as Westchester, then The Bronx, and now, somehow, even in Central Park.
"We are afraid to let our pets out," one suburban homeowner said. Another, in Westport, Conn., said she fears for her child.
"There is a danger when an animal one admires from afar comes too close," said Richard Lattis, the President of the Wildlife Conservation Society. (Coyotes, after all, are natural predators; in their upstate New York woodland habitat, they kill fawns; traveling in packs, they attack deer.) "Fear causes people to look at predators in a certain way. The coyote," Mr. Lattis said, "had no chance in the city."
So it seemed. Coyotes, to say the least, are considered a nuisance, not an endangered species. From this standpoint alone, the fate of the Central Park coyote was becoming unfortunately all too clear.
Oh dear. Indeed, like many New Yorkers, I found myself beginning to fear for the coyote named Pierre.
But in what can only be described as a quintessential New York City story, the coyote has been given a permanent home. Mr. Lattis arranged to have the beast serve as the very point of the coyote exhibit, which tells how the animals have thrived, despite efforts to exterminate them. "Now he's a New Yorker," Mr. Lattis commented, not without a hint of civic pride.
"Lucky Pierre," he was named by Mr. Stern. "Lucky," I suppose, because he had been spared; "Pierre" because he was living in a cave in a fenced-in nature preserve right across from the elegant Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue.
Soon, the coyote that won the hearts of city-dwellers will be making his debut. Having already undergone his physical at the Bronx Zoo, he is now under quarantine in Queens, getting acclimated, getting to know his coyote counterparts, preparing for this grand event. He will be stepping out at the Queens Zoo for his formal presentation to New York society. Well-rehearsed, I imagine, his silver and black fur glistening, Pierre will make his bow. Then New Yorkers will get the opportunity to see him happily ensconced in his new home, to wish him well, and to cheer. Zoo officials now estimate that this will occur toward the end of May or in early June.
I am a lover of happy endings, and am particularly delighted with the outcome of the story of Pierre. Nonetheless, as I now walk about the pathways of Central Park and admire the daffodils and even spot some violets, I find myself wondering about what other wild creature will next make its appearance there.
For some reason, I keep thinking of bobcats.