Sunday, May 29, 2022 May 29, 2022
90° F Dallas, TX
Local News

Lake Highlands Residents, Authorities Tell Different Stories About Coyote That Attacked Toddler

A coyote treated a toddler as prey on Tuesday. Dallas Animal Services and the child's neighbors agree on that, and not much else.
By  |
Image
This coyote came within feet of Clayton Rainey as he walked to his car one morning. Courtesy of Clayton Rainey

A coyote attacked a toddler Tuesday morning; that’s not in dispute.

We also know that, as of Wednesday afternoon, the animal remains on the loose, despite Dallas police officers shooting at it Tuesday morning in White Rock Valley, in Lake Highlands. The Dallas district’s councilman, Adam McGough, said Tuesday evening that the animal had been located in a wooded area by officers using an infrared drone. As of about 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dallas Animal Services staffers were setting traps to capture the coyote that attacked and maimed a 2-year-old while he played on his family’s porch. The child was hospitalized in critical condition after the attack; he’s now stable.

What we don’t know at this point is why the narrative provided by Dallas Animal Services differs so wildly from the accounts from the child’s neighbors, who say they tried to tell the city for weeks that there was a coyote roaming the neighborhood and exhibiting concerning behavior.

Tuesday afternoon, DAS posted an update on its Facebook page. Along with the plea to call 911 if anyone spotted the coyote, the department also made a pretty big claim given that it was only hours into its investigation.

“Dallas Animal Services’ investigation into this situation has made it clear that this specific coyote was well known in the neighborhood and residents were routinely hand feeding and petting it,” the post read. “This behavior eroded the coyote’s natural fear of humans and gave it the confidence to carry out this attack. This tragic incident shows why it is critical that residents treat all wildlife as wild animals – when wild animals become too comfortable around humans, there is an increase in problematic and dangerous interactions such as this one that put both residents and the animal itself at risk.”

Neighbors immediately began pushing back.

“This post is absurd. I live in the neighborhood and know of no one feeding this coyote. The local school, neighbors and RISD have contacted the City of Dallas MULTIPLE times—and they did NOTHING,” one person responded. “This is so tragic—and all we care about is this sweet little boy and his family. What happened was horrific, and the city failed its citizens. This response is absolutely ridiculous.”

DAS responded to several of those posts with the same message:

While our team would like to be able to respond to all of the coyote calls we receive, the volume of sightings reported daily makes that impossible. That is why our team strives to determine if the coyote is displaying “typical” or concerning urban coyote behavior and responds in person to reports where the coyote is sick, injured, behaving aggressively, or showing no fear in close proximity to humans. For coyotes showing behavior that is typical of urban coyotes, a staff member reaches out to the resident to provide information on humane hazing techniques that are designed to rebuild the coyote’s fear of humans; this is the most effective way to address these types of coyote situations and is considered best practice. While many residents are surprised to see coyotes, they are native to the area and it is not uncommon for an urban coyote to be seen during the day in a populated area provided it is keeping its distance. However, it is concerning if the coyote is approaching humans or walking onto porches as we have discovered via social media posts was occurring with this coyote.

The department also said that it was still reviewing calls regarding coyotes. “Our team is currently reviewing call records regarding coyote sightings in this area to determine if any atypical behavior was reported, but the calls reviewed so far do not describe concerning behavior,” it said. “We are also developing materials to outline what is ‘typical’ vs. problematic behavior to improve communication between residents and Animal Services Officers and help ensure that all calls are triaged appropriately.

“We have received videos of this coyote exhibiting highly concerning behavior and screenshots of social media conversations describing direct human-coyote interaction since the incident this morning,” DAS added. ”DAS has completed an internal review of all calls received this year related to coyotes in the area surrounding White Rock Valley Park near where this morning’s coyote attack on a two year-old child occurred.”

The department said it located a “cluster” of calls near Walnut Hill Lane, near the White Rock Elementary playground from earlier in the year. Other than that, it says it only identified one call in the area, and that call reported “normal coyote behavior.”

We’ve reached out to the city of Dallas and Dallas Animal Services for clarification on those claims but were told only that a press release and press conference would be coming.

Neighbors were irritated at the assertion that residents were hand-feeding the animal, with many saying that the “neighbors that know better would’ve seen and reported that.”

When a resident asked for proof on Facebook, DAS doubled down on its assertion. “[I]t only takes a few individuals socializing with a wild animal to wear down its fear of humans and we have evidence that this was occurring,” DAS responded.

The department updated its Facebook post around 3:45 Wednesday afternoon, curiously both apologizing for and tripling down on the whole feeding-the-coyote-by-hand thing. The messaging, the post read, was to inform residents that the coyote attack was unusual and localized to the specific pack of coyotes near White Rock Valley. DAS didn’t want to start a “mass coyote panic,” since there are multiple packs throughout the city, and wanted to get word out quickly that people shouldn’t feed them. Socializing these animals is one of the factors that can lead to a coyote attack.

“Our officers and Parks and Recreation’s wildlife biologist received multiple reports from different area residents who were aware of people in the area actively feeding the coyote,” DAS said, adding it was in “no way insinuating” that most of White Rock Valley was hand-feeding coyotes. The department also says that it’s possible some 311 calls did not appear in the automated call review that it has cited since the attack.

“No one has seen anyone petting or feeding the coyote,” White Rock Valley resident Kimberly Blanton-Day told me. “Most of the chatter on our White Rock Valley Facebook page was about who to call about the coyote, how to ‘haze it,’ that it is a wild animal, and it may be coming into the neighborhood because of all the construction going on at Flag Pole Hill. The only time I saw a coyote eating food was when someone posted a Ring camera video of a coyote snatching a mis-delivered DoorDash order.”

I spoke to several neighbors Wednesday. They all said they had called and reported the coyote on several occasions, one dating back to before Easter. Clayton Rainey said he vividly remembers his call to DAS about his encounter. 

“I was coming out of my house a little after 8 a.m., taking my 3-year-old son to daycare,” he said. “I ran back into my house to grab something.” On his way back to the car, he said, an animal darted across the walkway just feet from him and into the boxwoods in his landscaping. “It was a coyote, and it didn’t even break stride when it saw me,” he said. He followed in his car and watched the animal as it appeared to sniff around and hunt at five or six houses.

Rainey, who says he’s lived plenty of places with coyotes, felt something wasn’t right. “I’ve seen coyotes before. They’re usually very skittish,” he said. “This coyote was not acting normally.”

He called Animal Control and said that he alerted them to the animal’s size and unusual behavior. He noted that the neighborhood was packed with kids. “This wasn’t some normal coyote,” he reiterated to the call taker.

He said that he was told that the city wouldn’t send anyone unless it was attacking a pet or a human, or if he had it cornered. That was April 16.

Since that time, Rainey said, neighbors have traded stories about the coyote. Someone reported that it had been seen walking behind kids heading to school and didn’t react when adults screamed at it.

“Someone threw a piece of bulk trash at it before it finally stopped,” he said. Even then, the animal didn’t run away. Adults had to continue hazing it to make the animal move farther away.

Bree Blais told me the same thing. “I have seen the coyote and called 311 to report it,” she said. “I never had anyone answer the phone at 311, and, honestly, I waited a while and [the coyote] left my yard before anyone would answer.”

She said her nanny also saw coyotes at the park, called 911, and no one responded. “It ran down my street on Easter Sunday and paused as a woman and her pug were walking towards White Rock Trail,” she said. “We alerted her to stop and luckily she did, and another neighbor got the coyote away.”

Blais said it then wandered to White Rock Elementary, where parents scared it away and called to report. “They were told it would be at least 30 days before someone could get to it,” she said.

Another neighbor, who asked not to be named, said they tried to report the animal. “I spoke to [Texas Parks and Wildlife] game warden Martin Oviedo on April 20,” the neighbor said. “I left messages for urban biologists Brett Johnson and Sam Kieschnick as well and never heard back.” Kieschnick is an urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, and Johnson is an urban biologist for Dallas Park and Recreation. “I left a very detailed description of the coyote’s concerning behavior, including mangy fur, approaching my nanny and toddlers, and roaming during the day.”

The neighbor said that Ovieda was “extremely kind” and referred her to Kieschnick and Johnson. “He stated that we could ‘try’ calling Animal Control, but that our best bet would be to hire our own pest person to relocate him,” the neighbor said. “He told me people at White Rock Lake are feeding the coyotes dog food because they think they are stray dogs, and it’s modifying the coyotes’ behavior.”

Another resident shared this video of a child running back inside his home, where seconds later a coyote runs into the frame, standing right where the child had been standing before walking to the yard.

Throughout that DAS Facebook post, several residents insist they’ve reported the coyote but were ignored. Others I spoke to also said they felt like the city’s response was a shoulder-shrug at best. Rainey said he called and was told to not feed the coyote, and other neighbors who called said they got the same response.

“It [the coyote sightings] is not an isolated incident,” he said. “We keep calling, and the response is always, ‘Don’t feed it.’ Well, duh. There’s no way someone has been hand-feeding this coyote. Seriously, like, ‘Hey Mr. Coyote that probably has rabies, here’s some goldfish?’ No. That didn’t happen.”

Rainey said whether someone has been feeding the animal or not is almost immaterial to the fact that numerous neighbors had called to report a coyote that was out in broad daylight and had little to no fear of humans. “It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a dangerous animal, and people were ignored,” he said. “They’re trying to deflect blame.”

Rainey said the neighborhood is well aware of their proximity to White Rock Lake and that it is a habitat for a lot of wildlife, including coyotes. There are also a lot of pets in the neighborhood. One man posted on Facebook that a coyote had killed his dog in the family’s backyard. “There are a lot of food sources for this animal,” he said. 

Urban coyotes are not unusual, I’ve found during my day of research. In fact, Chicago has a whole team of urban biologists studying the coyotes there. They’re also educating the public on how to coexist with them. 

“Most extreme, and relatively rare, are cases where coyotes attack people. The majority of cases involve younger children. Most attacks have occurred in the Southwest, especially southern California, where coyotes have lived in suburbs for decades,” the Urban Coyote Research Project said in its report on coyotes. “Very few coyotes that have been studied in Cook County have developed into ‘nuisance’ animals. Those coyotes that became nuisances during the study typically became habituated through feeding by people.”

Now, the researchers don’t mean hand-feeding or even necessarily intentionally feeding coyotes (although intentional feeding is often involved in attacks on humans). It can be as simple as intending to feed other wildlife and inadvertently also feeding coyotes. The researchers said: 

“Once coyotes associate human buildings or yards with food, they may increase daytime activities and thus are seen more easily by people. In those areas in southern California where attacks have been common, researchers have reported a higher frequency of human-related food in the diet of nuisance coyotes. This was indicative of feeding by people, or coyotes seeking food in garbage. In either case, feeding of coyotes should be heavily discouraged. A common pattern for many human attacks has been feeding prior to the incident — in many cases intentional feeding.”

Nearly every coyote-related website I went to suggested the same things: don’t leave pets unattended, bring pet food inside when your pets aren’t eating, consider a roll bar atop your 6-foot (or higher) fence as a coyote deterrent, and don’t feed the coyotes. But the Humane Society (in addition to offering an excellent explainer on urban coyotes) also adds something actionable that the city of Dallas could do: a coyote conflict management plan

Dallas doesn’t actually have a plan for managing coyotes, despite the fact that there are several spots in the city that are perfect coyote habitats. Think White Rock Lake and Bachman Lake, where residents in nearby neighborhoods are consistently reporting sightings.

Broomfield, Colorado, has a plan. Calabasas, California, has a plan. So do Denver; Portland; Riverside, Illinois; Davis, California; and Wheaton, Illinois. Dallas does not.  

The Humane Society says its template “is based on scientific research, a thorough understanding of coyote ecology and biology in urban settings, and the best known management practices and management tools.”

Included in the template is a detailed form for reporting coyote incidents that, in the hands of a 311 call taker or incorporated into the 311 app, could provide a lot more detail for animal services. The questions are meant to help them triage those reports and even code (and then track) sightings and encounters. It also provides a template for a city council resolution to create a management plan.

All of this could mean that the city is better equipped to handle reports of coyotes and better able to educate neighborhoods about their interactions with the animals—something more nuanced than the “don’t feed them” response neighbors say they received when they tried to report the coyote that attacked a boy Tuesday.

McGough’s council liaison, Maddy Madrazo, said she was able to confirm that the city doesn’t have a coyote plan but added that development discussions are underway between DAS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the wildlife biologist in the city’s Park and Recreation Department.

McGough will host a community meeting May 9 that will include Assistant City Manager Carl Simpson and representatives from DAS, Park and Recreation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife. The time and location will be announced soon, Madrazo said.

In the meantime, the child is recovering from his ordeal and is “better,” having spent most of Tuesday in surgery, Rainey said. His family is close to the family of the toddler (identified by the Dallas Morning News as the Thomas family) now recovering from the attack; they have even vacationed together. He said hearing about the attack from the child’s parents was “every parent’s worst nightmare.”

“The 5-year-old and 2-year-old were out on the front porch doing some kind of art project,” he said. “Their mom is a stay-at-home mom and is incredibly attentive. And their mom went inside for maybe five seconds, no more than 10 to 15 feet from the door, to get something.”

It only took that long for the 5-year-old to run into the house screaming.

In the few seconds the mother was inside, the coyote had grabbed the toddler by the shoulder and dragged the child into the yard, Rainey said. When his mother began screaming at the animal, it had the toddler’s head in its jaws. 

“She was screaming, and it still didn’t let go,” he said. “She had to be practically on top of it before it let go, and even then it didn’t move far away. It was absolutely taking its kill.”

The child suffered several lacerations and puncture wounds, including some, Rainey said, close to the aorta. 

“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare—to turn your back for five seconds and have something awful happen, and it can happen to anyone,” Rainey said. “Anyone who says otherwise is an asshole or not a parent.”

Author

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

View Profile
Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

Related Articles

Local News

Leading Off (12/25/20)

Merry Christmas from all of us to all of you. Be safe out there.
Local News

Leading Off (06/21/2021)

Let's see what happens in Mavsland this week.
By