A wild animal, believed by some to be a coyote, is causing increasing concern among Cherrydale residents.
The concern stems from Cherrydale resident Jay Stapf’s sighting of what he says were three decapitated fox heads on his back lawn this May. When Stapf went to retrieve his puppy, Stella, from the backyard, he was greeted by the sight of the severed heads.
“It was creepy, almost like when you bury someone in sand at the beach,” Stapf wrote in a report of the incident.
For the second time that month, Stapf called the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, who showed up to assist.
AWLA determined that a human didn’t sever the fox heads. They also suggested that Stapf install a motion sensor camera in his backyard in order to get further clues about the incident. However, Stapf says AWLA never followed up to confirm that a coyote was involved.
“We don’t know for certain [what they were] because they never came out and trapped them,” said Stapf.
AWLA Chief of Animal Control Alice Burton said that most of the time when people report coyote sightings to her, they turn out to be foxes, but this was a case that had her puzzled.
“It’s funny because I’ve reached out to professional naturalists on this and no one has a clue,” said Burton.
“Usually when we find decapitated animals, it’s kind of unusual. Heads are actually the first thing that animals eat,” said Alonso Abugattas, The Department of Parks and Recreations’s natural resources manager and one of the people Burton consulted with.
Sheila Dougherty, who walks Stella, had another neighbor who also reported a coyote sighting, so she decided to check with other residents on the Cherrydale email listserv.
“I think it’s good for everyone to know that there are coyotes in Arlington so that they can make informed decisions about whether to leave their dogs and cats out at night,” Dougherty said.
Eleven other members in the community wrote in with evidence of coyote sightings, with three others seeing a coyote as recently as this past spring.
Some of the sightings were indirect like Stapf’s. One neighbor reported seeing half a bunny in her backyard and the other indirectly reported a pet cat found dead through violent means.
To date, there has only been one recorded coyote sighting in Arlington. The video, recorded at the Potomac Overlook in March of 2012, can be found here.
“They’re extremely elusive,” said Potomac Overlook park manager Roy Geiger explaining why there haven’t been more sightings. “To have a sighting means you as an individual need to be at the right place at the right time to see the individual and identify it.”
Many of the residents in Cherrydale were fairly certain that they have seen coyotes.
“I’ve seen a coyote several times in front of our house,” wrote in Maywood resident Gabriela Gergely. “Having lived in Colorado where coyotes are abundant, both my husband and I are certain that it was a coyote.”
Robert Beckman said that he was sure he saw a coyote due to his experience camping and raising his sons as Eagle Scouts.
Geiger and others suggest that the larger question is whether the coyote poses a great danger.
“A feral cat, or a dog that’s off-leash, maybe so, but to a human definitely not,” said Geiger. “Coyotes are opportunistic. They’re going to look for food, obviously if there seems to be evidence of a small family group or pack, that seems to be more of a concern, but if there is a roving individual, that’s not that big of a deal.”
“There are very few cases where a coyote has bitten someone,” Gulf Branch Nature Center naturalist Jennifer Soles said. “Those are almost always cases where the coyotes were fed first.”
For that reason, Soles said it is best to avoid being friendly with coyotes. One should instead yell at it to go away.
Dougherty reported that Stella had earlier been grabbing the decapitated heads with her mouth and flinging them across the yard. Stapf had the dog tested for rabies, and while the results were negative, Stella got sick from a parasite.
Stapf also called animal control when he first spotted the foxes’ mother climbing under his neighbor’s shed and birthing them a couple weeks prior to the decapitation, and his request was denied. Burton stated that it was against state law to relocate animals from their found habitat.
“They were very helpful and quick to react and help us when we called and reported the incident,” Stapf said, “but it was just unfortunate that they did not remove the foxes when I had asked because had they done so, many of those fox cubs would have been alive today and my dog wouldn’t have gotten sick.”
Gergely concurred, “At the time, I called animal control and they were pretty nonplussed. They said they have received many calls reporting coyotes and thanks for sharing.”
No coyote reports have surfaced in recent weeks but Beckman surmises that the summer heat will bring more of them into contact with local residents.