Wild in the city
Canine enthusiast Frank Vincenti educates New Yorkers on how to live with coyotes
Last year, New York’s Westchester County came down with a bad case of coyote.
The city of Rye had the first outbreak, with coyotes killing a poodle in April, mauling a six-year-old child in June and biting a two-year-old baby four days later. Both children survived, but the problems spread to nearby Rye Brook in September. There, a rabid coyote assaulted a man and his toddler an hour after lunging at a teenager.
In response, Westchester hired a professional wildlife trapper who killed the Rye Brook animal and a few other coyotes in the area.
Now, a year later, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has refused to renew coyote-trapping permits for Rye and Rye Brook, citing the small number of coyote sightings during the winter. This decision has disturbed some locals, including Rye’s mayor, who is calling for residents to report all coyote sightings to authorities. He hopes that with enough reports, the conservation department will change its mind.
But Frank Vincenti IV is one New Yorker who’s actually happy about the department’s decision. “We need to accept that the urban environment is great for wildlife,” he says.
Vincenti, a barber by day, is the director of the Wild Dog Foundation, which he founded in 1996 and runs out of his home in Mineola, Long Island. The non-profit organization — essentially a one-man show — promotes the conservation of all wild canines through public education. Throughout New York City and its suburbs, Vincenti shows up at outdoor nature festivals, gives presentations on wild canines and raises money for canine research and conservation projects.
While audiences usually appreciate his presentations on wild dogs, Vincenti’s latest crusade to champion coyotes, an animal he’s yet to see in the wild, has been a challenge. “I get rejected [by venues] more than I get accepted,” says Vincenti, adding that some places cite a lack of public interest.
However, interest in coyotes is sure to increase as the animals encroach further upon human turf. Coyotes arrived in northern New York from the West in the 1930s, and have since spread to every region except Long Island. They’re even in New York City. Early last year, coyotes took a stroll through Columbia University and Central Park in Manhattan.
“It doesn’t take them long to expand fairly rapidly,” says Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist at Cornell University. Coyotes are typically sedentary creatures, Curtis explains, but once an area becomes crowded with coyotes, pack members branch out to other locations and start new family groups. As the animals continue to move to regions densely populated by humans, encounters such as those in Westchester will become more common. And when those conflicts become more common, so will the fear towards coyotes.
“A lot of people here are worried,” says Kira Wales, a Rye resident who hasn’t actually seen a coyote herself. “Many people are talking about it — we should definitely be applying the coyote traps. Definitely.” But Vincenti doesn’t think the solution is to kill the four-legged intruders. Rather, he says, people need to be educated on how to live harmoniously with them.
Of course, that’s an unsurprising position to take when you’ve had a lifelong obsession with wild dogs. “When you’re an animal lover, it starts really young,” says Vincenti, who was born in 1970. He recalls being enthralled with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom television show as a child, and ever since then, he’s been hooked.
Though he always dreamed of working with animals, Vincenti was unable to attend college. Instead, he got roped into the family barber business, which began in 1926 with the first Frank Vincenti. The Barber Shop on Willis Avenue in Mineola has since been passed down to successive Franks in the Vincenti family. “Like a Chinese dynasty!” says Vincenti, fourth in the line. You’d think that a community hub like a barbershop is the perfect platform to preach about coyotes, but that’s not exactly the case. “I think I lost some of my customers doing that,” laments Vincenti.
In the 1990s, Vincenti became an active member of several wolf conservation groups, organizing events and outdoor festivals. He later created the Wild Dog Foundation when his interest in coyotes and other canines conflicted with the groups’ “sole desire to preserve the wolf.” Although it’s difficult to peg why people seem more focused on wolves than other canines, Vincenti has a theory: Wolves are simply cuter. “Some people aren’t open to the plight of the non-aesthetic,” he says.
Adding to this, coyotes get a bum rap for their perceived behavior — something Vincenti constantly struggles to change. At a Pet Expo in Brentwood, Long Island in March, Vincenti quarreled with a woman claiming that coyotes dragged her dog into the forest. Vincenti suspects that the dog harassed a coyote and followed it into the woods, where it met the coyote pack. The woman “wouldn’t give me the chance to really talk to her,” says Vincenti. “I used my New York wisecracking to get the last word: I told her to stop reading Jack London books.” London’s iconic 1903 adventure novel, The Call of The Wild, has for a century helped implant the idea that wild dogs are the ultimate representation of untamed — and untamable — nature.
In all fairness, Cornell’s Curtis doesn’t think the woman’s story is so far fetched. “Coyotes aren’t scared of dogs,” he explains. “They’re territorial, and if they feel threatened, they’ll attack.”
From 2005 to 2010, Curtis conducted the New York Suburban Coyote Study to see how common such altercations are, and to learn about coyotes’ movements and diets. He found that less than 4 percent of nearly 1200 Westchester residents surveyed had experienced a problem with coyotes near their homes. But in an in-depth questionnaire of approximately 600 residents, about 85 percent expressed concern over coyotes in the area. So what’s the reason behind this discrepancy? In part, anxiety about coyotes spreads by word of mouth. Also, “people just don’t know a lot about coyotes,” says Curtis. “And what they don’t know about, they fear.”
To teach New York residents about the canines, Curtis’ team will be creating a booklet detailing the results of the study. The booklet will explain that coyote diet varies by location. For example, deer is the primary food source for Westchester coyotes (they also eat rodents, berries and fruits), but coyotes in Albany chow down on deer, rodents and rabbits in roughly equal proportions. Also, adds Curtis, “it’s very rare, but coyotes could possibly see a child as prey.”
Cautious parents may want to pay special attention to their children in areas that coyotes frequent. Those areas, as the booklet will describe, are mainly green, natural lawns, such as parks and cemeteries; coyotes usually come into residential neighborhoods only when hopping from one grassy bed to another.
Additionally, the booklet will provide tips on dealing with coyotes. The recommendations will echo Vincenti’s: don’t feed coyotes, they naturally avoid humans so don’t give them a reason to do otherwise; if you see coyotes, shout, stomp and throw small objects towards them to assert your dominance and scare them away; leash your dogs while on walks and keep your pets in the house at night. “People need to learn how to appropriately interact with coyotes,” says Curtis, adding that he thinks Vincenti’s presentations are important because they can help fill this hole in the public’s knowledge.
Bobby Horvath agrees: “There should be more outreach like Frank’s,” he says. Horvath, who runs Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation, organized a free lecture on coyotes in Central Park last year with Vincenti. Around 30 people attended. Vincenti has a knack for helping people understand coyotes, Horvath says. “He doesn’t talk above people, he talks to them.”
Vincenti, for his part, hasn’t lost his optimism about the long-term relationship between humans and wild canines. “I think co-habitation is possible with the right education,” he says. “Coyotes have chosen the big city. Can we be worthy neighbors?”