Members of the Yankee Jack Russell Terrier Network could always pick Aimee Barker Burke and her dog Northgate Razzmatazz (Razz) out of a crowd: They sported matching shocks of hot pink in their hair and tail fur. Aimee and her husband, John Burke, of Staten Island, N.Y. were vacationing with their two daughters in Westerly, R.I., when their terrier was killed by a coyote.
John is a member of the National Rifle Association, but because he lives on Staten Island, which is a borough of New York City, he can own a firearm, but he cannot carry on his person. As a law-abiding citizen, he was not armed when he and Aimee set off with the girls and their two Jack Russells to Misquomicut, a small beachfront community within Westerly.
John was rinsing off in the outdoor shower when he heard both of the Burke’s terriers, 5-year-old Razz and 12-year-old Whitey, growl. It took a split second to register what was happening. John saw the coyote and the Jacks meet. He yelled and ran after the coyote, eventually catching up to it and hitting it in the face repeatedly with a towel, but the coyote paid him no heed. John realized Whitey was right behind him, and as he turned to pick up the older terrier, he saw the coyote disappear with Razz into the woods. Naked, covered in scratches, John heard the heart-wrenching squeal of his dog—and then nothing. He followed, but there was no trace. No blood, no fur—nothing.
Immediately, Aimee reached out to fellow Jack fanciers through the club’s Facebook page. Fellow members tried to provide comfort, many praying for Razz’s return. Aimee herself was heartsick thinking that Razz might just be hurt and hiding, but she knew the reality was far more grim. Without any remains, the Burkes could not put closure to what had happened. John continued to search throughout the night for any sign of fierce little Razz, who was doing one of the things she instinctively did: protect her family. What John saw on his travels, only two miles away, was a 50-plus-pound coyote walking the street.
The Westerly Police Department, Misquamicut Fire Department and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) all responded to the Burkes’ call for assistance, but neither Razz nor the coyote could be found. The Burkes put out a call for help through Westerly residents’ social media pages. They ended up hiring an animal tracker, and in the morning Razz’s body was recovered.
Razz was snatched on Tues. Aug. 28. On Wed. Aug. 29 a report was received of an aggressive coyote in the area. On Thurs. Aug. 30, the DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement issued a $100 fine to a neighbor who was feeding wildlife. A tray had been set out, laden with steak bones and other meat scraps. Aimee Burke said the man told her husband that they “were destined to meet.” The man was not baiting to shoot coyotes, but simply to see them in his yard. Any type of baiting is prohibited in Rhode Island. Razz’s uneaten remains had been found nearby the residence, indicating the coyote had killed to protect what in its mind was its territory. Coexisting is not practicable when a predator assumes it has the right to kill all competition.
Although it goes without saying that pet owners need to remain vigilant and not let their animals roam free-range, clearly more needs to be done to ensure visitors to towns with acclimated, or habituated, coyote populations are aware that even well-trained dogs in backyards are not safe from marauding predators. The Westerly Town Council met Monday, Sept. 17, and although further misinformation about the nature of habituated coyotes was expressed, council members agreed to move forward in crafting a town ordinance to prohibit the feeding of predatory wildlife and to educate both residents and visitors—who often come from urban areas and don’t expect wildlife to be so close—on the threat to pets and children.
Prior to European settlement, coyotes occupied a swath from the great planes south to Mexico. They then followed human migration west and in the 1940s arrived on the Eastern Seaboard. They now occupy all of the United States, including parts of Alaska, and most of Canada.
The Rhode Island DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife fact sheet on the Eastern coyote can be misleading in certain places. It characterizes the coyote as shy, ignoring the increasing boldness of the opportunistic feeders as they move into not only suburban, but urban areas. They are thought to be nocturnal or crepuscular, but have been known to stalk at high noon. It is also touted that noise is a deterrent, but not only is noise ineffective, but so can be rushing and outright physical attacks, as this story illustrates. There is no closed season on coyote hunting in Rhode Island. It is legal to shoot them if they are causing harm to humans, pets or livestock, but only on your own property. You must also ensure you abide by local ordinances, for example, ensuring proper distance between you and surrounding homes. And therein is the cause for concern, since many areas of the Northeast are thickly settled.
It is frequently argued by animal rights activists that taking coyotes out of the population only increases their litter sizes the next year and that they are self-regulating according to what their ecosystem can support. However, if the parents or siblings are not there to birth or help raise the next litter, the population can be controlled in territories that overlap with human settlements. Hunting increase predator fear and minimizes interactions with the community. Extremists often point out that coyotes mate for life, applying human characterizes to the coyote, but their anthropomorphizing is misleading. Coyotes can mate for years with the same individual, but not necessarily for life.
Mark Rooney Town Manager – Westerly, RI Arthur Smith Animal Control Officer – Westerly, RI
The members of the YJRTN are extremely concerned with a recent event that occurred in the Town of Westerly, RI, on the evening of Tuesday, August 28th, between an acclimated Coyote and the Burke Family. This family is a member of the YJRTN.
They were visiting from out of state and had their terriers with them. It is significant to note that they had those terriers with them as the outcome from Tuesday evening could have been very different. These terriers, family pets, as well as working terriers were protecting a toddler from the acclimated coyote. While our membership hoped and prayed for a better outcome from this encounter, we were relieved the toddler was not attacked, as the terriers did their “job”. That job was a terrier sacrificing its life in protection of a parent and child.
Our membership does understand and appreciate New England’s Wildlife. As members in good standing with the JRTCA we are natural outdoorsmen and our terriers are all working dogs. Some of our members regularly hunt their terrier during season, within our ethical guidelines. For example, we will not hunt when animals are raising their young, even if the local laws allow.
While visiting your home page for the Town of Westerly and the Visitors Section page it is interesting to note that there was no mention of the Coyote Danger the Town of Westerly obviously has. Make no mistake, it is a very real danger. It was apparent to our membership after notification by this family, Westerly needs to take steps immediately to curb the further acclimation of its local wildlife population. Your website is a good start! Owners of homes who rent to vacationers need to add warnings to the agreements and post in the physical structures. Local police need to continue ticketing when notified of home owners baiting animals. The tracker hired by the Burke family found an active baiting site near the rental property. A fact sheet on the Eastern Coyote, while informative, does a disservice to your residents and visitors by not highlighting the local problem.