The fog was thick when Cyndy O’Hara let Gus out early that January morning.
The 11-year-old West Highland White terrier had been restless, O’Hara said. And when he wasn’t at the back door after a few minutes, she went out looking for him in the pre-dawn dark.
She found him hours later on the nearby golf course, his body limp and cold to the touch, but alive.
“The coyotes got him,” a groundskeeper told her.
O’Hara was one of two residents who recently reported possible wild-animal attacks on their pets to Orange County Animal Services.
The reports prompted the county to urge residents to report all missing or injured pets. In a release, the county noted the possibility of coyotes being involved in the attacks. No one saw the incidents but coyotes were spotted where they occurred.
Managers at the Chapel Hill Country Club, where O’Hara found Gus, said the groundskeeper only guessed coyotes had attacked the little dog and that no one had seen the predators on the course.
“It could have been; it’s possible,” assistant manager Jeff Earley said. But “people see a fox or a big dog out there, and they think it’s a coyote.”
A state wildlife expert, however, said based on a description of Gus’ injuries and other factors, it’s “highly suspected” that a coyote or coyotes attacked him.
“It does sound typical of the types of wounds we see when a coyote attacks,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, the black bear and fur-bearing biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. ‘Of course we’ll never know for sure.”
Three factors suggest a coyote or coyotes attacked O’Hara’s dog:
• Gus was bitten in the throat, back and rear legs, consistent with how coyotes attack and begin eating their prey, she said. Domestic dogs tend to “sloppier,” being less efficient killers and making lots of bites all over the body.
• Gus was found a distance from his home, suggesting he was dragged, consistent with a coyote removing prey from near people. Dogs don’t do that, she said. “They usually just kill it and leave it.”
• This is coyote breeding season. The animals become highly territorial before mating and rearing their pups.
“They view dogs as trespassers on their territories,” Olfenbuttel said. “Unfortunately some dogs do get attacked and killed.”
Coyotes are in all 100 North Carolina counties. They can be killed year round – hunters shot an estimated 27,152 in 2012-13 and trappers another 3,852, Olfenbuttel said – but they adapt quickly to changes in their environment, including threats.
Orange County Animal Services Director Bob Marotto initially said the two recent attacks were in northwest Chapel Hill. But he corrected himself last week. In addition to O’Hara’s report off Pinehurst Drive in southeastern Chapel Hill, a fatal attack on a dog was reported near Arboretum and Poinsett drives, in eastern Chapel Hill.
Marotto and an educator with the Humane Society of the United States, who gave a standing-room-only talk on coyotes last year at the Orange County animal shelter, encourage co-existence.
Most coyotes avoid people. If you see one, wave your arms and shout at it. Protect dogs and cats by keeping your animals on leashes or indoors, securing garbage cans and not leaving pet food outdoors.
“It’s very understandable,” Olfenbuttel said. “People want to open the back door and let their dogs outside.”
But to be safe, pet owners should accompany dogs outside or build a 6-foot fence; a coyote can scale anything shorter, she said.
And if you’re worried about coyotes, rethink bird feeders. They attract squirrels and other small animals that coyotes eat, she said.
Side of the fairway
O’Hara saw her dog on the side of the fairway just as dawn was breaking and ran to him.
“I reached down to pick Gus up,” she said. “He didn’t move or make a sound and he was freezing cold, but his eyelid ﬂuttered.”
She carried him to the car and drove to her vet, where a veterinarian stabilized him, and then to the vet school, where he spent three hours in surgery.
“His whole body was filled with tubes,” she said. “He was so damaged.”
A few days later, O’Hara said, she “let him go.”
O’Hara did not know there were coyotes in Chapel Hill, but after Gus was attacked she heard from neighbors who had seen coyotes, even several coyotes together.
“I’d seen deer, I’d seen a red fox,” she said. “I haven’t seen a red fox in more than two years. I imagine the coyotes have gotten them too.”
Gus loved to go for rides and kayaking, O’Hara said.
“I’m distraught over losing my boy. ... He was my constant companion.”
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “And it’s going to.”