Kathy Capone spotted the critter near her backyard on the night of Nov. 17, between 10 and 10:30. Her neighbor, who also saw it, thought it was a fox. “But I know what a fox looks like,” Capone said. “This was grayer and taller. It was clearly a wild animal.”

Capone, who is a member of the newly appointed Animal Shelter Task Force, knows dogs and owns three, one of which is pretty old, so she called the police from her car. The officer, she reports, seemed disinterested, so she chased the animal down the alley, then went in and checked the Internet. Sure enough, it was a coyote.

Not what you’d expect to see in unforested Oak Park, especially on the 900 block of North East Avenue, but not unprecedented either. Coyotes do wander, say both John Hayley, head of Oak Park’s animal control department, and Jim Chelsvig, director of Trailside Museum in the Cook County Forest Preserves.

Chelsvig said tagged coyotes have been tracked going all the way from Busse Woods to Evanston. Though they’re shy, nocturnal animals, said Hayley, there’s usually enough food around your average suburb (possums, rabbits, cats and small dogs) to sustain a coyote if he strays from the more natural confines of the forest preserves.

Chelsvig saw one crossing the Madison Street bridge over the Des Plaines River some time back and another crossing at 22nd Street, but he doesn’t see them often and hasn’t gotten many calls about them either. Occasionally, people will report they’ve seen “a wolf,” but Chelsvig says there’s a big difference. Coyotes average 35 pounds, while a wolf weighs in around 170. They have tanned skins at Trailside for anyone who wants to see what the fur looks like.

Hayley has had only two close encounters of the coyote kind?#34;one was struck by a motorist on the Eisenhower, the other lurking in a Forest Park backyard. Both animals were in bad enough shape that they were euthanized.

Coyotes are very adaptable, said Hayley, and they are omnivorous, so concerned pet owners might not want to leave their dogs and cats outside unsupervised. “It’s the nature of the beast,” Hayley said. “They’re not on a diet. They’re out there to survive.”

They also tend to run in packs, said Chelsvig, so if you see a lone coyote, it could be a yearling who’s trying to carve out some turf for himself. But he doesn’t think we’ll ever be overrun by the critters. “They’re self-limiting and very territorial. They’ve pretty much reached their maximum population around here.”

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website (www.dnr.state.il), coyotes are 39-54 inches long and 2 feet high at the shoulder. The fur is light gray to dull yellow and the tips of the outer hairs are black. They can run up to 45 miles an hour and are very adept at jumping, so they’re tough to catch. Banging a pot seems to be the recommended method of chasing them off. Their home range ranges from 3 to 30 miles.

But they aren’t even close to being John Hayley’s biggest headache. That would be stray dogs, which come in from the West Side of Chicago (the Anti-Cruelty Society is no longer taking strays) and from the western suburbs now that Forest Park is out of the animal control business. These dogs have a wide array of social and physical problems, Hayley said. “If we had Lassie every time, everything would be fine.” Since Oak Park is one of the few communities in the area offering animal control, Hayley and his crew stay pretty busy.

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