Cook County Forest Preserves just released 11 endangered Blanding’s turtles into the wild, but it was a captive animal in the district’s care that dominated the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of forest preserve commissioners.
Specifically, officials addressed concerns raised in early 2022 about the welfare of a coyote living at River Trail Nature Center.
The coyote was observed pacing and exhibiting signs of stress, animal rights advocates said, and they called for the animal to be transferred to a wildlife sanctuary in Colorado.
On Tuesday, the forest preserves’ Department of Conservation and Experiential Programming shared the results of a months-long review of its ambassador animal program, of which the coyote is a part. The coyote, the report concluded, will remain at River Trail, but in greatly expanded digs, along with other recommended modifications to its care.
“Our findings are based on science,” Jacqui Ulrich, director of the department, told commissioners as she presented a summary of the report.
Her team conducted more than a dozen interviews with specialists in animal care, including representatives from Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos, as well as peer organizations. A pair of veterinarians also conducted independent assessments of the coyote’s health and living arrangements as part of the review.
“Neither expert found the animal pacing in an unnatural pattern,” Ulrich said.
The coyote is in good condition, the veterinarians reported, and its shelter and nutrition comply with standards set by entities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But the animal could benefit from more spacious housing and from increased “enrichment” — challenges and stimulation — both of which the preserves has committed to providing.
“We’re meeting standards,” Ulrich said. “But our bar is to be ahead of the curve.”
Per the report, the forest preserves will build a 2,000- to 2,500-square-foot enclosure for the coyote at River Trail Nature Center. The new structure will include more naturalistic elements and more and larger spaces for the coyote to be away from people. The enclosure will be built in 2022, officials said.
In addition, the preserves will create consistent messaging to the public about the coyote and its care, as well as about coyotes living in the wild in Cook County.
The ambassador program has value in educating people about the region’s wildlife and it also provides a home for animals that, for a variety of reasons, can’t survive in the wild. In the case of the coyote, which has lived at River Trail since 2018, the animal was rescued in Tennessee as a newborn and mistaken for a dog puppy. After spending weeks in an animal shelter for dogs and cats, the coyote was judged to be “imprinted” on humans.
Policies being adopted for the coyote will also extend to other ambassadors, drawing on rapidly evolving best practices in the field of animal ambassadors, Ulrich said.
This includes shifting to an “animals first” paradigm, which cedes more control to the animals — e.g., the animals get to choose whether they want to engage with the public on any given day.
The grassroots organization Chicago Alliance for Animals expressed frustration with the forest preserves’ decision to keep the coyote in its care.
“We will not stop advocating for Rocky — (their name for the coyote) — until they do the humane thing and allow this very isolated, yet social animal to finally be on his way to a much more appropriate habitat and a much happier life,” said Jodie Wiederkehr, executive director of the alliance.
Note: This story was originally published July 26. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” conversation.