“Rocky” the coyote — one of several animal ambassadors under the care of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — is in the process of acclimating to much larger digs at River Trail Nature Center, officials said Tuesday.
The coyote’s new, nearly 3,000-square-foot enclosure in Northbrook has been under construction since 2022 and is now move-in ready, Jacqui Ulrich, director of conservation and experiential programming, told Cook County forest preserve commissioners during the June meeting of the board.
Rocky’s being introduced gradually, surveying the grounds from his longtime, much smaller enclosure, which has been incorporated as a “room” within the bigger area.
The new space has been outfitted with logs, rocks and other structures for Rocky to climb, as well as shrubs and trees, and places for the coyote to hide. “It will continue to evolve,” Ulrich said, based on Rocky’s response.
The changes to the coyote’s habitat come after animal rights activists observed him “stress pacing” in early 2022 and began petitioning to have the animal, who they named Rocky, transferred to an animal sanctuary in Colorado.
In response to those complaints, the forest preserve district brought in independent veterinarians to assess Rocky’s health, and the district also conducted a review of its animal ambassador program.
“We have always met USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) standards,” Arnold Randall, the district’s general superintendent, told commissioners Tuesday. “But we want to lead the way.”
Based on that review, in which Rocky was deemed healthy, the decision was made to keep the coyote at River Trail, while also following recommendations to improve his environment, including greatly expanding his enclosure, adding more naturalistic elements and giving him space to avoid humans.
But a group of animal rights activists haven’t been placated by the forest preserves’ upgrades to Rocky’s surroundings.
Members of the Chicago Alliance for Animals have acknowledged that Rocky can’t be returned to the wild — he was originally mistaken for a dog and imprinted on humans, which is how he wound up with the forest preserves back in 2018. Instead, the group continues to push for him to be sent to an animal sanctuary, where, they contend, he wouldn’t be on view to the public and could engage in more typical coyote behavior, including finding companionship among other coyotes.
The activists renewed those pleas Tuesday, saying the forest preserve district cherry-picked recommendations from the animal ambassador program review and ignored comments that supported Rocky’s transfer.
Forest preserve staff addressed some of those issues during the board meeting, particularly assertions that Rocky needs to be around other coyotes. Citing data gathered by the Urban Coyote Research Project, staff said 30% of coyotes were found to be solitary creatures.
Ulrich also defended the purpose of the animal ambassador program, which provides homes to imprinted and injured animals at five of the district’s six nature centers.
The animals help illustrate to visitors, in a highly tangible way, why the district’s stewardship and restoration of natural areas is important. And it also reinforces that humans and wildlife can — and do — co-exist even in urbanized settings like the Chicago region, Ulrich said.
Randall conceded the controversy around Rocky pushed the district to improve its policies and practices, with two new staff members brought on board to help implement recommendations for all of the district’s animal ambassadors.
“We’ve got some expertise we didn’t have before,” he said. “This last year of work has helped us get to a better place.”