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Cook County’s captive coyote to get new and improved cage

A coyote kept in a cage at a Cook County forest preserve will get a larger and better equipped enclosure in response to protests over the animal’s living conditions, officials said Tuesday.

The forest preserve district released an internal audit citing outside experts who said the coyote is “healthy and happy,” but that improvements should be made to the district’s captive animal program.

Officials said they will build a new enclosure this year at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook that will cover up to 2,500 square feet—seven to nine times larger than the coyote’s current cage. The new space is to include trees and other natural features, places to dig, more space to be away from people and complexity to provide more stimulation.

Activists, who call the animal Rocky, were unhappy with the district’s rejection of their offer to pay for the coyote’s transfer to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, where animals live in packs in large fenced-in fields.

The Chicago Alliance for Animals issued a statement that members were “incredibly saddened” by the district’s decision, which was made by staff and never put to a board vote.

Jodie Wiederkehr, executive director of the alliance, said “we will not stop advocating for Rocky, 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 alive.”

For its audit, the forest preserve consulted two veterinarians, Alisa Kubala, of the Veterinary Emergency Group in Chicago, who has worked with gorillas and wild carnivores, and Edgar Garrett, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who specializes in livestock.

Based on in-person visits, both found that the coyote was well-cared for and that his frequent pacing in circles was not a sign of stress, as activists and outside vets had argued. The animal’s care met all standards set by the US Department of Agriculture, the audit found.

But Kubala called for allowing more natural behaviors like hunting and exploring. She recommended keeping the animal with a companion coyote in a larger enclosure, citing a 5,000 square foot guideline from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Garrett did not find that necessary, noting that this coyote was “imprinted” by being raised by humans.

While coyotes typically live in pairs or packs, about one-third live alone, according to radio collar tracking by the local Urban Coyote Research Project.

The district’s veterinarian for the coyote, Jamie Abete, felt that transferring it to live with other animals could endanger it, since it’s been imprinted and has been living alone for more than three years.

The audit included an action plan to follow best industry practices in animals under the district’s care. It recommended improving enrichment activities for the animals, and providing educational programs to make clear the differences between wild and domesticated animals and the importance of staying away from wild coyotes.

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The forest preserve district will temporarily halt the acquisition of new animals until it evaluates its processes and makes any necessary modifications, something it expects to have completed early next year.

District officials say the “ambassador animal” program is important, along with presentations by staff, to educate tens of thousands of visitors annually about animals they otherwise may never see.

Next year, the district will evaluate the effectiveness of its animal ambassador educational programs to see which best resonate with the public.

The executive director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Pat Craig, previously wrote that from his experience with many other animals that have been kept in cages like Rocky, the coyote would be far happier with freedom to roam and live with others of its kind.

Nicole Milan, a Northbrook resident who helped raise concerns about the coyote, said she and other supporters were “heartbroken” that Rocky would remain at the preserve.

Activists would continue to advocate for Rocky’s release, she added, saying, “We’re not giving up.”

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