On a recent morning with wind chills below zero at a Cook County, Ill., forest preserve, a coyote paced back and forth inside a cage, peering out through the wires. With sharp teeth and quick movements, the animal looked ready to hunt. But animal experts agree that it probably can’t survive in the wild.
Before it opened its eyes as a pup, forest preserve officials said, the coyote was found in Tennessee by people who took it for an abandoned dog and brought it to a domestic animal shelter.
When the operators realized it was a coyote, it was placed with an animal rehabilitator for several weeks, who concluded that it had been imprinted by humans. That means it had no fear of people and was dependent on them for survival.
Eventually, the coyote was placed with the Forest Preserve District, spokesman Carl Vogel said. Since August 2018, it’s been kept in a metal enclosure at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, where Vogel said it gets expert care.
Some people are trying to change that. About 1,800 people signed a Change.org petition to move the coyote to a more natural habitat at an out-of-state animal sanctuary.
The effort was led by animal lover Nicole Milan, who was disturbed to come across the caged coyote while on a hike late last year.
Other animals kept in captivity at the nature center, like a Swainson’s hawk or a red-tailed hawk, have been physically injured, having lost an eye or a wing. The coyote, however, is physically healthy.
“I was flabbergasted,” Milan said. “It’s cruel and barbaric to keep a wild animal in solitude in such an unnatural, tiny cage.”
Milan, who runs a consulting company, calls the coyote Rocky. She asked forest preserve officials about its conditions and was told the outdoor cage, roughly 10 by 22 feet, meets U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, and that the coyote gets regular veterinary care. She offered to pay for a larger enclosure but was turned down.
Going further, Milan contacted the Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Keenesburg, Colo., 30 miles northeast of Denver, which operates almost 800 acres of refuge land for captive wild animals. It is state and federally licensed and is home to more than 550 large carnivores separated by species, including lions, tigers, bears and coyotes.
Most of the sanctuary’s animals come from illegal roadside zoos or other private owners. The facility saved many of the big cats featured on the viral cable television documentary “Tiger King,” which were transferred there on authority of the U.S. Department of Justice, founder and executive director Pat Craig said.
The sanctuary offered to take care of Rocky in large, outdoor, fenced-off enclosures where, after being evaluated and acclimated, he might live with other coyotes for socialization.
Milan sent the forest preserve a letter in mid-December proposing to move Rocky. She was told officials would get back to her by Jan. 22.
A friend, animal law attorney Cherie Travis, supported Milan’s efforts, calling the coyote’s captivity “cringeworthy.”
While the forest preserve nature center is 60 years old, advocates note that zoos and animal sanctuaries have evolved in recent decades to provide larger, more natural settings for the animals’ welfare, and to build public appreciation for natural habitat.
Milan has been reaching out to forest preserve board members for help and plans to attend the board’s virtual meeting on Tuesday.