By Forest Riggs
For years now, Galveston residents have been dealing with a unique problem. It seems that with all the construction, new developments into previously untouched green spaces, road work and removal of densely wooded thickets, coyotes have made their way into the quaint neighborhoods of the island.
From the historic East End to the once unpopulated West End, the mysterious canids have slowly spread and moved into human living spaces. With so much territorial encroachment happening, the creatures have had no choice but to go where there are some cover and food sources. In their quest for food, the night-stalking animals have posed a threat to pets belonging to island residents. The coyotes are hungry, and they are not dodging falling anvils and chasing roadrunners.
Just about everyone has heard of or knows someone that has lost their cat or small to a pack of coyotes. They do travel and hunt in packs and this has not changed, even though their hunting grounds have changed.
It usually happens when a pet either gets out accidentally or is intentionally left outside overnight. Sometimes it is the pet of visitors occupying one the many B&Bs that now cover the neighborhoods. Tourists come to the island for a fun time, often bringing along their family cat or small dog, not being aware of the potential for disaster. When a beloved pet escapes or is let out “to do its business,” it can become disoriented and anxious, causing it to run away. More and more the “Lost Pet” sites on social media are loaded with tales of missing cats and dogs. Many of the cats belong to locals and according to the posts, have rarely been outside and accidentally gotten out. Some of the posts indicate long periods of time since the animal was last seen. These days, with the roaming coyotes, this is not a good sign.
It is not just in the neighborhoods where the animals disappear, but also along deserted stretches of beach, camping sites and even rented beach homes in some of the more remote areas, especially those in newer developments where grasses and green areas have been removed.
Often you read or see a posting from a visiting family that was forced to leave the island without finding their beloved cat or dog. Many offer huge rewards for the safe return; however, few of the lost pets are found or returned. In almost all probability, the missing animals have fallen victim to the hungry, prowling coyotes. Neighbors have shared with me a video from their surveillance camera showing three coyotes chasing, savagely attacking and killing their nine-year old black and white cat. This attack took place around 3 a.m. and the neighbors were out of town.
These days, usually in the very early morning or late evening, it is not uncommon to see one or more lanky coyotes standing in a neighborhood street, scampering through tall grass or crossing Harborside Drive. The coyotes have become more and more brave and accustomed to humans, cars and bicycles. These canids do not attack humans, nor will they give chase; mostly, they are hungry and looking for food and water.
Friends living on Market Street recently sold their beautiful historic home. During the inspection of the property, a mother coyote with three pups was found living under the back deck, unknown and undetected by the owners. With no dense woods and cover, the animals are forced to seek out other “safe” areas to shelter and reproduce.
Is there anything good that comes from the recent habitat relocation of the island coyotes? In the ecological and scientific world, yes. The loss of family pets and even feral cat communities is saddening, but some research has led to a fascinating discovery on Galveston Island.
For all practical purposes, the Red Wolf, indigenous to Texas Gulf Coast, was declared extinct in 1980. After some valiant captive breeding/release programs, the numbers did not return to a sustainable population. Attempts were made in several states, including Texas and Louisiana, but with no success. It was always felt that somewhere “out there” perhaps a few adult Red Wolves remained. (Much like the Ivory Billed Woodpecker — no one knows for sure!)
In 2008, Galveston resident Ron Wooten, a former Outreach Specialist with the Army Corps. of Engineers and biologist/wildlife photographer witnessed a pack of coyotes chase, catch and kill his pet dog. Having never given much attention to the coyotes, Wooten had often observed the canids and watched them from afar. Being aware of the Red Wolves that once lived on Galveston Island, Wooten began to study the animals. He wondered if the current day coyotes might somehow be related to the extinct Red Wolves.
On a mission, he discovered the Galveston coyotes had some anomalies not present in other coyote populations: They possessed overly long legs, broad heads, sharp pointed snouts and reddish fur with white patches around the muzzle. These attributes were not like those found in other coyotes.
Determined to explore deeper, Wooten began to collect skin, hair and blood samples from coyote carcasses found along the roadside. It was assumed they had been struck by a vehicle. He removed the tissues and kept them catalogued in his freezer.
In time, the determined collector/observer began to contact various agencies and organizations involved in Red Wolf research and the study of disappearing species. He would send letters and offer his specimens for examination. Few responded, and if they did, they seemed not interested or would “get back to you.”
Otherwise, “There are no more Red Wolves,” was their pervasive response.
Finally, in 2016, Dr. Bridgett VonHoldt, an evolutionary biologist and expert on extinct and canid genetics at Princeton University, informed Wooten that she was indeed intrigued by the photos and tissue samples he sent to her lab. DNA testing was performed on the samples and, surprisingly, DNA of the Red Wolf was detected — in large amounts. This changed the game. It was now proved that the Galveston coyotes had at some point crossbred with the Red Wolf. The coyotes were carrying the “ghost genes” of the extinct Red Wolf.
Dr. VonHoldt was amazed to learn of the genetic crossing. Regarding the Red Wolf, she stated: “It does not seem to be lost any longer. We might have a chance to bring it back.”
To this day, the research continues, and the Galveston coyotes are playing a huge part in the hopeful restoration of a viable Red Wolf population. It is believed that a breeding program using coyotes with the highest amounts of Red Wolf ghost genes will eventually bring back the believed to be extinct Red Wolf. Apparently, the DNA of the Red Wolf lives on in the mysterious Galveston coyotes. There is currently on the island, a trapping, tagging and release program underway to monitor the coyote population.
Yes, coyotes are a problem for island residents. After humans took their habitat and offered them little in return, the Galveston coyote is now contributing to science and the recovery of a species — a huge step forward.
Forest Riggs lives in Galveston. His book, ‘Galveston Memories and Related Stories’ is available at Amazon.com, OutSkirtsPress.com and ForestRiggs.com.