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Wily coyote caught in Central Park

Lengthy pursuit through heart of New York City causes a stir


New York
Manhattan (New York)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- During a wild chase that lasted some 20 hours, New York City's finest met their match in an elusive coyote nicknamed Hal.

Police sharpshooters finally took down the animal Wednesday with a tranquilizer -- but not before his pursuit triggered the evacuation of an ice-skating rink and caught the attention of TV news helicopters.

The animal was apprehended near Belvedere Castle, home of the annual Shakespeare in the Park theater series in the heart of the 843-acre park, at about 9:45 a.m., police said.

That was after the coyote gave pursuers the slip in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary near Wollman Rink, in the park's south end. It jumped into a pond, swam under a bridge, squeezed through a fence and raced away. (Watch the coyote outmaneuver its pursuers -- 2:13

New York Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe told reporters at the scene, "We have the coyote cornered, but it remains elusive."

The coyote sparked pandemonium when it darted out of the wooded area and skirted Wollman Rink, where people were ice skating.

Police officers, rangers and sharpshooters -- as well as news camera operators and news helicopters flying overhead -- chased the coyote at a frantic pace before losing track of it.

The ice rink was briefly evacuated to get skaters out of a possible line of fire.

By Tuesday night, police and rangers had chased the animal into the preserve.

"Coyotes are native to New York state, and their habitat is rapidly expanding," Benepe told reporters Wednesday morning.

"This one probably came down through the wooded section of Riverdale in the Bronx, then crossed into Manhattan, where it probably went the length of Riverside Park," which spans Manhattan's west side, before entering Central Park.

He speculated the animal possibly swam across a river to reach the island of Manhattan. It was first seen at 1:30 a.m. Sunday and wrongly identified as a wolf, according to the parks department.

Police "did such a skillful job of tracking the animal over 20 hours and tranquilizing it in the most humane way," Benepe said in a statement.

Officials said the healthy animal was about a year old and was the second coyote spotted in Central Park in seven years.

Police sources said the coyote is being transferred to a wildlife facility in upstate New York, where it will be "rehabilitated."

No strangers to big cities

"Don't be surprised if coyotes pop up in Central Park in increasing frequency in future years," said Stan Gehrt, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Gehrt -- who has been studying coyotes around Chicago, Illinois, for six years -- attributed the animals' growing numbers in urban areas to a ban on hunting in cities and a reduction in trapping that occurred after the value of pelts dropped in the late 1980s.

As more and more adventurous pups have wandered into large metropolitan areas, their own offspring have become accustomed to living around people, he said.

"They're becoming more and more adept at using the urban landscape, figuring out how to cross roads, finding food and stuff like that," he said.

In each year since 1999, 350 to 400 coyotes have been removed from Chicago as "nuisance animals," up from less than 20 per year during the 1980s, he said.

Coyotes began appearing in the Northeast in the early 1900s, when the number of timberwolves -- their main competitor -- dwindled as forests were thinned.

Coyotes pose little threat to people, though their prey can include cats and small- to medium-size dogs, he said.

During his work in Chicago, Gehrt said, "we have not had a single person attacked by a coyote, and that's true for most of the Midwest and Eastern cities."

Not true for Los Angeles, where in 1981 a 3-year-old girl was fatally attacked by a coyote in a suburb, he said.

Still, he contrasted that record to the 3,000 to 5,000 dog bites on people reported each year in Cook County, Illinois. They have included seven or eight fatalities in recent years, he said.

Coyotes are "extremely smart," he said. And as New York officials found out Wednesday, that can make them difficult to catch.

Foothold traps are a common technique used by trappers. But it's not unusual for coyotes to dig them up and leave their would-be captors a message.

"Often, they expose it, then poop on it just to let you know they found it and they're not going to get caught," Gehrt said.

Though they can live up to 13 years, a high infant mortality rate lowers the animal's average life span to two to three years, he said.

CNN's Hussein Saddique contributed to this report.

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