‘Highly unlikely’ that coywolf is prowling around Burr Ridge, wildlife biologist says

Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a coyote-wolf hybrid?

The answer is “highly unlikely,” wildlife experts say after Burr Ridge police warned residents of possible “coywolf” sightings last week in the southwest suburb. There’s no evidence that the hybrid scientists call the eastern coyote live in Illinois, according to the Urban Coyote Research Program’s findings. Rather, western coyotes are dominant in the state.

“Far more likely would be if someone were to have a wolfdog hybrid that got loose, because for some reason people feel compelled to have a wolfdog hybrid, which is a very, very dangerous animal,” said Chris Anchor, a senior wildlife biologist at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. “You can imagine something with the power and skittishness of a wild wolf, and yet it would have some of the domesticated behaviors of a dog.”

On Friday, the Police Department said it was investigating resident reports of potential coywolf sightings in neighborhoods near 83rd Street and County Line Road. The warning said the animal is about 55 pounds heavier than a typical coyote, with elongated legs, a more pronounced jaw, smaller ears and a bushier tail. It also said that the animal can resemble a German shepherd.

“To ensure your safety and that of your pets, we strongly advise against attempting to approach this animal,” the warning said.

Deputy Chief Marc Loftus said the initial report came in from a resident who took his dog out at about 2 a.m. and saw what could have been a coywolf. Loftus said the man waved his arm to scare the animal away, but looked at his home surveillance system later and saw two animals come back later in the morning. Loftus said the department sent out the warning “out of caution” to protect other pets out at night.

As of Tuesday, Loftus said a couple other people have reported seeing something that resembles a coywolf. Loftus acknowledged that the department couldn’t know if it’s a coywolf without capturing it and conducting genetic testing, but because the resident said it was larger than a typical coyote, they wanted to warn others just in case.

“It was worth sharing just so people are aware that there’s some animal out there that looks like a dog, looks like a coyote,” Loftus said.

Anchor said it’s “impossible” to tell a coywolf, coydog or wolfdog hybrid apart by sight without genetic testing. Anchor helps lead the Urban Coyote Research Program, a study of coyotes in the Chicago metro area started in 2000.

“In the 40 years that I’ve been with the district, I have never handled a coydog or a coywolf or a dogwolf,” Anchor said. “I’ve seen dog wolves that people had as pets in the area, but I’ve never handled one.”

The name “coywolf” is “completely misleading,” Anchor said. He said the name implies that one parent is a wolf and one parent is a coyote, but in reality eastern coyotes — the name scientists use — only have a small amount of wolf genes.

Anchor said coyotes were essentially wiped out in northern Illinois in 1900 because of agriculture, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s they reestablished themselves in the lower Great Lakes basin, which includes Chicagoland. When coyotes first showed up in the area, Anchor said, there were a limited number of mates, so they could have bred with dogs or wolves if they were available.

While dogs were common, Anchor said there were no wolves in the area.

“There would not have been coywolves,” Anchor said. “There would have been a lack of wolves to breed with.”

In fact, Anchor said there’s so many coyotes in northern Illinois that they rarely breed with dogs, because “there’s no reason for them to breed to another species.” One survey conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey from 2013 through 2017 estimated that there’s an average annual harvest of about 85,000 coyotes, representing just a fraction of the total coyote population.

But he said people can buy wolfdog hybrids, even though they are illegal to possess in Illinois. Anchor said these animals can be unsafe if they are in close contact with people, and that owners often have to get rid of them because they attack children or a neighbor.

According to the International Wolf Center, the behavior of hybrids is difficult to predict because of diversity of genetic composition. If they are kept in conditions that are “inadequate to their mental and physical needs” such as living in small cages or tied to chains, there is a safety risk for humans.

Gary Grasso, mayor of Burr Ridge, said his wife saw an “unusual” animal in their backyard that appeared a bit bigger with a bushier tail than a typical coyote about two weeks prior to the police warning going out. But he said he doesn’t have any photographs so there’s no way to confirm it was a coywolf, and they didn’t report the sighting to the police.

“We didn’t even think about it until we got a notice,” Grasso said. “Somebody saw it in the southern part of the village further south from where we live. But again, we really can’t verify that there’s a coywolf or what it is.”

Regardless of what animal Burr Ridge residents might have seen, Anchor recommends that people don’t feed it. He said the normal social behaviors of canines, such as foxes and coyotes, break down when people feed them and they start looking at humans, particularly young children, as food.

“Particularly during the breeding season and pupping season, which generally occurs between February and May, the coyotes get very territorial,” Anchor said. “And in many cases, they may look at your pets as interlopers into their territory and view them as a threat.”