In Chicago, River Trail coyote debate heats up

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Board meeting recap

At the Cook County Forest Preserve board meeting on Feb. 8, 2022, the major issue was the coyote, Rocky, held at the River Trail Nature Center in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, in Northbrook, Illinois near Chicago

After a social media frenzy, involving a video of Rocky pacing around his small cage, Rocky’s habitat is under scrutiny. Some residents have proposed that Rocky be moved to the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, which has expansive and elaborate habitats for rescued animals, featuring bridges, caves and playpens. In response, 10 speakers said that the coyote is in perfect health, and there is no need for him to be moved.

The board of Commissioners heard from River Trail employees, professionals in the wildlife field and residents. Melinda Storie, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, at the meeting said she has worked closely with the River Trail in prior years and disapproved of the scrutiny placed on the Forest Preserves. Storie also said Rocky serves the community.

“Our connection with nature improves mental and physical health,” she said. 

Seven-year-old Ezra Goodman also spoke at the meeting. Alongside his mother, Ria Goodman, Ezra said how much he loves visiting the River Trail, and how he would hate to see Rocky go. 

“Coyote is always happy and playful,” he said. “(The) River trail is being awesome to him.”

Concerned residents 

Despite the efforts of River Trail Center allies, the opposing side cannot be ignored. Concerned resident Nicole Milan started a petition that has over 4,000 signatures. 

Rachel Siegel, one of the leaders of the movement to relocate Rocky, created the Instagram account for Rocky and has reached out to officials to help this case. Last Spring, Siegel founded the Illinois Beaver Alliance to keep beavers in Illinois’ watersheds. Siegel said USDA guidelines are not being met. 

USDA guidelines prohibit habitats that cause animals to have “malnutrition, poor condition, debility, stress, or abnormal behavior patterns.” Siegel said that Rocky is showing signs of stress by pacing around his small enclosure. 

Siegel said that the River Trail is under pressure to bring in guests and revenue. Rocky is one of the River Trail’s most popular exhibits, and Siegel said the staff at River Trail may have financial motives to keep him.

“I think the Forest Preserves of Cook County at times has them tracked, the number of visitors that come everyday or every week.” she said. “I think having a beautiful coyote in a cage is a draw.”

Social media frenzy

Residents of Cook County have learned about Rocky through social media. Milan created a Facebook group and website for Rocky. One Nextdoor post has 68 comments. 

Despite the positives of social media, one downside is that misinformation is common. 

One example of misinformation in Rocky’s case is a post claiming the coyote and other animals at River Trail had not received fresh water for days. 

From the River Trail Nature Center:

Map of River Trail Nature Center with Rocky the coyote's cage placement.

PDF from Forest Preserves of Cook County. Graphic by Audrey Richardson.

Rocky’s enclosure sits along the Des Plaines River Trail at the River Trail Nature Center.

Rocky’s enclosure sits along the Des Plaines River Trail at the River Trail Nature Center. PDF from Forest Preserve. Graphic by Audrey Richardson.

River Trail staff said they do not see a valid reason for Rocky’s relocation because Northbrook is all he knows.

A family brought Rocky to the River Trail after improperly being raised as a puppy. He has now been at River Trail for four years. Because Rocky relied heavily on River Trail growing up, they have become his pack. The scientific term for this is imprinting. Dylan Projanksy, former worker at River Trail who is the lead animal care wildcare animal naturalist and the Wildwood Nature Center, said there would be implications and mental impacts on if an imprinted animal were to be moved.

Director of Communications for the Forest Preserves County Carl Vogel had a similar viewpoint. 

“Because it is an animal that has been imprinted, it expects to connect with and socialize with people,” Vogel said. The staff at River Trail are like its pack or family.” 

Vogel, like his coworkers, wants the best for the coyote and said moving him would cause him more stress than good.

Rocky’s future

The leaders deciding Rocky’s fate are a part of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. 

On Feb. 18 Wild Animal Sanctuary Executive Director, Pat Craig, sent the board a letter explaining the proposed relocation of Rocky. Craig is well known within the wildlife community for rescuing over 100 tigers from the viral Tiger King scandal.

Craig relates Rocky’s situation to a child being raised in a closet. 

“That child would not understand what he or she was missing, as well as would have no choice but to learn and adapt to the environment it was restrained within” Craig said.

While Craig’s letter was meaningful, Commissioner Scott Britton is taking a different approach to the issue. Britton said he aims to gain an understanding of the issue from third-party experts. 

“I think that the important thing is to really approach this from a dispassionate viewpoint,” Britton said.

Britton said he wants to speak to people with “substantial experience” and “neutral individuals that might be willing to weigh in on this issue.”

Britton said he wants to hear these experts at the next Forest Preserve board meeting in March. Until then, Rocky will remain at River Trail until the Board of Commissioners make a decision. 

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