Coyote at Cook County nature center to get bigger cage, but advocates want animal sent to wildlife sanctuary

The coyote, called Rocky by activists, has been at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook since 2018.

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Rocky in his enclosure at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook.

Rocky in his enclosure at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook.

Cook County Forest Preserve District

A coyote at a nature center in Northbrook will be getting a bigger enclosure, but activists who have been fighting to move the animal to a wildlife sanctuary say the decision to keep him caged is “inhumane.”

The plan to build a new enclosure was outlined in an internal review released Tuesday of the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s animal ambassador program. The report said the coyote was “happy and healthy” but suggested improvements could be made.

The expanded habitat is set to be built this year and will be seven to nine times the size of the current enclosure at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, forest preserve officials said. The coyote is housed in a metal enclosure that is about 266 square feet.

Activists with the Chicago Alliance for Animals say a bigger cage isn’t any better. They argue that keeping the coyote, whom they call Rocky, captive and alone is inhumane and are angered the county rejected calls for the coyote to be moved to a wild animal sanctuary in Colorado.

“Personally, I don't think that anyone with common sense needs experts to tell them” that living in a cage is inhumane, said Jodie Wiederkehr, executive director of CAA. “You put an animal in a cage, they’re not happy.”

Wiederkehr said Rocky is seen constantly pacing in his cage out of boredom, which is a sign of stress.

“He may have adjusted to his cage at this point — he’s been in there for more than four years,” Wiederkehr said. “But we have multiple videos of him pacing back and forth. It’s a form of zoochosis, which is what animals in captivity experience as a way to cope with being confined behind bars.”

The report states that third-party experts did not indicate the coyote paces “in an unnatural pattern or indicates stressful behavior.” The experts said the care provided meets Association of Zoos and Aquariums guidelines.

The coyote was found as a pup in 2018 in Tennessee and taken to an animal shelter by people who thought it was a dog. It was so young its eyes hadn’t opened yet. It spent three weeks at the shelter, where staff trained it as if it were going to be adopted as a dog before realizing it was a coyote. By that point, the animal had imprinted to humans and was deemed unable to survive in the wild by a vet. It arrived at the nature center in Northbrook in August 2018.

Since then, the coyote has been a part of the animal ambassador program. Animals such as birds, reptiles, mammals and fish are kept indoors and outdoors at six nature centers to promote an interest in protecting wildlife and the natural lands that are their homes, forest preserve officials said.

The planned changes to Rocky’s enclosure are part of a larger set of improvements detailed in the report for the animal ambassador program at all its nature centers, officials said.

A petition to relocate the coyote to the nonprofit Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, has reached over 6,000 signatures. The sanctuary has offered to come to Illinois and cover all expenses to bring the coyote to the sanctuary, CAA said.

“Because the coyote is an imprinted animal that has lived with humans practically since birth, there is no guarantee it will thrive if moved across the country and introduced to other coyotes,” forest preserves officials said.

Wiederkehr said despite the setback, her organization and others will continue to fight for Rocky’s welfare and contact county officials.

“They’re not listening to the will of the people, and the will of the people wants animals to be free,” Wiederkehr said. “We will continue to reach out to them until Rocky gets sanctuary, what he deserves.”

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