Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

As coyotes lead the trail into suburbs and city centres, are we witnessing the return of the predator?

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They caught Hal in Central Park on Wednesday, but you have to admit it was one of the more benign manhunts in the violent history of New York. First they knocked him out with a tranquilliser dart. Then he got a medical check, followed by rest and rehab, before being taken for resettlement in a more rural environment.

Hal, though, never featured on the list of America's most wanted. He is a year-old coyote, who had somehow found his way to the calm green eye of the unrelenting urban storm. More important, Hal is an example of what could be called America's "comeback of the predators".

New York isn't the only unlikely place where coyotes have set up camp. Around where I live in north-west Washington, they are thriving. A couple of breeding families established themselves in Rock Creek Park, that strip of wilderness that snakes through the capital's northern residential districts down to the very edge of elegant Georgetown. DC's coyote watchers say that, like self-respecting urbanites anywhere, they've traded up in the property market and moved into the posh diplomatic neighbourhoods. But not before they were accused of killing a couple of cats, sowing panic in the genteel ranks of local pet-owners.

If they have decamped, I will miss them. It's not just that these creatures, which when I was growing up were symbols of the empty American West, have brought a tiny thrill of the wild into our over-domesticated lives. Like foxes in London, you could say, but without the foxes' awful smell. They also have the potential to do some serious good, such as keeping the local racoon population under a semblance of control.

I speak from experience. A while ago, my wife and I were woken up in the night by a crash in the kitchen. I timidly made my way downstairs, fearing burglars, or worse. Two raccoons had got into the house through the cat-flap. After feasting on biscuits, they attacked the bread bin, sending it crashing to the floor.

Racoons, not coyotes, are the US equivalent of urban foxes - quite as clever and resourceful. But, if I may say so, I was up to the challenge. Even in the US, no Englishman is without his cricket bat. Thus armed, I managed to swat the beasts out of the house the same way they came in, and they haven't returned since.

But there's a wider and more cheering moral to the coyote tale than the frisson of excitement when untamed nature briefly approaches one's doorstep. What with global warming, pollution and human encroachment on their habitats, entire species are disappearing by the day. But the animals at the top of the food chain, the ones associated with wilderness, are on the way back.

As recently as 10,000 years ago, North America was a big game reserve to match Africa. Any doubters need merely visit the fossil remains of mammoths, camels, sabre-toothed tigers and wolves preserved in the La Brea tar pits in downtown LA. But by the start of the 20th century they were almost entirely gone. Out on the plains, even the harmless bison had been hunted by man to the verge of extinction.

Little more than 100 years later, the predators are on the way back. In the northern Rockies, grey timber wolves are thriving after being re-introduced a decade ago - so much so that farmers are threatening to start shooting them, once they are taken off the endangered species list.

Cougars used to be confined to the mountains and deserts of the west. But in recent years they've spread across the continent. They've made their way over the plains, and have been spotted in northern Michigan and central Illinois - meaning they've even vaulted the Mississippi.

Up in New Jersey black bears are so plentiful that they had a six-day public hunt in December to cull their numbers. More than 300 bears were killed. There are even some ecologists who advocate "re-wilding" the Great Plains, by letting camels, lions, cheetah and elephants loose there. The scheme would have the double virtue of offering new habitat for threatened species such as the cheetah and Bactrian camel, and restoring an ecological balance that disappeared with the Ice Age. I'll believe that when I see it. But a trend has started, of which the hapless Hal in Central Park is but the latest manifestation. And that's why I want the coyotes back in Rock Creek Park.

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