Persica column for Jan. 3, 2013

Coyotes new residents in New Orleans area

We’re accustomed to living close to nature in south Louisiana.

In New Orleans, people used to fish along canals, bayous and lagoons. Many spent their leisure time at the camps that jutted out into Lake Pontchartrain, until storms and city regulations took them away. In some of the city’s neighborhoods, it’s not unusual to find raccoons cohabitating with humans. After heavy rains, frogs serenade each other — and us.

However, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — a force of nature herself — another visitor from the animal world has come to the New Orleans area, and this one has instilled a little more fear in residents. Numerous coyote-sightings have been reported since the storm — in New Orleans City Park, for example, and along Jefferson Parish’s east bank riverfront.

Recently, Gretna City Park, a large, heavily wooded triangle in that city’s south end, became the latest location for coyote-sightings. A study by Leland Hales, a naturalist hired by Gretna, confirms there are coyotes in the park. A report released in December includes photos of the creatures, taken at night.

One of the animals is a grizzled old male, missing a small notch from one ear, a sign “he’s been in territorial disputes during his life,” Hales reported. The coyote also walks with a slight limp.

The English writer Aldous Huxley once observed that nature “is always alien and inhuman, and occasionally diabolic.” But the coyote family in Gretna’s City Park sounds like it could be right out of some innocuous 1950s sitcom about an intact family unit going about its daily business.

The male has a mate, his lifelong companion. There also are coyote offspring. The report casts doubt on stories that the Gretna’s coyotes have killed pets.

Hales and Gretna Councilman Vincent Cox III, whose district includes the park, are advising a policy of peaceful coexistence. But they also say that if the animals get dangerous, they can be taken out, by lethal force if necessary, most likely administered by the Gretna Police Department.

Jefferson Parish has experience with this. The late Sheriff Harry Lee’s deputies set the sights of their high-powered rifles on some pesky nutria a few years back. More recently — this time under the Lee’s successor, Newell Normand ­— deputies killed 10 coyotes in East Jefferson in 2011, with the help of Harahan Police. The Sheriff’s Office also reports having sent 125 nutria to the rodent afterlife that same year. They renewed their license to kill with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for 2012, but it’s not clear if they’ve offed any more coyotes.

Though Hales says there’s nothing to worry about right now with Gretna’s coyotes, he cautions that things could change. In what sounds like a scene from “The Godfather,” he warns that when the old male coyote dies, it “will open the door for a new group to reside in the park.” Until now, Gretna’s “coyote Corleone” has been able to keep other packs out of his territory. But when he dies, the successor group may not be as peaceable as the family it replaces.

Nature eventually will take its course and the coyote patriarch will be gone. Killing him prematurely would only hasten the day when his replacement arrives, with all of its attendant unpredictability.

If Huxley was right when he said nature is diabolical, then we should appreciate the wily old coyote limping around Gretna City Park as the devil we know, rather than the one we don’t.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.