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Westchester on Rabies, Raccoon and Coyote Watch

GREENBURGH, N.Y. – A string of reports of wild, menacing and sometimes rabid animals have Westchester residents on their guard.

Unseasonably warm temperatures this spring have brought critters and residents out to play, increasing the chances of an up-close encounter, county health officials say.

“We anticipate with the warmer weather, and the coyote sightings are an indicator, there’s more wildlife out and active,” said health department communications director Caren Halbfinger, referring to several reports of coyotes around Tarrytown in the past months.

Just last week a White Plains woman was bitten by a raccoon in Valhalla.

Halbfinger warns that more wildlife means a greater chance that residents may come across a rabid animal. Animal experts agree, calling Westchester’s combination of high population density and wooded areas the perfect breeding ground for rabies incidents.

“The past two years we’ve had an extreme increase in rabies,” said Jim Horton, owner of Quality Pro Pest and Wildlife Services.

According to the Westchester County Health Department, 61 animals were confirmed rabid in 2011, the most in the state, compared with just 39 in 2010.

Part of the reason, Halbfinger said, is that Westchester County has some of the highest rates of animals tested for the disease.

“We think there’s a lot of awareness about it in Westchester,” she said. “But the good news is that there have been very few cases of human contact with animals that are rabid.”

It’s not just reports of rabid animals that are becoming more frequent.

Coyotes, bobcats and even a mountain lion have reportedly been sighted in the county. And animal control units are fielding more calls.

In Greenburgh, the Police Department’s Animal Control Center recorded 400 more complaints in 2011 than it did in 2009. Westchester trappers say they, too, have been busier, especially with reports of coyotes.

“The past five years they’ve really come into the area pretty strong,” Horton said. “Every year we get more and more calls.”

Horton, the man hired to trap the coyote that chased a Tarrytown mother and her daughter into their home last month, said he believes the wild canines are slowly becoming more accustomed to humans. And with that familiarity comes less fear, he said.

“They are starting to look at us as prey, especially small children and dogs,” he said.

Researchers say there are no numbers on how many coyotes are living in Westchester.

But Melissa Grigione, the co-director of the graduate program of environmental sciences at Pace University, said coyotes, which are not native to the area, are coming to Westchester and New York City because they are being forced to seek out new territory.

“Coyotes are definitely expanding their range, and in Westchester it would make sense we are seeing them, because they don’t have thousands of acres where they can roam without being seen,” Grigione said.

And it’s not just coyotes that are on the move, she said.

“I believe that in our lifetime we’re going to hear more about mountain lions,” she said, referring to the wild cats that are native to the area. “They are trying to come back, I believe.”

For the most part, however, face-to-face encounters with these animals are rare, Grigione said. Even if they do happen, most animals are more afraid of humans than we are of them, she said.

“Statistics and studies show they don’t want anything to do with us,” Grigione said.

Small dogs and cats, however, could be a different story, she said. Owners should keep a close eye on man’s best friends, especially around sunset.

And in the event you stumble across the rare, hostile raccoon, coyote or mountain lion, act as aggressively as possible and make noise to scare them away, she said.

She said people should protect themselves as if they were getting mugged. “Be as aggressive back as possible.”

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