CHICAGO — Animal activists have for months raised concerns about the wellbeing of a 4-year-old coyote named Rocky who’s lived in a suburban forest preserve enclosure most of his life — and they aren’t satisfied with the response from county officials.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County released a report July 26 saying Rocky was “happy and healthy,” outlining plans to improve his living conditions at River Trail Nature Center in suburban Northbrook. But advocates at the Chicago Alliance for Animals said they want Rocky relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in Colorado where he would have more freedom and the chance to reconnect with other coyotes.
National animal rights organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals, have joined the Chicago group to advocate for Rocky.
“This isn’t a small group of people,” said Jodie Wiederkehr, executive director for the Alliance for Animals. “Most people see an animal in a cage and understand that animal is not happy.”
Members of the Alliance for Animals have testified about Rocky’s condition each month during Cook County Forest Preserve board meetings since early 2022, sharing concerns about his behavior, care and isolation from other coyotes.
Early this year, members of the group started collecting videos of Rocky pacing in his enclosure, Wiederkehr said. They also learned through public records he was being prescribed anti-anxiety medicine.
“Animals who are confined to small spaces adapt repetitive behaviors to basically cope with their confinement and their lack of freedom,” Wiederkehr said.
Carl Vogel, spokesperson for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, disagreed with that assessment. The staff and veterinarian who care for Rocky daily haven’t observed repetitive behavior that would indicate stress, Vogel said.
Rocky is given anti-anxiety medicine for specific instances, such as visiting the vet or expected loud noises like fireworks on July 4, unrelated to other medical issues or “supposed chronic stress,” Vogel said.
“A short video clip of a moment in time when an animal is moving around its enclosure is in no way sufficient evidence to say that animal has stereotypic behavior that shows signs of stress,” Vogel said. “Just to note, even when an animal does exhibit stereotypic habits, research has shown that does not necessarily mean it is under stress or, if it is, what is causing the stress.”
Activists also said a photo showed Rocky’s water froze during the winter, but Vogel said the water bowl from the photo was for other animals.
In the July 26 report, medical professionals recommended expanding Rocky’s enclosure by 500 square feet, giving him “seven to nine times” more space, according to a Forest Preserves statement.
“The new enclosure will include trees, places to dig and other natural features; more and larger spaces to be away from people; and complexity that will provide more enrichment,” according to the report. “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.”
Experts also recommended Rocky’s caretakers monitor his behavior more closely, provide more enrichment opportunities and better educate the tens of thousands of visitors who see Rocky each year about protecting coyotes, according to the report.
However, advocates at Alliance for Animals think the best place for Rocky is The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, which has agreed to relocate the coyote for free. Wiederkehr said the caretakers there are experienced with helping coyotes gradually adjust to the new environment.
“A bigger cage is not the right answer,” Wiederkehr said. “It’s not going to give Rocky the freedom, the companionship, a more natural life or the happiness he deserves. At a sanctuary, he’d have room to run and roam. He’d have companionship should he choose it or space to go off on his own if he wants to remain a solitary coyote. Right now, he’s basically in solitary confinement.”
Vogel said Forest Preserves officials stand by the decision to keep Rocky where he is because experts have warned it “may be negative or even dangerous” to relocate him from the place he’s lived most of his life when he’s doing well.
“With those considerations — and considering that there are many more animals living in terrible circumstances than even a facility like Wildlife Animal Sanctuary can house —we are confident that our planned improvements are the right choice for the coyote,” Vogel said.
Members of Alliance for Animals plan to continue “putting constant, professional pressure on elected officials until they do the right thing,” Wiederkehr said. She encouraged others to do the same by connecting with the group online, contacting local representatives and voting for Cook County Forest Preserve commissioners who support Rocky’s relocation.
All 17 members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners also serve on the Forest Preserves Board.
“Every day that Rocky is in a cage matters,” Wiederkehr said. “It’s not right, it’s not humane, and as elected officials, they should be listening to the thousands of people who have reached out to them.”
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