It was a spring morning when Elise Rustad saw the creature loping down a Toronto sidewalk. At a distance, it looked like a dog, but no owner was nearby. As it drew closer, she was struck by its size and its thick black, white and grey coat.
“It was big. I’ve seen a wolf before,” she said. “And that really looked like a wolf.”
After watching the video she had recorded, her husband suspected it could be something else.
He and others in Canada’s largest city have grown convinced that a large, elusive predator has taken up residence in Toronto’s wild ravine system. Part coyote and part wolf, the urban “coy-wolf” is said to stalk house pets and humans. Media reports have fed into the lore, both heralding their arrival to Ontario cities and implicating them in attacks and the recent killing of a family dog.
Experts insist that no such creature exists, likening eyewitness accounts to sightings of werewolves and chupacabra, but recent genetic evidence shows wolf-like animals are in Toronto – and have been living in plain sight alongside human residents for decades.
For the most part, humans coexist peacefully in the city with coyotes, the largest predator in North America to establish a thriving population in the valleys between skyscrapers. Coyotes are the quiet neighbour, slipping through the urban forest like ghosts as they scavenge through garbage, hunt small rodents or feast on birdseed.
Coyote encounters across Toronto are common and have increased dramatically throughout the pandemic, as more residents venture into the ribbons of woodlands that thread the city.
In recent years, the idea of the coy-wolf has emerged to describe coyotes that seemed particularly large or threatening.
“We get reports all the time of people saying they saw a coyote, but it was so big it must have been a coy-wolf. Or it was behaving a certain way, so it must have been a coy-wolf,” said Lesley Sampson, executive director of Coyote Watch Canada. “But the reality is, they’re just seeing eastern coyotes.”
Rustad’s video, says Sampson, is “most definitely” a coyote. “He’s actually a fairly well-known elder in the city.”
Part of the problem stems from the wide range of appearances in the eastern coyote – the species found throughout Toronto and its forests for nearly a century.
“Some definitely look more wolf-like than others,” she said. “If the public saw all the photos of eastern coyotes that have been cataloged over the years, they’d likely pick out a number of them as being wolves.”
Ecologists suspect confusion over appearance has led to media reports on the encroachment of a new species into city parks.
“People often think that coyotes are cunning and mischievous. And they often think of wolves as aggressive hunters that are bigger and stronger,” said Sara Bowman, an environmental educator in Toronto. “And so when they’re saying ‘coy-wolf’, they’re conjuring the idea of a mega-killer on our streets. And that’s just not accurate.”
But biologists say the term coy-wolf, while it doesn’t accurately describe a new animal in the city, nonetheless captures the tangled history of Toronto’s coyote population that has, until recently, been poorly understood.
Despite their commonplace appearance, eastern coyotes are relatively new, the result of breeding between western coyotes and eastern wolves. The hybrids first emerged in the 1920s in southern Algonquin park, Canada’s oldest provincial park, and quickly colonized much of southern Ontario and the north-eastern United States, where wolves had been extirpated. They thrived in urban centres like Toronto, a chaotic habitat that rewards shrewd and opportunistic wildlife.
Jonathan Way, a biologist in Massachusetts who has studied eastern coyotes for decades, agrees that media reports and citizen sightings of a hulking, shadowy predator are fiction. But he says recent testing has shown that in some regions, as much as 35% of the eastern coyote’s DNA is wolf. Many also have a small percentage of dog DNA.
“How are we calling this animal a coyote? It’s not a coyote. It’s not a wolf. It’s a hybrid,” said Way. “In one word, coy-wolf accurately describes the animal.”
Way believes using the term coy-wolf not only recognizes the lineage of the canids, but could lend more protections to the animals, which carry the DNA of threatened eastern wolves, in the north-eastern United States, where they are actively hunted with no limits.
“Calling them coy-wolves … does not make them more dangerous. It’s still the animal that has always been here. We just have modern, genetic data to show what this animal actually is.”
Because eastern coyotes and coy-wolves are the same, Toronto is teeming with wolf-like hybrids. But the lore of a fearsome creature takes away from the mystique and grandeur of animals living in their midst, says Sampson.
“We don’t need to create some mythical creature that lives in the wilds of our minds,” she said. “Folks should just be appreciative that this amazing creature, the eastern coyote, is so capable of thriving among us.”