There they were — a couple of dogs in the middle of the road, ravaging a neighbor’s trash.
Or were they?
There was something about the creatures that made John MacDougall pause as he drove home from a New Year’s Eve party.
It was the look of their tails, he said, and the appearance of their bellies. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure,” said MacDougall, 62, of Middle Island. But he said they looked like photos of coyotes he had seen before.
So, he backed up, and, with illumination from the headlights of another stopped vehicle, he took a couple of shots with his phone.
The photos eventually landed in the email inbox of Russell L. Burke, chairman of Hofstra University’s biology department, who said that he and several other wildlife experts suspect the creatures could well be coyotes.
Though there have been unconfirmed reports, the state Department of Environmental Conservation said there has not been an official sighting of a coyote on Long Island since the first one was spotted in July 2013 in the Water Mill area.
Still, they are coming, said Burke and five other co-authors of “Coyotes Go ‘Bridge and Tunnel,’ ” a 2015 report on the creatures and their “inevitable” arrival on Long Island.
Indeed, the Island, along with parts of New York City, is among “the last large land masses” in the contiguous states with no northeastern coyote breeding population, the report said.
And, with the coyotes’ presence documented in New York City — including most recently at LaGuardia Airport — they can be considered to be setting their sights east, the report said.
Foxes have been ruled out for the Middle Island sighting, Burke said. That left certain types of dogs, but the photos indicated enough features that are specific to coyotes — the color pattern; bushy tails about the right length; and pointed, moderate-length ears.
He and several other researchers agree, he said, that the creatures do “look very much like coyotes.”
The DEC said it had also received MacDougall’s images, confirmed their location and is reviewing them. Anyone who may have spotted coyote-like creatures in the Middle Island area, especially several times in the same spots, is asked to contact DEC staff at 631-444-0310.
There are several other questions to be answered about the Middle Island pair, said Timothy Green, natural resources manager with Brookhaven National Laboratory, such as whether they are siblings or mates.
The next step, said Green, one of the report authors, is getting permission from property owners to locate and analyze scat in the area where the images were shot, as well as to install cameras.
Meanwhile, MacDougall and Lisa Borden, his significant other, want to protect their Shih Tzu, Lacie, and alert the neighborhood to the possible presence of coyotes.
Cats and small dogs can be vulnerable to coyotes, being perceived as meals. However, Burke said that research shows cats make up a small portion of coyotes’ diets, with small dogs accounting for even less.
Most coyotes steer clear of humans, and it’s best not to encourage interaction, such as by feeding them, the DEC said on its website. Still, children can be at risk, so it’s advisable to maintain a watchful eye.
With that said, an average of 650 people in the state are hospitalized, with one killed, each year by dogs, the DEC said. Nationally, there’s “only a handful of coyote attacks” each year.