FORT PIERCE — When Diane Pulliam saw the German shepherd-size animal hunting in her backyard, she grabbed her camera and photographed it before posting it to her Facebook page.
What followed has sparked conjecture on whether the sleek-coated animal is the almost extinct eastern red wolf, or a supercharged coyote.
“I thought it was a wild dog, and I had a camera so I went ahead and took the picture, but as soon as it saw me it took off,” said Pulliam, 62.
Pulliam lives just west of Fort Pierce in the Ten Mile Creek area and took the photos on Nov. 5. People on her Facebook page told her the animal was a wolf, but two experts disagree on whether it is a coyote or wolf.
“The photo doesn’t highlight the features that make them distinguishable between coyotes and wolves,” said David Rabon, coordinator for the Red Wolf Recovery Program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Manteo, N.C. — the only red wolf breeding program in the country.
Red wolves used to populate most of the Eastern United States and into Texas, but have disappeared in the wild, Rabon said.
Therefore, Rabon said it is highly unlikely that the animal in the photograph is a wolf, and that red wolves became extinct in the wild in the 1980s. He said there are fewer than 300 red wolves in existence, and those are in North Carolina — and that includes 170 animals in the program’s captive breeding population.
Rabon said red wolves are the most endangered mammal on earth.
“Extinct? Not at all,” said Bruce Dangerfield, animal control officer with the Vero Beach Police Department, who was on the cover of the September-October issue of Animal Sheltering magazine, produced six times a year by the Humane Society of the United States. He is confident that the animal is a wolf, not a coyote.
“It doesn’t have any body features of a coyote, its head and jaws are wider,” said Dangerfield, who was named the state’s top animal control officer in 2008. “A coyote has longer legs and a much lighter body.”
“Who is to say someone didn’t trap one and brought it down here?” he said, adding that he has not actually seen any wolves in the wild.
A coyote could carry red wolf genes or characteristics, Rabon said.
“(Coyotes) have a mix of wolf and dog and other stuff in them here in the east,” Rabon said. “They are a mixture of all these other animals, so sometimes they get bigger and take on wolflike characteristics.”
Coyotes have expanded their range and are common, said Trish Adams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Vero Beach.
“I have had them run across (County Road) 510 on my way to work this spring,” she said. “They’ve gotten a really strong foothold, and, in fact, they’ve gotten a strong foothold in South Florida.”
Adams and her co-worker Marilyn Knight, who used to work with the North Carolina Red Wolf program, said coyotes pose no threat to people, but should not be fed or approached.
“They are here and they are here to stay,” Adams said, adding that the animal’s favorite foods include rabbits, mice, rats and even birds — and pet food if the food is left outside.
Coyotes also have been known to kill small farm animals such as goats.
Pulliam said it makes sense that the dog-like creature is a coyote.
“My husband and I have noticed that we have fewer rabbits around,” she said.