The news helicopter Thursday morning shook my house to the foundation. Blearily, I checked my phone. Twitter had it: There was a coyote in South Philadelphia.
Clearly, the apocalypse was upon us. Wild dogs were roaming the streets, hungry for human flesh. I called the Pennsylvania Game Commission and posed the only question I could think of: How long before I am devoured in my bed?
My query wound its way to Jerry Czech, the city’s sole full-time game warden, who works out of a room in a historic brick house on the banks of Pennypack Creek. He told me, as he has told so many people this week, to calm down.
Sure, there are coyotes in the city, he said. A small pack of them live in the wilds by the Northeast Airport. Maybe, he said, this one followed one of the waterfront trails that stretch along the Delaware. But he didn’t expect they’d make a habit out of visiting our crowded confines. Besides, he pointed out, they usually prefer the Friendly’s in Roxborough.
>> READ MORE: Coyote captured in Center City euthanized
But Monday, a coyote was captured near a playground in Mayfair. The animal was hustled into the back of a police cruiser and deposited by Czech deep into Pennypack Park.
Perhaps not deep enough. Two days later, a second coyote — it could have been the same one, seized by wanderlust — was captured outside the Edwin M. Stanton school at 16th and Montrose.
A few hours after Czech helped nab the errant animal, I joined him in his patrol truck in Pennypack. “Have you seen the coyote?” asked Cindy Rettig, who lives on the park’s border.
“I put him here the other day, and he decided to go downtown to South Street and hang out,” Czech said, laughing.
Rettig and Czech met a couple of years ago, when a black bear ambled onto her property. Czech tranquilized it and took it to the Poconos. Rettig found the whole thing exciting — she likes thinking there’s still something wild left in the city.
Czech, who grew up near the park but now lives in Cheltenham, loves living in a place where you’re only a SEPTA bus ride away from bald eagles, beavers, deer, foxes. (He stopped me, during our interview in the park, to make sure I was listening to the bird calls.)
“Being out here,” he said, pointing to a bald eagle nest, “this is my patrol area. This is my office. Down here, you have the best of both worlds.”
His colleagues across the state generally patrol forest and rivers and wide-open spaces. But Czech, whose territory is a city with all the comforts of the modern world, is responsible for the untamed that slip through.
Like the bull that ran down I-95 two years ago. Putting him down fell to Czech, who is 47, tall and sturdy, and speaks in a passionate, lightning-fast patter. The bull had escaped a truck bound for a slaughterhouse. The police instructed him to take the shot. “The thing gets into Center City, how are you going to stop it without killing someone else?” Czech said.
And then there was the case of Levi the wolf-dog pet that got loose in Pennypack Park in 2012. Levi captured the hearts of the neighbors, though, who shouted warnings every time Czech raised his tranquilizer gun. Sounding like a hostage negotiator, Czech eventually held a news conference, pleading: “Help us have a peaceful, happy ending for everybody involved.” Czech sneaked out one night on foot, lured Levi with hot dogs, and got him to a sanctuary in Lancaster.
Czech’s not just an animal wrangler; he’s a protector. Like in the 2007 case of a longshoreman who mowed down 189 sleeping seagulls by the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal out of spite, prosecutors argued. Czech recalled: “All those birds were doing nothing but sleeping.”
Which is what he was doing in the wee hours Thursday, when he got the week’s second call about a coyote, this one spotted near a 7-Eleven by Bridge and Tacony in Bridesburg. An hour later, the coyote emerged from the cover of a flowerbed.
Czech and the coyote stared at each other. Czech, hairs rising on the back of his neck, knew his quarry had a choice: fight or flee. The coyote knelt and then darted. As he passed, Czech heard the tick-tacking of his claws on the asphalt.
The next morning, the game warden found himself racing to South Philly. As a copter hovered, police chased the creature around a parking lot Benny-Hill style. FOX29’s Steve Keeley gave a play-by-play as if he were calling a game of hoops. Eventually, Czech eased the coyote into his van.
He hoped the animal could be brought back to the wild, perhaps a little farther than last time. But the word came from above his pay grade: The coyote had demonstrated too much of a taste for city life. In other words, he was too tame, and therefore too dangerous. He was euthanized.
As any good game warden will tell you, that’s how it is with the wild.