The Dad Who Fought Off a Coyote to Save His Family Speaks Out
When a coyote attacked his family on a hike, Ian O'Reilly sprang into action. Here, he talks about the encounter and how it's effected his family,
On January 20th, Ian O’Reilly was out for a walk with his wife Allison and three small children in the woods near their New Hampshire home. This isn’t unusual. They’re an outdoor family. They ski. They snowshoe. They frequently hike. But the day quickly went from unusual to terrifying in a matter of seconds when a rabid coyote lunged at — and, fortunately, missed — his youngest son. Springing into action, Ian engaged with the animal. He kicked it. He wrestled it. And, although he was bitten several times, Ian was able to subdue and, eventually, kill the coyote as his family fled to safety.
Word of Ian’s barehanded killing of the coyote quickly spread and several local and national news outlets covered the story. It’s all been a shock to Ian who considers himself an ordinary dad (“We’re about the most typical middle class, or maybe upper middle class family, that exists in the U.S.”) caught in an extraordinary — and extraordinarily difficult and traumatic — circumstance. Oddly, this wasn’t the family’s first encounter with a rabid animal. Just nine months prior, his youngest son was bitten on the kneecap by a rabid raccoon that was under their porch.
How has Ian reconciled with this traumatic event as a father, and how are his children doing? Fatherly spoke to Ian about his encounter with the coyote, why his wife deserves as much credit as he’s received, how he’s dealing with the fallout with his kids, and why the animal-safety lessons he taught his children after the first incident likely saved lives during the second attack.
So, the coyote attack is not the first wild animal attack you and your family has experienced.
It wasn’t. One day In the spring of last year, the first nice day that had happened in a week, the kids were stir crazy. So they went outside to play. We live in a cul de sac with 30 or 40 acres of woods, and we have a picket fence with gates on either side of it. We just didn’t happen to lock them that day. The kids were running around outside. I was upstairs. My wife was making coffee and breakfast. And, all of the sudden, there was a mass panic. We didn’t know what had happened.
We’re pretty well prepared adults, but we had never talked to my kids about interacting with animals. So, unfortunately, they saw this raccoon in the yard and thought, “Oh, what a cute little kitty,” It was a rabid raccoon. It bit my son right on the kneecap.
We calmed them down. The EMT’s came and put the animal down on the deck. Unfortunately, one of my wife’s cuticles had a scab on it, so as she was tending to my son’s wounds, she was exposed to the rabies as well. They both had to go through a set of vaccinations.
After this, did you have conversations about how to treat animals?
Yeah. We talked about different animals they may encounter, times of day they might see animals, what would be normal or not normal behavior, what to do if you see an animal — all the basics. Our daughter is a really “with it” kid. She really gets what’s going on. I told her she was the leader of the pack.
We spoke, too, about dogs. There are lots of dogs off-leash around where we live, and not every dog wants you to put their hand in its face. We tied in how to approach dogs with how to approach animals. “Walk away slowly. Don’t run. If your mom and dad are there or we’re in the vicinity of you, come over and tell us. Let us know right away.”
Now, you had a run-in with a coyote. When you encountered it, you and your family were on a hike?
Yeah. Three months earlier, we had gone on the exact same walk. It took us over two-and-a-half hours and the kids were fantastic. It was like a top-five family day. It was just perfect. So I said, let’s go recreate that. The aim was to just have a nice family day.
But that wasn’t the case.
Unfortunately, no, it wasn’t. At a quarter of a mile in, there’s this four-way stop. You can go straight, left, or right. We went right. We were just walking. Holding hands. Playing in the trees and jumping around as kids do. We noticed that there were snowshoe tracks, cross country ski tracks. A lot of people had been out. And I would say, maybe two minutes or less later, the coyote, who was maybe tracking us, came and tried to get my son, but missed him.
During most of the entire news coverage, my wife has only gotten about one-percent of the credit. Which is unfortunate, because she was the first one to act. She had my son by the hand and felt him jerk forward. She was the first one to remove him from harm’s way — and she did it while being annoyed, thinking it was a dog off leash who just bumped into my son.
She went to turn around and yell at the owner, but quickly, she screamed and alerted everyone to, “Something’s not right here.” She picked our son up, got him out of the way and was able to alert me. In the process, the coyote walked around them and walked in front of me.
That positioning is really fortunate.
Yeah. So I was actually closest to it. I remember looking over and thinking, What the hell is going on here? All of this happened in three seconds: the scream, the picking up, the coyote right in front of me.
I’m pretty sure the first time I got bit was right then. Immediately, it was engaged with me.
Did you have any sense that the kids were out of harm’s way?
I knew they weren’t in front of me, and I knew where the coyote was, and that there was only one. I assumed they were fine. I didn’t hear any yelling or screaming. But then it was full-on engagement.
It attacked. I tried to kick it away. It attacked. I tried to kick it away again. It attacked again and I tried to push it away. We started raising our voices to try to scare it, and be the aggressor. It had none of it. It just wanted to attack us.
There was no stopping it. It bit me in the chest at least one time by jumping on me. Luckily, I had pretty sturdy hiking boots on. I reared back and got it square in the jaw. It was a square shot. And that was pretty much the beginning of the end for it.
My wife said essentially that it was almost like a Matrix-style thing where it almost goes backwards and falls on its back because it got hit so hard. It was stunned for a second, so I jumped on top of it. It still wasn’t interesting in stopping. It was still trying to bite me.
I was able to get my hand around its snout and then I just pinned its snout down and pushed all I could to try and bury its head in the snow.
What were you trying to do?
I was trying to just end it as quickly as I could. That was just an impossibility. If you think about an animal like that, it’s pecs and jaw, and neck are the most powerful part of its body. It just wasn’t going to happen. My wife came over at that point and she was furious, and grabbed a stick and tried to stab it to death. But sticks aren’t the best weapons, and its pelt was so thick. She was just hitting its ribs and not doing anything to it.
I said, “You need to get the kids and go.” She was screaming, “I can’t leave you!”
We did that about four times before I said, “Allison, there’s nothing you can do to help me. You need to get the kids and get me help, because my phone is stuck between me and the coyote and that’s not going to happen, and we’re half a mile in the woods.”
I didn’t know if it was going to end or not. I had the upper hand right then but I wanted her to get the kids out of there. They didn’t need to see that.
I can’t believe you had the presence of mind to do that.
Somehow, my wife, in a few seconds, was able to compose herself. The two older kids started running for the road. She grabbed my younger son — he’s 30 pounds — and they all got their way out as quick as they could. It took about five or six minutes. And she was able to get help there.
Five or six minutes is still a long time when you have a fully-grown coyote underneath you.
It is. In the interim, I was trying to suffocate the animal, and thinking that there was no way I was going to kill this thing. But I knew that if I let go, it was just going to attack me. So I knew I either had to kill the thing or keep it pinned down.
So I doubled down on trying to kill it. Five minutes in, after the kids had left, I tried to ease up to see if it was dead or not because it hadn’t moved. As soon as it felt me ease off, it tried to run away and get the upper hand again. So I couldn’t relieve my grip on the snout.
I realized that my hands alone were not going to do the trick, and I swung my body over it. I got my knees into its ribs and its lungs and wrapped my legs around the underneath of it and just locked my feet together. And then I squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. That killed it.
I’m sure that wasn’t an easy thing to do.
Well, something I really haven’t talked a whole lot about is the level of fury that hit me during that time frame. I had been stone cold until that point. I was thinking, This has to happen, this has to happen, these things must occur. And it was almost like a logical next step.
But once I realized that things were going the way I needed them to, I let my guard down a little bit and the overwhelming frustration of: Why in this world is this happening to us again? What did I do wrong? Hit me.
I was so incredibly angry with this coyote. Just so angry. I’m an avid runner, and have strong legs. My legs were toast when I was done. Every fiber of energy that I had went into trying to somehow relay to this thing just how pissed off I was. It just wasn’t fair.
Did the advice you gave to your kids after the initial coyote attack stick?
It did. That’s exactly what my daughter did when we met the coyote, which was, really, really nice to see that she had focused, paid attention, and then brought into action what we taught her.
The boys, being a bit younger — they were three and one when the raccoon happened— were still able to follow her lead and get out of the situation almost immediately. Which was, again, just a really great thing when you think of what could have happened if they had jumped into the fray.
It’s almost like the raccoon event was a ‘training wheels’ situation for the second attack, however unfortunate both events were.
When you have a real negative, traumatic experience, you need to understand that they happened, right? And to try and get whatever positives you can out of them. One of which, in hindsight, was animal safety. So, when the coyote attacked us, they knew exactly what to do and did it. Had that not happened, it would be very different.
In any event, I’m sure your kids were scared after the coyote attack.
After the raccoon attack, we’d tamp it down and say, “Hey hey hey, let’s not talk about that. That happened, let’s just move on.” My wife is a PTSD trauma expert.
Well, that’s good.
Yeah, it was actually quite good. And, she was thinking about how it went down and realized we were doing it backwards, which is funny. Because if an expert can’t do it right, how are people who aren’t experts going to do this right? So we ended up talking about it, and talking about the raccoon and what happened to it.
And, with the raccoon, it was just one bite and then it went back under the porch and that was it. So the trauma of interacting with the animal was just that the animal bit our son and died. The end. Whereas, with this situation, it was, “Dad’s on top of a coyote.” My daughter wanted to know if daddy was dead or if the coyote killed dad. That’s not a great thing.
That’s certainly traumatizing.
My daughter was really, really shaken up. We had praised her with accolades for doing such a great job in the moment of the attack. That seemed to blunt a bit of the initial sorrow.
My youngest son goes to pre-k, and the day he went back to school, there was a toy fire truck and he said, “Uh oh! Wolf!” So, it’s creeping into our lives. Our son has ended up in our bed multiple times, which never happens. Everyone was waking up at all hours of the night.
The kids are probably more resilient than me and my wife. But, they are still very much affected by it. So, I have no idea how long the coyote will take to work through as a family. But I guarantee it will take years for them to stop reliving that scenario in their heads.
The nice part is, we spent last weekend going out. We hiked, we walked in the woods, we went to the beach. We did a lot of outdoor things, and the kids were fine. However, my youngest son, who was bit, is still very, very tentative when it comes to dogs. He’s always been the energetic guy, not the lover, and now he’s an absolute clinger.
What about you? How are you feeling after all of this?
The very first long distance run I did afterwards, I had to stop multiple times because my heart jumped out of my chest. There was a dog hiding in a bush — in its own yard, no big deal. I had to stop. I ended up yelling at the dog, and sort of being irate. The dog wasn’t doing anything wrong. But I wanted to kill the dog! I thought, Wow, what a reaction.
Just yesterday, I was running on a bike path in the dark and a squirrel jumped out across the bike path and I had to stop and compose myself to keep running because I was just so shocked out of my focus.
My wife and I were taking the trash out Monday night, just to the edge of our driveway, and we heard pines creaking in the wind. We both stopped. My wife’s face froze. She couldn’t move. So when people ask, “Oh, is everyone okay?” What a heck of a thing to answer. No one wants to hear, “No, we’re not okay.”
Do you have a sense as to why the attack happened?
No one used to talk about ticks when I was growing up. It was a thing that didn’t exist. And now they’re this massive pandemic in the US. Along those lines, I think you have to attribute it to some small degree to the fact that [the coyote’s] environment is shrinking. It certainly seems that we either live in a ridiculously unfortunate situation, or there’s something else to it. I’m not exactly sure this wasn’t completely random — because a car was attacked after that, a lady was attacked earlier in the day — so that’s how they came to our family.
But there’s a lot more going on in the Northeast than there ever used to be, animal-wise. People certainly have reached out to me in the coyote arena and they do seem to be coming a lot closer to human habitation than they have before. Is that them? Or is that us, removing their larger habitats? I don’t know.
Did you take any time off afterwards?
I think that we underestimated the trauma that occurred. I took one day off, but spent most of it talking to the media and reliving the moment over and over again, and my wife was with me that entire time. I didn’t even take a half day the following day, so by Wednesday, I was working full time and just kept going. That was not a great idea.
People at work were shocked, but at the time I was like, “Well, I’m on antibiotics and an immunization schedule, so let’s get back to it.” Not giving myself time to work through that was a mistake. That was the same for my wife.
I think you need to be kind to yourself and just remember that this was a traumatic event. There’s a reason why it made national news. It’s a “What!?” event. So, to play it off as a, “Yeah, but everyone’s fine so let’s keep going,” was, I think, probably too quick.
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