On an early Saturday morning in January 2017, I awoke to find my dog, three-year-old Bella, staring closely at me. The year before, our 70-lb (32kg) coonhound/shepherd mix had decided that she preferred sleeping between my wife and me to sleeping on her pillow on the floor. We have been unsuccessful in breaking her of that habit.
I understood what her stare meant, and as I stirred, Bella jumped down and stood by the bedroom doorway expectantly. I extracted myself from the warmth of our bed and went to the back door, where our dog was now waiting in excited anticipation.
Our back door opens to a concrete patio that is a step-down, and our yard is about 75 feet (~ 23 meters) deep by 150 feet wide. To the back is a high, wooden slat fence separating our neighbor’s property and our own. On the other three sides, my wife and I had a 5-foot-high chainlink fence installed immediately after we brought home our puppy in May 2014.
I opened the inner door and looked through the plexiglass window of the outer storm door, seeing that a significant amount of snow had fallen overnight. By my estimation, it looked like an accumulation of about six to eight inches. Still looking through the plexiglass storm door window, I began to open the outer door to let Bella into the backyard to take care of her business. I thought she would likely charge around the yard for a bit before deciding to come inside again. For a southern coonhound mix from North Carolina, Bella loves snow.
A mysterious canine crosses our yard
As I began to open the door, however, I saw a large animal moving swiftly from the right side of our yard to the left. It trotted rapidly in front of our patio, which was covered with snow, directly across my line of vision. It was a large, four-legged canine — or so it appeared to me — but unlike any kind with which I was familiar. The first feature that struck me was its long, lush coat of red fur. This immediately made me think, “Red fox.” Yet, it appeared too large and robustly built to be a fox. We occasionally see red foxes in our neighborhood. They are slenderly built and not very big. It could not have been a fox. I was sure of that.
My dog thrust her nose against the slightly-ajar storm door as I tried to process what I saw. Immediately, I bent down to push her back and quickly shut the door. I did not want her to run into the yard with that large canine present. In a brief moment, I looked down to grab Bella and then looked up. This creature had vanished. Pushing my dog backward with my leg and away from the door, I opened it enough to stick out my head and shoulders and look from side to side. There was no sign of this mysterious canine that had run across my yard.
“Sorry, Bella,” I said. “You have to wait a few minutes to go outside to pee.” I closed the door and hurriedly put on my sweatpants, sweatshirt, coat, and boots. My wife opened her eyes and looked at me. “Where are you going off to?” she asked. I told her what had happened and what I had seen, and told her not to let Bella out until I was sure this animal had left our property.
The snow was high enough that I had to push a bit to open the back door enough to get out. Stepping onto my patio, I looked cautiously around my yard. No sign of the creature. It had moved from the right side toward the left side of our relatively small suburban lot. Looking to the right, I inspected the fresh blanket of snow and saw deep, fresh tracks that were obviously canine. They were made by paws larger than those of my 70 lb hound-mix.
I walked to the left-hand side of our yard, where the tracks seemed to have begun. I stepped cautiously, careful not to walk over any of the tracks, and followed them across the yard toward the fence that enclosed our yard to the left. Oddly, the tracks stopped. As abruptly as they began, near the edge of the fence on the right side of our house, they vanished at a certain point on the right, about 10 feet from the fence.
“Weird,” I thought. This large mystery animal would have had to have leaped over the fence or burrowed under it to have entered our yard. Jumping our fence from our neighbors’ property on the right would have been near-impossible because of a high row of juniper bushes that stood in front of it, running the length of both our backyard properties.
Large animal tracks that vanish
To exit our backyard, this mysterious canine would have had to have leaped the fence on the left of our property and into our neighbor’s yard to our left. It would not have had time to dig under the snow and earth in the split second that it disappeared from my sight. Had the creature jumped the fence into the yard of our neighbor’s to our left, it would have disturbed the snow on the other side of the fence, leaving a clear landing mark in the pristine blanket of snow. There was no sign of that. The tracks began suddenly on the right of our yard and ended just as suddenly on the left.
“Huh?” I thought, puzzled. How did this thing get in and out with no sign of entry or exit? It did not make much sense to me then, no more than it does now. I bent down to examine the tracks more closely. “My gosh. These sure are big tracks,” I thought to myself. Still at loss, I was at least satisfied that this animal was no longer in our yard. Knowing that Bella was probably waiting impatiently to go outside, I opened the storm door, where she was predictably standing.
My dog bolted out of the yard, excited to bound through the snow. Quickly, she found a suitable spot and relieved herself. After a moment, she stopped, sniffing the air intently. She came to the tracks, sniffing them, her tail low and ears back. Normally, Bella would want to run through the snow for at least an hour, but that morning she quickly returned to the door and stood there, waiting to be let inside again. She did not like whatever she smelled out there.
I let her in and returned to the middle of the yard again. I could now see Bella’s pawprints next to the prints of this mysterious canine. The unknown creature’s prints were roughly twice the size of my dog’s. This thing, I estimated, had to have been a good 120 lbs/55 kg — too large to be a coyote and certainly much too big to be a fox. We have coyotes in the area, and I have seen them on a few rare occasions. They are not big and nowhere close to being 100 lbs or more.
Could this have been some red-haired species of the wolf? I have never heard of such a thing. Not in the Jersey ‘burbs, for sure. We do not have wolves in New Jersey and probably have not in better than 150 years. If I lived in the more rural areas of northwestern New Jersey or the NJ Pinelands, I might entertain the idea that there could be a small rogue population of wolves. But wolves 20 miles from midtown Manhattan? That seemed unlikely to me.
My subsequent research revealed some interesting photos and articles about reddish-haired wolf species. I am, of course, aware of the red wolf, which is an endangered species. They are not strikingly red and do not have the long, red fur I had seen this unknown canine sporting. The unknown animal that I encountered had fur that was long and very lush, unlike any species of wolf of which I was familiar.
A similar-looking South American species
In further research, I came across a species of canine native to South America that looked somewhat similar. It is called the maned wolf and is found in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay — a very long way from New Jersey, USA. Also, an adult male maned wolf weighs roughly fifty pounds (22.5 kg), much smaller than the animal that casually trotted through my yard on that snowy weekend morning.
However, the maned wolf is very fox-ish in appearance, and it does have a similar long red coat as the unknown canine that I encountered. Still, it is unlikely that an overly-large individual of that species found its way into my back yard in northeastern New Jersey.
Mystery animal, disappearing tracks
Had it not been for the large paw prints in the snow, I might have dismissed this as a trick of my early-morning, pre-caffeinated mind. I would have probably decided that it was only a red fox that I had seen, albeit an unusually large individual. Those paw prints, though — they contradicted that thought entirely. Those prints came from a large canine species. It must have been some wolf or a large wolf-like dog.
Just another day at the office?
The sudden appearance and disappearance of the unknown animal’s tracks deepened the mystery and added a layer of strangeness to the encounter. Could this have been another one of those things that I seem fated to encounter? Another bizarre, unexplainable event, like the gigantic man on the New York City subway, or the many other strange events I am periodically subjected to? As I pondered this, I could not help thinking that if it was another anomalous phenomenon, at least it didn’t involve monsters emerging from portals. After that experience, nothing much bothers me. 🙂