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Wily Coyotes

As the Animals Make Themselves at Home in La Mirada, the City Wonders How to Evict Them

November 08, 1996|JOHN COX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the Los Coyotes Oil Field in eastern La Mirada was still just grassy, rolling hills, the area's dominant inhabitants seldom strayed from a diet of wild rabbits and squirrels.

But as developers in February began leveling the 90-acre site to make room for more than 300 residences, the area's coyote population headed into civilization for a change of menu: roaming cats, uncooped chickens and park ducks.

The move clearly surprised the city's two-legged residents, more and more of whom are losing pets to the coyotes. Just as the wily creatures seem to be growing accustomed to life in La Mirada's woodsy hillside community, city residents are wrestling with how to rout the intruders.

County animal control workers, called in after baited traps proved ineffective, said they may also have to abandon the experimental campaign in which trackers set out across a park and golf course with tranquilizer guns. If that happens, they said, even more controversial methods could be employed.

"Coyotes are so darn smart," said Frank Andrews, director of the county Department of Animal Care and Control. "They become very educated at what you're trying to do."

Although trackers have located some coyote dens during recent predawn forays, they have sighted only two of the animals, neither of which could be tranquilized. As a result, animal control officials said they may end the operation. Andrews said the next step will probably be a meeting with city officials to consider hiring private, armed trackers or using padded steel-jaw traps.

Some animal experts, however, say too little has been done to promote gentler and perhaps more dependable coyote deterrents, such as having residents keep pets and pet food inside at night.

The coyotes "are between a rock and a hard place," said Patrick Moore, state Department of Fish and Game spokesman. He said that the animals naturally shy from humans, but that "more of the coyotes are willing to put up with human beings for an easy handout."

Coyotes have long thrived in undeveloped portions of eastern La Mirada and neighboring communities. Yet reported sightings of the animals were rare--until residential development early this year pushed deeper into Los Coyotes Hills, the former oil field.

Grading began in February on a 90-acre parcel west of Beach Boulevard, between Alicante Road and Hillsborough Drive. Since then, maintenance workers have regularly discovered dead ducks and squirrels strewn about a golf course and park about a mile west of the development--a sign that the coyotes migrated toward civilization instead of staying in more familiar habitat to the east.

City Hall's initial response to the coyote threat was to contact the agency that normally handles coyote complaints, the county agricultural commissioner. But the baited, cage-type traps the department employed caught only the weakest coyotes. So the City Council voted last month to set aside $10,000 for additional "coyote abatement" services.

When the Department of Animal Care agreed to provide tracking services, it was against its own "live and let live attitude" toward coyotes, Andrews said. He described the recent tracking expeditions as a "test case" that probably will not be applied elsewhere.

Andrews said that any captured coyotes would probably be destroyed. Until recently the animals might have been released in a wildlife area, he said, but state and federal agencies say relocating some species can disrupt the ecological balance of the new habitat.

This poses a dilemma for residents, a few of whom recall an episode two years ago when a group of La Mirada residents hired a private tracker. Within two weeks the tracker killed several of the animals.

Sue McDonald, property manager for the La Mirada Landmark Adult Community Assn., said she never wants to see private trackers return to hunt down the four or five "gorgeous" coyotes that live around her condominium complex. Nevertheless, she said something must be done to keep the coyotes from frightening residents.

"You're kind of in a Catch-22" she said. "I want to see them gone, [but] I don't want to see them dead."

Homeowner education has long been advocated by Lila Brooks, director of California Wildlife Defenders. As author of two Los Angeles ordinances regarding coyote protection, she argues that humans are often responsible for the clashes. She encourages homeowners to keep their pets indoors at night and lock up their garbage.

"The people are responsible for the coyote problem," she said. "All restrictive measures have to be directed toward the people, not the coyotes."

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