David Vernasco and Kelly Hunt thought Los Angeles' scenic Silver Lake district would be a good place to buy a home after living in a hectic, overcrowded neighborhood near Farmers Market.
After all, the new neighborhood would offer what they hadn't had in the Fairfax district: panoramic views of the nearby mountains, scenic Silver Lake reservoir across the street and a shorter drive to downtown. They were happy to find an affordable home, because usually one "practically has to be a millionaire to buy a house in Silver Lake," said Vernasco, a 35-year-old bartender.
But the good vibes evaporated on the evening of Aug. 25, the couple said, when a coyote jumped over a 3-foot fence into their yard, sunk its teeth into their beloved Chihuahua, Zu-Zu, and retreated onto reservoir property with the pet in its jaws.
The incident outraged the two. They hadn't been aware that the area has had a growing coyote problem for 10 years. They say the city Department of Water and Power, which maintains the reservoir, and other agencies have done little to deal with the situation.
In the last month, 12 complaints about coyotes in Silver Lake have been lodged with city animal regulation officials, making the trendy hillside community one of the most coyote-plagued neighborhoods in Greater Los Angeles.
"I have no liberty in my front yard because of the coyotes," Vernasco said.
City officials, while apologetic about the incident involving the Chihuahua, said the long-term solution isn't the coyotes' removal or destruction in areas that were once part of their natural habitat.
"Removing them doesn't fix the big picture," said Troy Boswell, city wildlife officer. "Very typically, they don't stay in one place. They jump around from one neighborhood to another. Any decent area that can house coyotes has coyotes."
Reflecting a prevailing attitude espoused by vocal animal activists, who say that humans are to blame for most coyote-related problems, Boswell said workers in the city Department of Animal Services adhere to a policy directive adopted by the Los Angeles Animal Regulation Commission that bans the trapping of coyotes unless they act aggressively toward humans.
Until 1994, city workers routinely trapped and euthanized coyotes. These days, wildlife officers like Boswell meet with residents who have complained about coyotes. The officers pass along information about coyotes and suggest ways to keep them away.
Among them are the clearing of brush and vegetation, which can provide a hiding place for coyotes; removing pet food from outside a home; repairing all holes or broken boards in fences; strengthening eroding slopes under fences to prevent easy digging; and confining pets indoors during hours when coyotes are known to be active.
And, of course, there's the admonition about coyotes: Don't feed them.
Even using a sprinkler can work to keep coyotes away.
Said Tony Mcilwain, a rescuer of dogs for 25 years who is familiar with coyotes, which come near his home next to Elysian Park: "One of my main things is get a super soaker [sprinkler].... They're stone afraid of humans." That's of little consolation to Vernasco and Hunt, who have pestered city officials about the situation in Silver Lake while obtaining two new dogs to replace Zu-Zu.
"That coyote snatched my dog from within the walled perimeter of my house," Vernasco said. "It's only a matter of time before someone's baby is taken. The coyotes are urban terrorists. I mean, we're only three miles from downtown."
Hunt, a 39-year-old casting director, was about 10 feet away from the Chihuahua when the coyote took it. "My last memory of her was in the mouth of a coyote, screaming to her death and looking back at me," she said.
The couple appealed to the DWP, they said, because some coyotes, including the one that took their pet, have put down roots in the hilly, wooded terrain at the eastern edge of Silver Lake reservoir. Some of the holes in the wire fencing on Armstrong Avenue, where the couple live, have since been repaired.
They also complained to animal services officials and the office of area Councilman Tom LaBonge.
They said they are upset at what they consider tepid responses.
At lease one neighbor says that anyone who lives near the reservoir should be mindful of pests like coyotes.
Peter Danko, 65, who lives down the street from the couple and is a 40-year resident of Silver Lake, said coyotes have been established in the area for a decade.
"In the last couple of years, I have persistently told people, 'If you got a small dog, keep it close to you or on a leash,' " Danko said, adding that anger directed at LaBonge and other city officials over the issue is misdirected.
"The [Animal Services] department is horribly understaffed," he said.
For his part, an apologetic LaBonge vows to look into the problem.
"I certainly want to look into it if they're aggressively acting toward pets," the councilman said. "I'm very sorry that they lost their pet."