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Hungry coyotes are hunting near homes

Yorba Linda, close to one of last year's major burn areas, is among cities trapping and killing the predators. Animal activists object, and more debate is planned.

September 09, 2009|Tony Barboza

The coyote perched atop the cinder-block wall 25 feet across the lawn from Candy Julian's screen door, dangling its paws and eyeing her family's two miniature schnauzers.

"We started screaming. My son grabbed a shovel," the 45-year-old fitness instructor said of her run-in with a coyote one evening late last month in her Yorba Linda backyard. "I was screaming 'The dogs! The dogs!' "

Her family chased off the coyote. But some neighbors haven't been so lucky, losing cats and small dogs and fearing for their children's safety.

Julian's neighborhood is not far from Chino Hills State Park, which borders Yorba Linda on the north and east and which is the usual home of wildlife. But the burned hills from last year's massive Freeway Complex fire and an extended drought have driven prey and predators into much closer contact with humans.

Over the last year, coyotes have increasingly strayed into the landscaped backyards and parks of the 65,000-person suburb, sizing up dogs, cats, chickens -- even toddlers -- as their natural food supply dwindled. They're using the town's trail system to get around and drinking from an artificial lake surrounded by houses.

Complaints to city officials and animal control officers soared, and street signs became bulletin boards for missing-pet fliers about small dogs and cats that were more than likely snatched up by coyotes.

The problem was alarming enough that the city posted coyote alerts and set up a hotline that now receives about four calls a day reporting coyotes scurrying over backyard fences or making off with a cat or dog.

And last month, after tracking the creatures for six months, the city hired a trapper -- at a cost of $3,500 for 10 days -- who roamed four areas of the foothills, using scents to attract and snare nine coyotes, which were euthanized.

"We really feel terrible about this whole situation, but if we had to beat up a coyote with a shovel, we'd do it in a second, because they're just eating up so many animals around us, it's just crazy," Julian said.

Yorba Linda is not alone. Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos, among others, also have hired people to trap and destroy problem coyotes.

The city's tactics do not have universal support. Some residents have complained, calling the killings inhumane. Wildlife authorities question whether the effort will do any good.

Animal advocates and conservationists say that killing individual animals will do nothing to curb the population because the numbers will bounce back in less than a year.

The problem, they say, is as much human as coyote: Development and wildfires displaced the coyotes, and humans ought to adapt to the creatures, not view them as interlopers that must be eliminated.

"This is their natural habitat, and people seem to be attracted to these areas for the beauty and for the nature, but they need to accept that wildlife comes with that bargain," said Julie Curran-Meskell, co-director of Orange County People for Animals, who opposes Yorba Linda's actions.

The City Council will hear more testimony from residents this month when it considers authorizing additional coyote trapping and killing.

"You should be able to go into your backyard and be able to play with your kids without worrying about a coyote scaling the wall and attacking your cat or dog," said Lauren Cochran, a management assistant for the city who became a coyote expert of sorts as sightings have increased over the last year.

But Laura Simon, field director of the Humane Society of the United States' Urban Wildlife Program, contends that Yorba Linda's approach is a misguided, knee-jerk reaction, especially if alternatives, such as keeping pet food indoors, spraying coyotes with hoses or shooting them with rubber bullets or paint balls, could be more effective.

"Lethal control should only be a last resort," she said. "If the habitat is not hospitable for coyotes, they're not going to come."

Trapping programs may simply be a way to appease residents who have developed exaggerated fears of coyotes, Simon suggested, since coyote attacks on humans are rare but highly publicized.

"Coyotes are looking for small, easy prey, like mice, not infants," she said. "They're not the menace they're made out to be. It's the human fear factor that really creates this escalating panic in communities [and] leads to killing programs."

The threat to small children can be real, however.

Last year, for example, several toddlers were attacked by coyotes in a Chino Hills park, just across the hills from Yorba Linda. In one incident, a baby-sitter rescued a 2-year-old girl playing in a sandbox who was snapped up by a coyote and carried away.

The state Department of Fish and Game dispatched trappers who found and killed 15 coyotes in the Chino Hills State Park area that they considered threats to public safety.

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