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A neighborhood on coyote watch

A friendly sense of mission pervades as alert neighbors equip themselves with golf clubs and baseball bats after a predator is seen in the yard of a home.

September 03, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • A coyote trots along Los Alimos Avenue in Northridge, across the street from Beckford Avenue Elementary School. The public's perspective on coyotes has begun to evolve.
A coyote trots along Los Alimos Avenue in Northridge, across the street… (Debbie Cortez Lopez )

The midday knock on my front door came from a neighbor I didn't know, though we had lived for years on the same short block in Northridge.

She was going door-to-door with a warning that she'd spotted a coyote — in the middle of the day, on our cul de sac, in the yard next door to my house.

I propped a pillow against the doggy door and launched a frantic hunt for my two little dogs. I found them napping under my desk, unaware of how close they had come to becoming spoils of war.

I've lived 25 years in this neighborhood — bordered by a freeway and a shopping mall, it's about as urban as they come. We've learned here to appreciate our local wildlife. The rules are clear enough.

We'll veer around the snakes we encounter on our foothill bike rides. We'll stop for slow-moving raccoon families on busy Tampa Avenue. We'll try not to startle the deer we spot on Limekiln Canyon walks. We'll pause to let the lizards skitter off when we open our front doors in the morning.

But this takes the concept of co-existence to a whole new level. The coyotes have the upper hand; the pets and people are on lockdown.

I must have sounded a little overwrought when I called wildlife expert Larry Hawkins for advice. Hawkins is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

I love animals, I told him. But not wild ones trolling my neighborhood, with killer instincts and sharp teeth. I want to let my dogs play in their backyard. I don't like giving up my freedom.

"I don't know whether to tell you to talk to a wildlife biologist or a pastor," Hawkins said. "Coyotes are such an emotional issue, it's hard to talk about just the science."

I understand what he means by that. From a distance, coyotes are thrilling to listen to and fascinating to watch. But up close, they bring our vulnerability into terrifying focus.

It's easy to be enchanted by the antics of Glen Bearian, the bear who raids garage refrigerators and takes dips in backyard pools. It's natural to mourn the wandering mountain lion shot to death in an office courtyard in Santa Monica.

But it's a different story with a coyote, who's apt to leap a fence and snatch your Pomeranian from your suburban backyard.

Hawkins has spent 20 years trying to smooth the relationship between humans and coyotes. In the last few years, things have been tipping toward the animals' side.

"It's a progression," he said. "First we hear them, maybe at night. Then you see them at dusk or at dawn. Then you begin to see them more commonly during daylight hours. Then you see them in somebody's front yard, then on someone's porch."

He's describing what's happened on our block this summer: Miles spotted a coyote on an early morning bike ride. Rich found one asleep in his fire pit. Diane shooed one out of her back yard. Eddie stared one down from his driveway. Then, two weeks ago, Matt needed a baseball bat to chase one out of his yard.

And it's not just foothill neighborhoods. Coyotes have been spotted strolling through tourist spots in Hollywood and foraging through Trader Joe's trash bins on Ventura Boulevard.

"They've become part of the urban landscape," Hawkins said. And it won't be easy to get them to move on. The more time they spend in our neighborhoods, the less afraid of us they are.

"Coyotes are drawn to areas occupied by people because they like the way we live," he said. "Life is easier when other predatory animals are not preying on you, when you can eat an orange from somebody's backyard tree, eat out of the dog bowl, or eat the cat or the dog."

You don't have to spot a coyote to know your neighborhood has a problem, he said. Just survey your fences and lamp posts. "Missing dog. Lost pet. If you've seen Fluffy, please call.

"When you see a bunch of those signs and they're concentrated in a certain geographic area … I can tell you where they're going. They have been a meal."

Hawkins said the public perspective on the coyote issue has begun to evolve.

"It was 'Don't ever touch them. They were here first, we should leave,'" he said. "Now there's a more balanced approach."

And a recognition that the old advice — fence off your yard, clear trash and brush, don't feed or water animals outside — simply isn't enough.

Now our co-existence depends on our willingness to be moderately cruel: Pelt them with rocks or blast them with a hose when you spot them in your yard. Carry an air horn when you walk, the noise will run them off.

"Anything you can use to make them uncomfortable and haze them away from people … helps reshape their behavior," Hawkins said. "But only if it's consistently enforced."

And be prepared for battle, because they're bold and smart and not afraid of you or your dog.

"The last thing I want to do is paint a grim picture of coyotes," said Hawkins, who lives in the foothills near Sacramento. "But I wouldn't have a doggy door. I don't leave my dog out during the day. And I have a fence that is more than 6 feet tall."

Now I'm walking my dogs in daylight hours, eyes peeled and pockets loaded with rocks. I startle at the sound of a leaf blowing behind me and worry that every hedge hides a coyote about to pounce.

But if there's a bright side to our neighborhood saga, it's a friendly sense of mission. Strangers greet each other on the streets, waving our golf clubs and baseball bats when we pass, holding our pets tightly leashed.

And I'm trying to come to grips with my fears, but it's more than freedom I miss:

I've gone from seeing coyotes as lovely wild animals we have the privilege of living near to frightening, heartless predators that I'm willing to pelt with rocks.

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