Coyotes have found a comfy home in Florida's most urbanized county. And why not? Weather's nice and the food's good.
Terri D. Reeves / Times Correspondent / July 17, 2004
It was a very close call for Velcro, a 2-year-old chocolate-colored cat that likes to leap on people and stick to their clothes.
She nearly became a late-night snack for a pair of hungry, hunting coyotes.
And not out in some remote wooded location, either.
This happened in Clearwater, just off U.S. 19, north of Westfield Shoppingtown Countryside, in a neighborhood of about 20 homes.
Last week, Marcia Stahl, who lives on 2 acres behind the Days Inn motel, said family members heard Velcro outside screeching in terror. Her two adult daughters ran outside, turned on the lights and screamed "Coyotes!"
"I thought they were nuts," Stahl said. "This isn't Colorado."
Two coyotes had grabbed Velcro. One had her head and the other had her back. When the women appeared, they dropped the cat and ran toward the Silk Oak mobile home park.
Stahl said she was shocked to learn that coyotes live in Pinellas, Florida's most urbanized county, and that their numbers are growing.
"I've lived here for 21 years," she said. "They are moving into my territory. I'm not moving into theirs."
She said she now feels like a prisoner in her own home. The coyotes returned to the same spot the next night.
"We don't go out at night now," she said. She has one granddaughter living with her and two who visit. She worries for their safety. "Now we are afraid when we go outside. We used to let them play on the swing set and we'd go for long walks at dusk. Now we don't dare."
Handouts bring on attacks
Coyotes are not native to Florida; they have migrated here from western states. And they're not about to leave; the weather is great and the food is to kill for.
"They have learned that urban areas provide adequate food sources and are here to stay," said Kenny Mitchell, Pinellas County's director of animal services.
No one is sure when they arrived or what their numbers are. Estimates have them arriving in Florida in the 1970s.
What is known is that the county has received increasing numbers of calls lately from people who have seen the creatures, which look like small wolves, roaming around on streets, in parks, in industrial areas and neighborhoods.
Many suspect their missing cats or small dogs have become prey for the wily coyote.
The county has produced a brochure on coyotes and has issued an alert so that homeowners will become aware that the wild animals are here.
Officials are beginning to keep track of sightings, which appear to be countywide. The Pinellas Trail appears to be a frequently used corridor for the animals to branch out into new areas.
"We are warning people not to feed these animals and not to make them comfortable," said Mitchell, a veterinarian.
He said cat owners should keep their cats inside. Dogs should be kept in a closed, fenced environment. Pet owners should not leave food outside and all garbage cans should have locking lids.
So far, there have been no attacks on humans in Pinellas. But that could change, Mitchell warns, if people start trying to feed or befriend the normally timid animals.
"We aren't to that point yet," he said, "but we could be headed that way if we start to see daylight behavior where they aren't afraid of people."
He cited a recent study by California researchers, Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem, reporting that attacks on humans, once thought to be rare, have increased over the past decade.
The report documented 89 attacks on people in California between 1978 and 2003. In one, a 3-year-old girl was killed in her front yard by a coyote. She died from massive bleeding and a broken neck.
Other victims were joggers, walkers or children who were either threatened or bitten, some while walking dogs.
"Intentional feeding of coyotes has often been practiced at locations where subsequent coyote attacks occurred," the researchers wrote. "Well-meaning individuals must come to understand that intentional feeding of coyotes dooms them to subsequent lethal control. A fed coyote is a dead coyote."
If someone sees a coyote, Mitchell suggests the most humane thing they can do is to make them feel unwelcome by spraying them with a hose, banging pots and pans, or just yelling at them.
All, of course, from a distance.
A county ordinance prohibits feeding or molesting wild animals.
Velcro spent nine days in the Country Oaks Animal Hospital in Palm Harbor recovering from her wounds. She will be quarantined at home for six months, where she will be observed for signs of rabies. Her medical bills amounted to about $1,000.
"These injuries weren't that bad because they interrupted the whole interaction," said Elizabeth Baird, the veterinarian who treated Velcro. "They could have been much worse.
"We always recommend that cats be kept indoors. The statistical odds are first they will be hit by a car, second attacked by a dog. The odds of being attacked by a coyote are unlikely but possible," Baird said.
Unlucky cats likely eaten
Bob Peterson's cat, Inky, was not as lucky as Velcro.
Inky, a black, polydactyl cat - one with six digits on his front paws - showed up on the Petersons' doorstep in Largo two years ago on Christmas Eve.
"Inky was a very intelligent cat," said Peterson, a retired engineer. "I didn't have to worry about him getting hit by a car because he would never leave the property and wouldn't go close to the road. He would come at a full gallop when you called his name."
One night a few weeks ago, Inky didn't come. Peterson, 71, searched his 2-acre property on McMullen Road just off Keene Road for signs of the 2-year-old feline, but he had disappeared without a trace.
Peterson, who lives near the property that the county plans to develop as Eagle Lake Park, searched the lake.
He called animal shelters.
Then he checked with the neighbors. He discovered that in the past few weeks, three other cats in the same area had mysteriously disappeared.
One neighbor found a leg that belonged to a different missing cat.
Peterson learned, to his horror, coyotes lived in the area.
"I can't bring Inky back, but I feel like we should have been notified that there were coyotes around here," he said. "I've lived here 14 years and had no idea there was a problem."
Peterson said he would like signs posted in areas where coyotes are known to exist. He has called around and no one seems to know who, if anyone, would be responsible for such notices.
A neighbor who lives about a mile away, Lynn Roberts, said she has heard coyotes at night near the southeast corner of Eagle Lake Park.
"I've heard them yipping when ambulances go by," said Roberts, 46, an art teacher who works at the Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Center in Clearwater.
Her 18-year-old black and white cat also is missing.
Thriving in Florida
Jeanne Murphy, park naturalist for the Pinellas County Extension service, said coyotes resemble small German shepherds with bushy black-tipped tails. Some say they look like a cross between a fox and a wolf.
Their grizzled coats are often splashed with browns, reds and rusts. Their average weight is about 35 pounds.
They are crepuscular creatures, which means they are normally active at sunrise and sunset, "but they may also come out in the night or the day," Murphy said.
Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, dining on whatever is available at the time. Entrees may include rabbits, wild fruits, insects, birds and garbage.
Sometimes, coyotes are beneficial because they eat road kill and rodents. However, they have a penchant for cats and small dogs, too. They are even known to attack livestock.
Last year, they took down a goat in Largo.
They are thriving in Florida, mostly because their competitor, the wolf, has been exterminated here.
The Native Americans called them "little wolves." Their scientific name is Canis latrans, which means "barking dog."
Murphy said they have one litter a year and normally travel in mating pairs, or a mother with her young.
Sometimes young pups can resemble dogs, enough to fool even a veterinarian.
Rick Chaboudy, director of the Humane Society of Pinellas, said that two pups, only a few days old, were found on Virginia Street in Dunedin. A vet brought them to the shelter thinking they were puppies.
"We bottle-fed them for a while." he said. "They had raccoon-looking faces. We figured they were either very ugly puppies or coyotes."
The coyote pups were eventually taken to an animal refuge in Central Florida.
Chaboudy also has been receiving more reports of coyotes.
"We had a pregnant female hit and killed on McMullen-Booth Road north of Sunset (Point Road)," he said. "And two weeks ago one was hit by a car at the corner of Keene (Road) and Virginia Street (in Dunedin), but we never found it.
"Sightings are much more frequent over the past year and the areas they are reported in are starting to expand," he said. "They seem to be adjusting quite well to the area. They are normally quite shy and can slip into areas where people don't even know they are around."