Coyotes are a growing problem in St. Louis suburb, elsewhere

Saturday, January 11, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- When the Knapp family found their cocker spaniel on their deck, they couldn't believe their eyes.

The dog had 23 bites on his body, four broken ribs and badly chewed-up legs. The family spent about $2,800 trying to save their 12-year-old pet, named Klyde, before seizures set in; a veterinarian advised them four days later they needed to put the dog to sleep.

When a pest control expert trapped a coyote in the family's yard in the affluent St. Louis suburb of Ladue Wednesday, homeowner George Knapp said he felt he'd exacted some revenge.

Gene Jezek, owner of Critter Control of St. Louis, estimated he's heard stories of nearly a dozen pets picked off by coyotes in two years; he's trapped and killed six coyotes in the past few weeks in Ladue.

"I have some peace of mind knowing that six of them are gone," Knapp said. "It takes seeing your animal beaten to smithereens to do that."

Ladue residents, who are individually paying for professionally set coyote traps, aren't the only ones fighting back. In city yards and suburban subdivisions, residents nationwide are dealing with coyotes.

The federal Wildlife Services program recorded 5,532 coyote complaints nationwide in 1997; by 2001, that number increased to 8,203.

In cities from Phoenix to Pittsburgh, residents have been swapping coyote stories.

Coyotes are sometimes mistaken for collies or small German shepherds at first glance, though coyotes have long snouts and bushy, black-tipped tails. They live throughout the continental United States and will eat both plants and animals.

Wildlife biologists say coyotes are an important link in the balance of nature -- they prey on rabbits and rodents, they're scavengers that will eliminate dead animals.

As territorial animals and predators, they will in rare cases set upon Fluffy as a food source, or go after Fido if they feel the dog is infringing on their territory.

Conflicts with wildlife

"Across the country, coyote conflicts seem to be on the increase, as are other wildlife conflicts," said Richard Curnow of the Wildlife Services.

As new housing developments move outward, people begin infringing on coyotes' living space, Curnow said. Meanwhile, the coyotes, widely considered a bright and easily adaptive animal, find they can survive in areas where humans live.

Coyote researchers said widespread trapping or killing isn't a wise solution, nor is relocating the animals -- if a habitat will support coyotes, more are likely to move in over time after the other pack has been moved.

"It's individual animals that are committing the offenses, not whole populations," said John Hadidian, director of the urban wildlife program for the Humane Society of the United States. "When you persecute an animal like a coyote, as we have for generations, you're actually selecting for an animal that's smarter. You're taking the dumb coyotes out of the population."

While the average coyote avoids and runs from people, problems arise when some creatures lose their fear of humans. They venture into yards to snack on pet food, rummage through trash cans or even sample the occasional watermelons from gardens.

"We're expanding our population. They're expanding their population. And there is all this bumping into each other," said Mervin Hee, of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Southern California started a coyote education program, Hee said, after the region saw eight people bitten or injured by coyotes in 17 confrontations in 2001. That included a 3-year-old San Gabriel girl who was dragged off her front porch by a coyote.

Since the program started, Southern California has reported just two additional cases of coyotes injuring humans, Hee said.

Hee said he's unconcerned about potential risks from a coyote den about 100 yards from his own house. Still, he said problems can arise when coyotes associate humans or their pets with food.

"Then, they see us and they think it's time to eat. That's when they lose their fear."

Animal control officials said the conflicts can perhaps best be resolved by educating people about coyote behaviors. They suggest that people avoid leaving pet dishes out and garbage unsecured.

And, they say, don't let pets roam free.

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