2006-11-30 / Community

Coyote encounters can be deadly for your pets

By Sylvie Belmond belmond@theacorn.com

Newbury Park resident Jennifer Reed sensed something was wrong when she returned home from work. She looked out the kitchen window that afternoon and saw her dog Dakota lying in the middle of the lawn in the backyard of her home on Thunderhead Road.

The family pet was barely recognizable. "It was just a heap of fur with bloodstained grass," said Reed.

Dakota, a small Shih Tzu, had been gutted. Everything in the torso area had been devoured except the heart, Reed's brother, John Streltzoff, said. Animal Control workers came out to pick up the remains.

"Dakota was a part of my life for 12 years, but I couldn't get lost in emotion because I didn't want to upset my kids," Reed said, asking Acorn readers not to share gruesome details of the recent incident with anyone who may tell her young children.

Reed and Streltzoff believe coyotes were the culprits. They can be observed on Lynn Road and lurking on the hill above the houses on Thunderhead, walking up to fences in the middle of the day. But it seems unusual for coyotes to attack a dog during the day, Streltzoff said.

Cats are more likely to be victims, but even that is rare, according to a park official. "Although coyotes may appear to be eating lots of cats, our studies show that rabbits are the primary prey," said Ray Sauvajot, chief planner for science and resource management in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area.

"We don't see consistent evidence of coyotes acting more aggressively or behaving differently," Sauvajot said, adding that an individual coyote may become inclined to prey on small domestic animals, but overall the wild canines focus on native species.

And "coyotes are very important predators in our ecosystems," said Sauvajot.

Some studies suggest that if coyotes were absent, mediumsized predators would increase in number, leading to declines in sensitive species such as groundnesting birds.

The howling creature also is an icon of the West, with aesthetic value in addition to its ecological role, Sauvajot said.

Coyotes spend time in and around urban areas but they don't seem to interact with people for the most part.

"About a third of coyote scats (droppings) include rabbits, and coyotes also eat a lot of other items such as fruits and nuts," Sauvajot said. Garbage and dog food are also detected as coyotes are known to consume such food sources, along with pets on occasion, but it's quite infrequent, Sauvajot said.

The coyotes are attracted to urban areas because rabbits are abundant near parks and golf courses, but water is not the reason they come, as runoff is available outside of inhabited areas.

Sharing space with wildlife

Encroachment by humans affects how coyotes get around, Sauvajot said. Coyotes and other wildlife use narrow corridors of native vegetation to travel in search of food, and they depend on these areas, he said. Problems arise when wildlife habitat is crowded out by development.

"People mistakes can lead to wildlife encounters," said Steve Martarano, supervising information officer for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Residents should make sure they don't leave out dishes of dog food or open barrels of garbage that can attract hungry wildlife. Clearing brush to deter rabbits from coming near homes also helps, he said.

Although attacks are not likely, Martarano said small children should not be left unattended in backyards or in areas known to be frequented by coyotes. Small pets should not be allowed to run free because they're easy prey for a hungry coyote. Even large dogs should be brought inside after dark.

Residents who spot a coyote in the neighborhood are advised to try negative reinforcement-- make loud noises, throw rocks or spray the animal with a water hose--to discourage it from visiting again.

It's essential that coyotes retain their natural wariness of humans, according to the Fish and Game Department. If coyote problems persist, city officials or the county agricultural commissioner should be contacted for assistance.

Owls also attack pets

Coyotes are not the only predators who kill small domestic animals. "From my experience, it's more likely that pets like cats are attacked and eaten by owls," said Moorpark Councilmember Roseann Mikos, who lives next to a regional park.

Owls are birds of prey that fly very quietly. The agile raptors hunt at night and are well equipped to catch unsuspecting small mammals, she said.

They often swallow their prey whole, and the fur, feathers and bones are later regurgitated in pellets, according to information from the University of Michigan.

But raptor connoisseur David Stroud, who works with the Ojai Raptor Center, said owls don't generally attack pets. They hunt domestic animals only when they can't find natural prey, he said.

Most cats are too heavy for an owl to pick up and quickly fly off with, Stroud said. Great horned and barn owls, western screech owls and burrowing owls are commonly seen in the area, he said.

A bear was found and killed by Fish and Game officials Nov. 14 in Fillmore, prompting residents to wonder if these predators are common, too.

"There are 30,000 to 35,000 bears in California," said Martarano.

Bears occasionally wander where they're not supposed to be and get into trouble, he said.

The Fillmore bear was destroyed, Martarano said, because federal law requires wild animals to be killed if they have been sedated while hunting season is in progress. Drugs used to tranquilize an animal could make their

way into the human food chain if the animal is hunted and eaten within 14 days. Bear season ends in late December. A maximum number of 1,700 bears can be hunted in the state this year, the Fish and Game official said.

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