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Coyotes in your Backyard: Ghosts of the Plains are now Ghosts of the Cities

Wild coyotes prowl through almost every neighborhood inside the Perimeter, and some Decatur residents are going to ask city officials to help them protect their pets

A coyote’s distinctive howl may seem out of place in Atlanta’s urban environment.

Yet the wild canines prowl almost every urban neighborhood in metro Atlanta, according to wildlife officials and trappers. And, they have been blamed for eating pet cats and small dogs.

Residents of a Decatur neighborhood plan to lobby the Decatur City Commission Tuesday night to help them rid their neighborhood of the wild animals.

“Wild animals that can actually hurt people have no place in intown neighborhoods,” wrote Laura Paul on a blog for the Lenox Place neighborhood. “What are we supposed to do--stay up all nite and beat pans and whistle until the sun comes up?”

Paul works with the Dearborn Animal Hospital to rescue and rehabilitate stray cats. One friend found a pet cat on his doorstep, dead with his belly eaten out, apparently by a coyote. Another couple had a small pet dog taken in front of them while still on his leash, Paul said.

But trapping wild coyotes is unlikely to rid the neighborhood of the animals, whose  pointed ears, slender muzzles, and drooping bushy tails often resemble German shepherds or collies, said Stephanie Philippo, a wildlife rehabilitator with Animal Wild Animal Rescue Effort, or AWARE, based at DeKalb County’s Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area.

“We are not going to get rid of them,” Philippo said. “They are here to stay. They are in every neighborhood.”

Wildlife trappers and wildlife experts all agree that wild coyotes populate every neighborhood in metro Atlanta, inside and outside the Perimeter. Under Georgia law, wild coyotes must be euthanized and may not be released into the wild, because they carry rabies and other diseases.

Relocating a coyote would likely result in its death anyway, because animals removed from their home range have a “low likelihood of surviving,” Philippo said.

“Coyotes are very prevalent in every county in Georgia, and in every neighborhood in metro Atlanta” said Philippo, who added that there are coyotes in her Buckhead neighborhood.  As concrete slabs replace trees, wooded areas shrank and coyotes, normally very shy animals who hang out in shadows, have become more visible, Philippo said.

Coyotes generate a lot of hysteria and misinformation, such as that urban coyotes are a hybrid with red wolves, she said. “Coyotes do not interbreed with wolves.”

As omnivores, coyotes will eat anything, including your garbage, small rodents, rates, mice, chipmunks and squirrels. The wild animals will eat cats, but Philippo believes that coyotes have been unfairly blamed for the disappearance of many urban cats.

The Ohio State University studied urban coyotes in Chicago starting in 2000 by trapping and tagging them with radio-controlled collars so as to study their movements. They discovered that the canines with striking yellow eyes were far more prevalent than they’d previously thought, and suspected what was true of coyotes in Chicago would be true of the animals in other big eastern cities.

“Originally known as ghosts of the plains, coyotes have now become ghosts of the cities, occasionally heard but rarely seen,” began the report, led by Stanley D. Gehrt of the School of Environment and Natural Resources.

In the study, some urban coyotes howled, others did not. One pack regularly howled in response to sirens from a nearby fire station. Most of the coyotes were killed by vehicles, while others died from shootings, malnutrition, and disease such as sarcoptic mange and parvo virus.

Although the Chicago coyotes did eat cats, they didn’t eat many. A graduate student, Paul Morey, analyzed coyote droppings and concluded that domestic cats comprised just 1.3 percent of the coyote diet, and human-related food, such as garbage or pet food, about 2 percent of their diet. Urban coyotes appeared to be feeding on small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent) and rabbit (18 percent), according to the study.

Coyote removal has often been accompanied by an increase in an area’s rat population; they’re also credited with controlling deer and Canadian geese, often overabundant and a nuisance in urban areas.

Chip Elliott of Atlanta Wildlife Relocator specializes in trapping coyotes throughout metro Atlanta. In 2010, he trapped more than 70 coyotes, and it was an off year. He recently trapped two coyotes near West Paces Ferry Road, and has trapped the animals near Lenox Mall.

“Teddy” Kubiak, a licensed DeKalb County wildlife trapper with Trutech Inc., says there isn’t an Atlanta zip code he hasn’t worked in to trap coyotes, including Alpharetta.

 “They’ll eat your garbage, eat your cats, eat your Pomeranian,” said Kubiak. “They don’t care.”

Neighborhood associations will often band together to pay Elliott’s $1,000 fee for two weeks of trapping, including daily monitoring of the traps.

“It’s an animal of opportunity,” said Elliott. “He’ll take the neighborhood cat standing there if it doesn’t run away. It takes the easiest thing he can find.”

Trappers use modern leghold traps, fitted with thick rubber instead of iron teeth, from which coyotes and pet animals can be removed, usually unharmed. Elliott either shoots trapped coyotes, or gives them to equestrian centers who use them for fox-hunting in fenced areas.

Shooting coyotes is considered an authorized and humane way of euthanizing them, said Don McGowan, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division.

But trapping coyotes is unlikely to rid a neighborhood of the wild animals, because other animals will breed and fill in the area, he said.  Trapping can rid an area of nuisance coyotes, McGowan said. In fact, the state maintains a list of currently licensed Georgia nuisance wildlife trappers.

“It’s not totally fruitless to trap,” said McGowan. “You can have individual coyotes who are more brazen than others.”

Although there have been reports in other states of urban coyotes attacking people, McGowan said he has not heard any confirmed reports of such attacks in  Georgia. Most coyotes are wary of people and will quickly run away if encountered. 

But coyotes “get accustomed to people,” he added. “The only time I see a coyote in a rural area, it’s always running away from me. In urban and suburban areas, they’re not as skittish.”

Residents of Decatur’s Lenox Place neighborhood are wary of the wild animals and are seeking guidance from city officials to deal with the problem. The animals probably dwell along Peavine Creek and wooded areas around there.

Steve Sharp wrote that one of his pet cats, Otis, nearly became a coyote meal last June, but an animal-loving neighbor scared the wild animal away. Since then, Sharp has locked up his cats.

Sharp wrote “if these pets of ours were being killed by a stray/wild dog that action to remove those type of animals would be taken without a second thought. The fact that the animal doing the killing was a coyote did not change that thought process. 

"Everyone I have spoken to on Drexel is against the idea of letting coyotes stay in the neighborhood,” posted Eric Blue on the Lenox Place neighborhood blog.

Barbara Belcore said that “because of human behavior (ie development) these animals have had to adapt, therefore so do we.” Belcore noted, “When people go out into nature, we are going to meet mad dogs, coyotes, possums, bats, mosquitoes, flies and whatever else that is a part of nature."

“I don’t like killing anything,” says Paul. “I put bugs and spiders outside. But if it comes down to animals we love and nurture and make part of our families, yeah, I’m going to chose them over predators.” 

Residents of neighborhoods with coyotes “shouldn’t be scared,” said McGown. “But they need to be be respectful.”

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division recommends that urban residents take these steps to protect pets and small children from harm by coyotes:

  •  Take pets indoors during the night, as this is the coyote’s primary hunting time. (In addition to coyotes, small pets may fall prey to free-roaming dogs and great horned owls.)
  • If the pet must be kept outside, install fencing and motion-activated flood lights to discourage predators.
  • Small livestock or poultry should be kept in an enclosed or sheltered area. Coyotes rarely bother larger livestock although they are often blamed for such nuisance instances.
  • NEVER, under any circumstances, feed a coyote.
  • Keep items, such as grills, pet food or bird feeders off-limits.
  • Make trash cans inaccessible, keep lids securely fastened or store trash cans in a secured location until trash pick-up. 
Cynthia L. Armistead February 26, 2011 at 07:52 AM
Thanks for the advice, Victoria. Unfortunately, I'm unable to garden - I'm allergic to all that "out there." My partner and daughter actually handle the bird feeders and water for me so I (and our cat, who stays indoors!) can watch the birds. But I'll see if we can't add a bird bath, and we'll stick with water during the warm months from now on. Perhaps I can persuade someone to plant some low-maintenance shrubs for me. The fig trees seem to be plenty popular for now.
Catrina May 10, 2011 at 07:51 PM
Just Saturday afternoon my younger son and I were driving along N. Decatur at the crest of the tall hill, right before we got to Ponce de Leon, and a very large coyote ran across all 4 lanes of traffic. It was surprising to see one out in broad daylight, so vulnerable. We are far more dangerous than so many of the wildlife we take issue with...and we have a far worse impact on the environment than the animals we consider pests.
Christina October 16, 2011 at 02:43 AM
Has anyone heard that there are coyote living in Glenwood Park/ Decatur Cemetery? A couple of the police officers told me that they see them all the time over there. They likely are trying to find leftovers from people's picnics in the park.
Elisa Jed April 10, 2014 at 10:30 PM
I wonder what is driving the coyotes down into populated areas. During a drought in my hometown coyotes and bears starting moving down the mountain closer to the city. They couldn't find food and water. The main problem was them getting into our garbage, but the pets were a scary issue as well. They should start having animal control make daily rounds if needed. Elisa Jed | http://wildthingzllc.com/index.php

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