For years, coyotes have fed on pets in this hilltop neighborhood. When residents complain to the county, the county calls Rizzo.
The trapper, born and raised in the hardwood forests of the Mississippi Delta, specializes in California's big predators: coyotes, bears and mountain lions.
Bear and lion problems make news. Coyotes make business. Rizzo spends about 80% of his time tracking, trapping and putting down wild canids from Pacific Palisades to Twentynine Palms.
His services are at once widely sought and controversial, reflecting suburbia's conflicted relationship with its wildlife.
This month, animal rights groups demanded the Huntington Library halt Rizzo's trapping of coyotes in the botanical gardens, threatening in a letter to make a "broader public issue of the case." At the same time, neighbors in San Marino have demanded the library do more to cull the coyotes living on the 207-acre property and feeding on their pets. One woman even sued the Huntington after her Pomeranian was killed a couple of blocks away.
Coyotes have adapted to civilization like no other predator, often breeding for generations completely detached from the wilderness.
Cities and suburbs offer much more sustenance than dry scrubland -- with little of the risk coyotesonce encountered when ranchers and hunters shot them as a matter of course. Coyotes sleep in hedges and drainages. They migrate along storm channels and miles of Southern California Edison easements. They drink from pools and pet bowls. They prey on cats and small dogs. They eat fallen fruit, dig scraps from compost heaps and raid bird feeders, trash cans and bags of pet food.
Rizzo, 45, has seen coyotes stalking along the 6-foot block walls between homes in Orange County, hunting for pets below. He's come upon a sobbing man who had let his Doberman out to fight off a coyote who had jumped into the backyard -- only to see his pet killed within seconds.
A 25-pound coyote can kill a 70-pound dog and drag it over a 6-foot wall. Though coyotes do lose fights now and then, smaller, less ferocious dogs have no chance against them.
"Why are they going to go chase rabbits when you got Fifi locked up with a bowl of water to drink right next to her?" Rizzo asked.
A square mile of wilderness can support two to four coyotes, said Kevin Brennan, senior wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. A square mile of suburbia might support a dozen coyotes or more, which has allowed them to expand well beyond their historical numbers.
"The situation is not natural," Brennan said. "These are not coyotes who have wandered out of the hills and are trapped in the city trying to make it."
Phoebe's owner, Dianne Crowther, 63, said few of her neighbors in Redlands, southeast of San Bernardino, have cats anymore. "We had a cat, and he became coyote sushi."
She said a pack of coyotes once even chased her when she went out to get the mail one night.
Crowther calls Rizzo a few times a year, when she says coyotes start lurking around her fence. She doesn't care if animal rights activists call this type of regular trapping ineffective and cruel. She wants them gone.
"We don't want to lose her," she said of Phoebe. "She's the light of our life."
Rizzo, who is licensed by the state, said he has trapped and killed more than two dozen coyotes next to Crowther's property in the last five years. This January morning, he studies the slopes for disturbed grass or subtle indentations in the clay soil, softened by recent rain. He finds two narrow animal trails threaded through the brush toward the house. He leans down to find a three-padded footprint.
He pulls a hammer from his bag and drives a steel anchor into the ground. Running from the anchor is 7 feet of cable with a loop at the end. Rizzo uses a stiff heavy-gauge wire to suspend the loop across the trail at the height of a coyote's head. The underbrush makes the snare difficult to see.