Easy Pickings : Bold Coyotes Stalk Urban Communities

Times Staff Writer

Puff, a white cat, was the pride of Charles Ryder's life for 13 years. Every night, Ryder would set Puff outside his home on Sherbourne Drive south of Pico Boulevard. And the "street-wise" cat would always return.

But one night Puff did not come back. A few days later, Ryder identified Puff's remains near his home. "She was eaten totally, except for her head and her front paws and shoulders," Ryder said.

Although Ryder did not see the predator, officials at the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation told him that his cat was probably eaten by a coyote.

"People like us, urban dwellers, aren't used to the idea of wild animals eating our pets," Ryder said. "If I were in one of the canyons, it might be different."

Coyotes abound in the hills and canyons of Los Angeles, where they eat rodents, carrion and fowl. But the animals are also becoming urban dwellers. Dry weather, an increase in the coyote population and an abundance of food in urban areas are contributing to a drift of coyotes toward the city, according to animal control officers. The coyotes can quickly travel long distances to urban areas along dry waterways and isolated streets, they said.

Hartmut Walter, a UCLA zoo-geographer, said there have been few checks on the Los Angeles coyote population and there is no reliable count.

Abundant Food Supply

"The coyotes that live around the urban fringes are in the safest position because there has been no shooting or trapping," Walter said. "And there is an abundant food supply. . . . There is so much organic waste at the urban edge that the coyote would be stupid to rely on the old-fashioned wild resources. They obviously also eat a lot of cats and dogs."

City animal control officers are attempting to deal with the situation. Bob Rush, general manager of the animal regulation department, said the agency is receiving about 1,500 complaints a year about coyotes, an increase of 30% over the past two years.

The department has two officers who cover the entire city in an attempt to control the coyote population. Next month the city will begin training two more.

"It is a severe problem," Rush said. "If we do not maintain a control over the animals and remove those that are going into people's backyards, then our problems are going to magnify because that coyote will teach the pups to do the same thing. We are trying to encourage them to pull back (into the hills)."

Larry Morales is the animal control officer who attempts to manage the coyotes in West Los Angeles. Every day, he monitors 18 padded leg-hold traps and 10 cage traps throughout the area.

With the leg-hold traps, one of which was recently used to catch a coyote in Rancho Park, a liquid lure with the scent of a female coyote is used to attract the animal. Morales is careful not to leave a trace of his own scent.

Trapped 30 Coyotes

The trap is placed just below the ground. A chain attached to the trap is buried and will entangle the coyote in brush or branches after it gets caught in the trap and tries to run. The padded traps do not hurt the coyotes, Morales said. But when the coyotes are trapped, animal control officers are required to kill them because they are considered a "nuisance animal" in the city, he said.

This year he has trapped 30 coyotes in West Los Angeles, compared to 25 for all of last year. Morales said the program is an attempt to reduce the population in the hills and keep the animals from searching for food and water in the city. The department is also setting up watering holes in the hills.

The coyote caught three months ago in Rancho Park probably was one of a pair that had drifted down from the hills, Morales said. But he said it is rare to find a coyote that far from the hills. When they do drift that far, coyotes usually are found in open and wooded areas such as parks and country clubs.

Coyotes are most frequently caught in canyons north of Sunset Boulevard, and such areas as Bel-Air, Mandeville Canyon, Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Brentwood, Beverly Glen, Stone Canyon and the area surrounding UCLA, Morales said.

Although the department is stepping up efforts to control the coyotes, officials said they do not want to eliminate them. "They are quite necessary as far as the balance of nature," said Kenneth Williams, district supervisor for the West Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation. "They keep down the rodent population. . . . We want to control them so that the human population can coexist with the coyote population without any serious problems."

Lt. Richard Felosky, a senior animal control officer, said the coyote is "beautiful to watch."

Coyotes, usually brown with silver gray highlights, look like lean German shepherd dogs, with long pointy ears and noses and long thin legs.

Man is the primary culprit in drawing the coyote to the city, according to the officials. Heavy residential development in the hills and canyons has disrupted the coyote's habitat. People have also attracted coyotes to urban areas by feeding them, leaving lids off garbage cans and leaving small pets unattended.

A study by Pomona College biologist William Wirtz II revealed that coyotes in Glendale eat 10 times as much garbage as coyotes in Claremont, and coyotes in Claremont eat twice as much rabbit as those in Glendale. The difference results from Claremont's use of garbage cans with tight lids, according to Wirtz, who presented his findings this year to the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

Edward C. Cubrda, assistant executive officer of the Humane Society in Los Angeles, also blamed the problems on man. "Unfortunately, that's what happens when man encroaches upon wildlife," he said. "Coyotes are known to adjust very well in urban populations. They get very bold. We've gotten reports where somebody will be walking a small dog and a coyote will stalk them from behind."

Coyotes have also been known to attack humans, although this is uncommon. In 1981, a coyote mauled a 3-year-old child to death in Glendale, causing alarm in the city. In 1983, San Clemente police sharpshooters began killing coyotes after two small children were injured.

UCLA's Walter said he is concerned because he has noticed that coyotes are becoming increasingly audacious and comfortable with humans. "You can walk up to many of them," he said. "They have totally lost their fear of men. That's why we call them the urban coyote."

Officials also said that small dogs and cats are easy prey. "In comparison with chasing a jack rabbit through the brush, waylaying a cat is probably a piece of cake," Felosky said.

Apparently that's what happened to Puff. Ryder, who said he was told that Puff's death was quick and painless, is taking better care with Spot, his new cat.

Another Westside resident, Wendy Judge, said that after she lost her cat to a coyote near the Mormon Temple in West Los Angeles, she tried to warn other residents to watch their pets.

"There are a lot of cats and poodles that are missing now," she said. "We told the neighbors to keep their animals in. But people don't believe you. They say there's no way a coyote can come down here."

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