Like teen-age hoods the coyotes prowl the streets of her Solana Beach neighborhood in gangs of two or three, Jeannie Hansen says, casing back yards in broad daylight and stalking back-yard pets.
She should know. The 48-year-old nursing supervisor says she has lost eight pets in the past decade to the predators that wander up to her northern San Diego County home from the coastal lagoon and wildlife preserve next door. The last pet died just this winter when a coyote reportedly jumped her back-yard fence, decapitating her golden retriever puppy, then turning to threaten her as she went to the animal's aid.
Inspired by complaints from Hansen and others, the federal government has launched a controversial coyote trapping program in the thick brush around the San Elijo Lagoon Reserve.
Trappers from the Department of Agriculture's Animal Damage Control unit already have killed one coyote through use of a steel leg-hold trap, setting off an emotionally charged debate over the ethics of trapping and killing the wild animals and the devices used to get the job done.
Other residents in the hills above the lagoon--as well as a reserve naturalist--oppose the traps, saying the two dozen or so coyotes living in the reserve are an important part of the natural ecosystem that predates the dawn of suburbia.
San Elijo Hills resident Robert Melvin called the traps a violent, indiscriminate response to a trumped-up problem.
"Remember, these coyotes were here first and we're jumping into their territory, not the other way around," he said. "People buying homes around any wildlife area should know coming in that wild animals live there. And just because a few have been startled by a coyote, that's no reason to start an onslaught."
Government officials have told local homeowners' groups that up to half a dozen animals will be taken in the program as a way to discourage hungry coyotes from wandering outside the lagoon. They also hope to dispose of several sick animals that reportedly suffer from a fur mange, a skin disease that is contagious to domestic pets.
The traps so far caught one apparently healthy animal, which the trappers killed afterward. The body will be tested for signs of mange, trappers added.
The trapping, begun last month but halted recently by bad weather and damage to several of the half-dozen traps, already has Solana Beach city officials scrambling to consult attorneys over their liability in case a human is injured by a hidden trap.
Neighbors who favor the traps say that their property rights come before those of wild animals. Others say the padded steel traps are "absolutely barbaric" and could injure other animals or even children.
But Hansen says the coyotes pose more danger to humans than any trap. And she has her own close scrape with one animal to back her up.
"I am not some wild-eyed crusader," she said. "But I'll go to battle with those animal rights people because I believe in human rights. And as a homeowner, I think I have the right to have a pet without stationing armed guards or an electric fence around my yard."
Trapping opponents say there is little proof that the coyotes killed any of the 30 to 45 pets that reportedly died in an adjacent square-mile area since December.
They say the federal government was initially summoned by a few neighbors who overreacted and persuaded their homeowners association boards to vote on the matter without consulting the community as a whole.
"I pay taxes, lots of taxes, and I didn't even have a say in this matter before they decided to set the traps on property owned by the homeowners association," said Susan Woltz, a San Elijo Hills resident.
Woltz says she has come across numerous coyotes while jogging around the lagoon. Rather than acting aggressive, the animals have always skittered off into the brush.
"I like the charm of the rural animal population we have here around the lagoon," she said. "I like coyotes. They're part of the lagoon ecosystem and I think it's a crime to kill them."
David Moreno, an Agriculture Department wildlife biologist supervising the trapping program, acknowledged that the traps have raised hackles.
"Not everyone is in agreement with what we're doing, I'm aware of that," he said. "But we are mandated by Congress to do the job of wildlife management. Sometimes, managing an animal population means reducing it."
But Lila Brooks, an animal rights proponent and director of the Hollywood-based California Wildlife Defenders, said many communities in California have outlawed the traps in favor of what she said were more humane box traps. The Los Angeles City Council is considering doing so, she said.
Robert Patton, a park ranger-biologist at the San Elijo EcologicalReserve--which is co-managed by the county and state--said officials were unhappy about the trapping because of the integral role coyotes play in the local ecosystem.
Studies show that lowering the coyote population prompts a rise in the numbers of raccoons, squirrels and mice that prey on the eggs of endangered bird species. "They're a big check in nature's checks and balances system," he said.