Residents of hillside communities in and around Los Angeles have more than bone-dry brush to fret about this winter as drought conditions force coyotes to roam deeper into neighborhoods.
Rodents and rabbits are coming down into streets and yards looking for food and water, officials say. And where the prey go, the coyotes follow.
Over the last year, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation has received an increasing number of complaints about coyotes, including attacks on pets. That has prompted officials to reconsider the city's policy on dealing with the animals.
"They are losing their natural fear of man," said spokeswoman Jackie David. "Coyotes are everywhere. People perceive them as a threat to public safety. Our department is looking at ways to dedicate more resources to keeping coyotes out of neighborhoods."
On Monday evening, about 100 people gathered at a Canoga Park meeting of the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission, many to complain about losing pets to coyotes. Some said they were afraid to jog at night because of the animals.
"I'm a prisoner," said Malka Tasoff, a 17-year Tarzana resident. "I'm a captive in my own home."
But Leo Grillo, an animal rescuer, said that in 18 years he has seen numerous coyotes and never considered them a threat.
"The comments I'm hearing tonight are just superstition," he said.
The commission is considering whether to assign two wildlife specialists to handle coyote problems and create a program to educate the public about the animals. Under the proposal, animal services workers would trap and kill coyotes deemed an imminent threat to people or pets.
The state Department of Fish and Game does not count coyotes because they are prolific and not endangered. Fish and Game officials say they do not know whether the increasing number of complaints indicates growth in the coyote population.
Coyotes are intelligent animals that have adapted to living near humans. They have adjusted to their shrinking habitat in the Los Angeles area and use streets, parks, flood-control channels and freeways to venture into neighborhoods.
The coyotes generally eat rats, mice, squirrels, fruit and carrion. But having learned that domestic animals are easier prey, coyotes also kill cats and small dogs. They also will attack chickens, sheep and goats. "Pet owners beware," said Michael Carpenter of Shadow Hills, who lost three chickens, a duck and a peacock to coyotes two weeks ago. "They left nothing but feathers."
Carpenter, who is chief deputy for Los Angeles Councilman Dennis Zine, said Zine's office also has received calls from residents fearing for the safety of their children and pets. Patrick Kennedy of West Hills was one of them.
Kennedy said that about 4 a.m. two months ago a coyote nearly killed his miniature pinscher in his backyard. Kennedy sprained his ankle trying to wrest the pet from the coyote, which tore the tiny dog's belly and throat.
"They basically had to sew him up from the inside out," Kennedy said of the $750 in veterinarian bills.
Since then, Kennedy has been circulating leaflets calling for a tougher city policy on coyotes. City animal regulation officers trap a coyote only if it is sick or injured or if it attacks a person and is suspected of having rabies.
The county, state and federal government can also require trapping due to health and welfare risks.
"I would like to see them treat coyotes like any other stray dog," Kennedy said. "They wouldn't hesitate to come out and take it away."
Animal experts recommend the following to protect pets from coyotes:
* Keep cats and small dogs indoors at night.
* Walk dogs on a leash in well-lighted areas.
* Poultry and rabbits should be kept in enclosures of heavy mesh wire, not chicken wire.
* Fasten trash can lids securely.
* Do not feed wild animals.
Times staff writer Zanto Peabody contributed to this report.