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Offering coyotes an olive branch

Coyotes howling into the night are as much a part of Calabasas as the aspiring screenwriters, retired moguls and stay-at-home mothers who crowd the coffee shops in the city’s well-manicured mall.

But that doesn’t mean residents are at ease with the predators that roam this community nestled in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Debbi Gillman remembers the afternoon her daughter came home to find the remains of the family’s retriever-mix strewn across the backyard. And Jill Nevins said that when her children were small, they were afraid to take a walk after dark because they might run into a pack of coyotes.

Still, both are cautiously supportive of a decision this month to ban the capture and killing of coyotes in Calabasas and instead teach people how to coexist with the predators.

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“We’ve got a huge mountain behind us, and in a lot of ways we are encroaching on their territory,” said Nevins, a children’s librarian taking a lunch break.

It’s a sharp shift from the aggressive tactics that have been used for years in Southern California’s hillside communities, where authorities wage battle against the opportunistic coyotes that stray into neighborhoods looking for food, often in the form of pet cats and small dogs.

But increasingly city leaders and residents in communities like Calabasas are pushing to become more coyote-friendly cities by training people on how to avoid confrontations and leave the predators alone.

The leave-them-alone approach in Calabasas stands in contrast to battle plans elsewhere, including Laguna Woods, a retirement community in south Orange County where the city hired a professional hunter to shoot coyotes that have menaced elderly residents and their pets. Seven have been killed so far.

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In Glendale, city officials ordered the shooting of a pack of coyotes that had moved into an abandoned house, and then backed off when residents complained. The house was later demolished, and officials hope the coyotes scattered.

The move to coexist with the coyotes has been spurred mostly by people like Randi Feilich Hirsch, a Calabasas resident who lives near the scrubby brown foothills. She became outraged when the city called in a trapper to remove a mother coyote and her pups from a den near her home.

“It’s cruel and inhumane to do that to an animal,” she said. “This is their home too. We moved into their neighborhood.”

The city of Los Angeles enacted a no-trapping stance about a decade ago. Greg Randall, a wildlife specialist for Los Angeles Animal Services and the city’s go-to authority on coyote confrontations, dispenses tips each week on keeping the predators away.

After Arcadia residents protested, the City Council voted in January to get rid of a trapper who’d been hired to snare and euthanize coyotes. San Francisco and South Pasadena have also enacted coyote-friendly policies.

“Cities are realizing their residents want other solutions,” Randall said. “They are not necessarily on this bandwagon of ‘kill everything and let God sort it out.’ ”

In Calabasas, the City Council voted unanimously this month to prohibit city funds from being spent for trapping and instead to hold community meetings, post signs and distribute brochures explaining how to live in an environment that includes coyotes and other wildlife.

Resting on the fringes of the Santa Monica Mountains, the semi-rural setting often brings people into contact with wildlife, particularly coyotes. In late June, a landscaper spotted evidence of a coyote den in the gated neighborhood where Feilich Hirsch lives and the city called out a trapper to remove the mother and pups, she said.

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Incensed, she asked the City Council to change its policy. To her surprise, council members listened. Within a day Calabasas had imposed a moratorium on more trappings. After studying the issue, the council voted Oct. 12 to make it permanent.

The city will work with Project Coyote, the Animal Welfare Institute and the National Park Service to develop a public education campaign that will teach residents how to live more harmoniously with coyotes.

With a few simple steps, people can minimize conflicts, said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote. Don’t leave pet food outside and make sure garbage bins are secured, she said. Clean up rotting fruit and don’t allow cats and other small pets outside. And if a coyote is hanging out near property, scare it away with loud noises or a blast of water from a hose.

Officials estimate there are as many as 750,000 of the shaggy creatures roaming the foothills and mountains of California. The species keeps its own population in check by bearing fewer pups when its supply of rabbits and rodents runs thin, a 2004 state report on the species found.

Trapping doesn’t solve anything because coyotes are cunning and adaptable creatures that simply rebound, experts say.

“If trapping worked, we wouldn’t have any wildlife left,” said Randall, the Los Angeles wildlife specialist. “In this country we’ve been trapping animals for 230-plus years.”

Urban sprawl over decades has pushed people into closer contact with wildlife, biologists say. Attacks on humans are rare but tend to be heavily publicized. In 2008 coyotes three times attempted to attack toddlers in San Bernardino County.

Now, cities are slowly adopting more proactive policies, Fox said. Residents who want change are using the Internet and social media to push City Hall along. When Project Coyote put out an alert on Calabasas, 9,000 people signed an online petition urging the council to protect the animals.

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Their grass-roots activism has been impressive to watch, said Stephanie Feldstein, who helped Project Coyote get out the word.

“More than 9,000 people from around the world joined their call for coexistence,” Feldstein said. “And the Calabasas Environment Commission and City Council listened.”

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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