ODESSA — A few weeks ago, a neighbor told Jim Swain that he had found the remains of Swain's 13-year-old pet cat, Brother, in his yard.
The only good thing, Swain said, was that his wife, Laura, was not there to have to deal with it.
"He was completely eaten except for the head and front paws.''
Coyotes killed it, he said.
Once Swain started asking around, he found other neighbors in northwest Hillsborough County who have had cats and dogs go missing. Farmers are losing chickens; one had two lambs killed.
Presumably, it was the work of the rangy predators that migrated from out West into Florida in the 1960s and now roam throughout the state.
It's eternally open season on these wild wolf cousins, as far as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is concerned. Homeowners are allowed to shoot the animals, which go after livestock and crops, provided they follow pertinent gun laws.
Swain, president of the Lake Keystone Property Owners Association, was under the impression that it was against the law to discharge a firearm in the suburbs of Hillsborough County.
Not so, said Detective Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. If the animal comes on your property, potentially threatening your children or your pets, "you have the right to shoot it,'' McKinnon said. (The law is the same in the city of Tampa, a police spokeswoman said.)
In densely packed suburbia, however, McKinnon strongly urges against it. First, you need to know the restrictions, which prohibit shooting over rooftops or across streets. And McKinnon can't warn you enough about the trouble you would be in if the bullet ricocheted off, say, a child's swing set, crashed through a window and struck a neighbor. The shooter could face culpable negligence charges. Reckless shooting resulting in death could bring manslaughter charges.
McKinnon recommends trapping the critters. That's the option Swain plans to pitch to homeowner associations in the area. He wants them to pool their money and hire trappers in an ongoing effort to try to reduce the population.
"They're very difficult to trap,'' said Lt. Gary Morse, a spokesman for the state wildlife agency.
Steel traps that catch them by the leg are illegal without a permit. It usually takes a pro to set an effective snare trap, where animals step into a loop that quickly tightens, he said. And they're just too smart to walk into a cage trap, according to Morse, though Swain said trappers he has talked with say they will enter a cage trap for the right bait — a juicy steak, for example.
Swain said some farmers in his community have bought donkeys to put in their pastures. Donkeys, he said, chase down coyotes and kick them to death.
Swain, a crime fiction novelist, would like to see the wildlife agency get more aggressive and fight the spread of coyotes. Morse said, however, that any effort to eradicate the animal in a certain area is doomed to failure.
"When entire populations do become repressed, there is a hormonal response, and they reproduce more,'' he said. Plus, other coyotes move into the vacated territory.
"In some cases, you end up with more than you started with.''
Swain argues that doing nothing has made the coyotes so bold that they are routinely spotted in the daytime in his community. "They're not afraid of humans anymore.''
A friend told him that her parents, who live in the Crystal River area, can't sell their house because of the coyote problem. "You can't let a pet out up there without fear of it being killed in broad daylight.''
Though no humans have died from coyote attacks in Florida, Swain's check on Google turned up two noted cases elsewhere: Three-year-old Kelly Keen of California was killed by coyotes in 1981; and 19-year-old Taylor Mitchell, a Canadian folk singer, died in 2009 after being attacked by a pack of coyotes in a national park in Nova Scotia.
State wildlife officials plan to meet with Swain and concerned neighbors Thursday in the community center at Keystone Park and offer tips on how to scare the animals away, such as rattling pots and pans and sounding an air horn. Morse said an electrified fence is also an effective deterrent.
But Swain thinks those measures aren't effective against an emboldened coyote population that seems to be growing at an alarming rate.
"The first thing we have to do is admit we have a problem.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.