LARGO — When Largo resident Peggy Page's house cat, Buck, disappeared last month without a trace, she asked around the neighborhood.
Nobody had seen the shy, 12-year-old feline.
But in her search for answers, she discovered that she was not alone in her loss. Several of her neighbors were missing pets of their own.
Six cats — most of them middling in age and not as quick as they used to be — gone, all within a mile's radius.
While the usual suspects would be speeding cars or perhaps even a misguided youth, rumblings began creeping in of perhaps another cause.
In recent months, the canine predators have been seen and heard in the neighborhood more frequently — brief glimpses of the wily wild dogs at dawn and dusk, and their yips emanating from the night.
Pam Livingston lives a few blocks from Page. Her cat, Furry, vanished around July 4. "We were wondering if it was kids, or a firework mishap. We looked around, went to the SPCA — we didn't find her there," Livingston said. "The cat just went missing. I thought, 'maybe it was coyotes?' "
While the remains of Furry and Buck weren't found, an unidentifiable cat carcass was discovered. It was kitty carnage. Page described the remains of the cat as half-eaten — not far from her home near Belcher Road and East Bay Drive.
Both Page and Livingston said they now keep their other pets under close watch, and don't let them out alone after dark.
"I have a pet door, but now I have it secure at night," Page said.
The residents are wise to do so, say wildlife experts.
"That's one of the ways you know you've got a coyote problem in your neighborhood, is that you start seeing more and more of the fliers on the telephone poles, 'I'm missing my cat,' " said Welch Agnew, assistant director of Pinellas County Animal Services, in an informational coyote video produced by the county.
Coyotes may seem like a new arrival to the state. After all, they've been sighted in Pinellas County in significant numbers only in the past 20 years and in virtually every urban area of the county.
But they are actually returning to what was once part of their home range.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, coyotes started returning to the state decades ago after humans eliminated the state's population of red wolf, which are a natural coyote predator.
When they encountered urban areas, instead of being deterred, the coyotes thrived. And they may even do some good.
"Coyotes are known to prey on feral cats, an unwanted species that has been implicated in significantly reducing numbers of several species of small mammals, birds, and rodents," according to a 2007 study from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on the coyote impact.
Because it is believed that coyotes are here to stay, the county and some municipalities are educating their residents.
Susan Walker, neighborhood services administrator for Pinellas Park, said the number of calls about coyote sightings and attacks on pets was high enough to warrant hosting a forum about coyotes in November. "We received an e-mail from a resident who believed her cat was attacked by a coyote," she said. "There were other folks who mentioned sightings, that pets had gone missing."
One of the speakers scheduled for the forum is Wayne Salicrup, president of Trapline Wildlife Services, which traps problem coyotes. He said coyotes can adapt to new surroundings and evade capture. "It's a wild canine — they have the ability to reason more than other wild animals," Salicrup said.