CLEARWATER — On a street where a large, abandoned house stands hidden behind walls of dense vegetation, the neighbors can hear coyotes at night. Sometimes it sounds like they're fighting, or killing prey, or possibly mating.
Now and then, the coyotes have been spotted lurking around the upscale neighborhood north of Drew Street and east of Highland Avenue, near the Clearwater Country Club. Some say the coyotes are becoming bolder and more visible, and more of a threat to pets.
Where are they coming from? Neighbors point the finger to the overgrown property they all call "the jungle." It's an apparently vacant two-story house on a large lot between Ridgewood and Maple streets, shrouded on all sides by thick stands of trees and bushes.
"We've been here seven years, and that property has been vacant and abandoned the entire time," said neighbor Allison Lyon. "It's been a breeding ground for a lot of wildlife. My neighbors have seen coyote pups living there."
Josh Gould, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years, recently heard what sounded like coyotes fighting as he walked past the darkened, unlit property at night. "It sounded horrible, like they were killing each other," he said.
"It's a little creepy," added his friend Lauren Hooper.
Coyote sightings are on the rise throughout Pinellas County. Experts say they're generally skittish creatures that try to steer clear of humans,
"They don't like attention," said John Hohenstern, senior animal control officer with Pinellas County Animal Services. "Usually they're just after food. Don't leave pet food or trash out where they can get to it. Clear brush away from your house."
But some in the Clearwater neighborhood are concerned for their pets or even their children.
Lyon, for instance, didn't take her two young daughters trick-or-treating in the neighborhood on Halloween because of coyotes. She said a big coyote recently paced erratically around her front lawn in the middle of the day, bared its teeth at a neighbor, and briefly followed a teenage girl.
Property owner cited
The large house on the overgrown lot has a couple of lights on inside. The property's assessed value is $337,000. A utility notice posted on the front door states that the water has been shut off.
The property was cited last year for branches encroaching onto the sidewalk and was cited in 2009 for overgrowth and debris. Clearwater code enforcement officials recently visited and found more debris and a shed's roof caving in, but they saw no sign of coyotes, said Terry Teunis, Clearwater's code compliance manager.
Officials contacted the property owner, Ed Whitson of Land O'Lakes, who told them he wasn't aware of any coyotes there.
Whitson didn't return calls from the Times.
No one knows how many coyotes are in Pinellas, but they've been spotted all over Florida's most densely populated county. Though experts say there are no known cases in Florida where coyotes have intentionally attacked humans, some people have been injured trying to separate their pets from coyotes looking for a meal.
The prevailing coyote policy in Pinellas County is that they're allowed to roam freely unless they pose a danger to people. Nuisance coyotes can be removed by licensed trappers, just like alligators, with residents paying the cost.
However, "to my knowledge, no trapper has ever caught a coyote in Pinellas County," said Hohenstern of Animal Services.
Meanwhile, in Clearwater more of "the jungle's" neighbors are spotting coyotes.
"I saw a couple of them a week ago," said Kimberly Larocca. "I said, 'I know that wasn't a dog.'"
"I've seen them on the street, but I'm not complaining," said Debbie Greenbaum, who added that she's familiar with coyotes because she used to live in the Mojave Desert. "I enjoy the wild aspect of it. I know they're afraid of people."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.