GULFPORT — The dog was going nuts. Each time Jo Hastings tried to calm her muscular Staffordshire terrier, it would lurch madly at a fence bordering mangroves.
Finally Hastings squatted down, peered through the fence and discovered she was only inches from a coyote, who returned her stare before skulking into the woods.
"There ended up being two of them, and they kind of looked at me like I was bothering them,'' she said. "It's not like they were skittish or anything. They were kind of like, 'Yeah, whatever.' "
The uneasy standoff in the manicured confines of the Pasadena Yacht & Country Club is growing evidence that coyotes seem to be spreading into virtually every nook of Pinellas County, from the north county woods to the southern tip. Their arrival is often joined by reports of missing pets, like Hastings' cat, Buttercup.
The coyotes' migration is not likely to change, said Pinellas Animal Services operations manager Greg Andrews.
"The more pressure you put on these guys, the more a survivor instinct kicks in," he said.
Action Animal Services, a private trapping company, has recorded a two-fold increase in coyote calls from a year ago, with confirmed cases in Palm Harbor, Pinellas Park and Seminole, including inside the Bayou Club.
In most cases, state law requires that captured coyotes must be destroyed, whether caught by trappers or private citizens with proper hunting licenses.
"Coyote relocation doesn't work," said Pat Behnke, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson. "There's many reasons why. They won't stay. We don't know where they come from, and you could reintroduce them where it could be worse. And they carry disease into new areas."
Andrews said coyotes use everything from secluded waterways to the Pinellas Trail as southbound superhighways. They are prevalent throughout much of Florida, but in recent years have migrated into south Pinellas County.
That's a disconcerting notion for Hastings, whose back yard abuts a conservation area.
She called several local authorities only to learn state agencies do not remove coyotes unless they have attacked humans or pose "a serious threat to public health and safety," Andrews said.
"It's like they have more rights than I do," Hastings said. "I am in a residential area. If I am in the middle of Manatee County I could understand that. Now we're terrified of letting our animals out."
Hastings believes it was a coyote that took her beloved Buttercup, a mixed breed cat that disappeared in early June.
Apparently, security guards of the 900-resident community had seen coyotes as early as May but did not alert anyone, angering both she and her husband, David, president of the homeowners association.
After two weeks of searching for their missing cat, a neighbor notified the couple upon finding blood and a small skull near her front porch. The couple believes the skull belongs to Buttercup.
Within days, David Hastings received an e-mail that included a local photograph of a coyote. He heard from people who had seen the coyotes. And the couple found a cat flea collar in coyote dung. That collar did not belong to Buttercup.
While his wife "wants to buy guns, bazookas" to avenge Buttercup, David Hastings understands the animals deserve space.
But he also believes they'll take it.
The neighborhood association voted recently to hire Action Animal Services, despite a 50 percent advertised success rate with coyotes.
"In the worst case, we didn't want an attack on a resident or a child or anything else," David Hastings said.
So in went the traps, with live rabbits as bait.
Jo Hastings, who has a pet rabbit, hasn't been able to bring herself to look inside a trap, though one was moved close to the perimeter of her property after the recent encounter.
So far, only an opossum has been nabbed.
But word continues to spread. Signs warning residents of the new predators are going up around the neighborhood. And David Hastings stops residents walking their pets at dusk to advise prudence.
While coyote attacks on humans are considered unusual, East Lake residents began carrying sticks and golf clubs after the disappearance of several small dogs last spring.
"Hopefully," Andrews said, "these kinds of things won't happen if people learn the do's and don'ts."