SPRING HILL — Jeanette Sprague said she didn't pay much attention when she first heard the heavy rustling of leaves across the street. Probably one of the many feral cats that skulk in the darkness through the woods near her home on Meredith Drive, she thought.
But night after night, she kept hearing the same sound. Then, one late afternoon about a month or so ago, she glimpsed a shadow.
What she thought was a dog turned out to be a coyote heading toward her neighbor's house. Sprague hurried into her house, grabbed her BB pistol and fired it at the animal before it was able to attack her neighbor's two cats.
"It didn't seem to faze it one bit," Sprague said recently. "He just stood there and looked at me."
Coyote sightings are becoming more common in Hernando County's urban areas. Experts say pups born in the early spring that are now old enough to leave their parents' den are looking for hunting territory of their own.
That has been bad news for the feral cats in this quiet neighborhood. On evening walks, Sprague once noted about 20 cats in the woods near her home. She says their number has dwindled to less than five.
Tim Makley, who lives down the street, said he has seen coyotes for the past three months. At night he often hears them growling behind his house.
"It's aggressive sounding," Makley said. "Almost like they're fighting or something. It will wake you up from a sound sleep."
Lately, the coyotes have become the talk of the neighborhood, Sprague said. And no one seems to know quite what to do about the growing problem.
Neighbors have turned to the government for help but to no avail. County Animal Services officials have told her they don't trap coyotes and suggested she hire a private trapper.
Although no one can say for certain where the animals came from, most neighbors think they live in culverts somewhere south of Horizon Drive between Melville Avenue and Meredith Drive.
Her recent encounter with coyotes chasing her neighbors' cats means the animals are becoming more aggressive, she believes. And that worries her.
"We have a lot of people that walk with their dogs and small children in the evening," Sprague said. "If someone gets attacked it will be too late."
According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission biologist Breanne Strepina, coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. In fact, her agency has never documented an incident in Hernando County.
However, coyotes will attack a small pet on a leash. Strepina said the best way to prevent such an attack is to keep the leash short. If a coyote is seen, the owner should grab the pet and hold it while in a standing position.
"They recognize that people are bigger than them," Strepina said. "But it's not a bad idea to carry pepper spray or club. Actually, a loud voice will pretty much do the trick in driving them away."
Strepina said coyotes hunting for food are just doing what comes naturally. Although they feed mainly on small animals such as rabbits, squirrels and birds in the wild, they often turn to pets in more urban settings.
"The best thing that you can do for these animals is to not encourage their staying around," said Strepina. "That means not leaving cat food and garbage out that will attract them."
If coyotes become too persistent, Strepina recommends homeowners hire a professional trapping service. But even that option has its drawbacks, according to Nathanael Pauly of Allstar Animal Removal in Hernando County.
The animals are difficult to trap, and the service can cost about $500.
"The best way to get them is by using a foot-hold snare," he said. "But they're smart animals, so it can take awhile. You have to check the trap all the time. That gets expensive."
Sprague said she and her neighbors aren't considering hiring a trapper. But she is eager for the coyotes to move somewhere else.
"Having them around is very unnerving," she said. "Once they've finished killing the feral cats, what are they going to go after next?"
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org