BROOKSVILLE — In full camouflage gear, a double-barrel shotgun across his lap, Jack Dandridge waited among the tall weeds in the gathering darkness for the killers to appear.
It wasn't long before he saw a silhouette move silently away from the trees and trot toward the open field under the massive power transmission lines.
Dandridge drew a bead with the 16-gauge but held his fire. As much as he itched to pull the trigger, to avenge his loss, doing so would be against the law — the killer wasn't on his property. He watched as his chance slipped away.
Weeks later, as Dandridge and his wife, Marian, slept in their home on Dry Creek Ranch Road, a marauder returned.
The next morning, they found the bloody evidence. One victim lay dead, huge chunks of flesh torn from its left haunch. A second staggered from shock and gaping wounds.
It has been like this for more than two years, and the Dandridges are sick of it.
So far, the couple have lost 15 of their sheep to the slashing fangs of coyotes that roam the nearby woods in this rural Hernando County neighborhood north of Brooksville, popping out opportunistically to take down meals.
Their flock now numbers nine, including the wounded ewe the Dandridges are tending, watching for signs of rabies. After an attack in April, a wounded ewe stumbled in circles and bumped into fences, evidence of what Dandridge said is called "dumb rabies." It was euthanized.
That ewe wasn't tested for rabies, a Hernando County Health Department report shows, because it was animal-to-animal contact, with no human involvement.
Coyotes have become more prevalent in Florida in recent years, moving south from the Panhandle and showing up even in urban beach communities. For some people, they evoke an exotic charm, a taste of the Old West in the Sunshine State.
Such allure is lost on ranchers like the Dandridges.
On Wednesday, standing next to a deep hole he had just dug to bury his slaughtered 120-pound ewe, Dandridge saw his livelihood under attack.
"This is our money going into the ground," he said.
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The 47-year-old idled carpenter and his wife, who works for a social service agency in Tampa, moved in 2005 to Hernando from Wesley Chapel in Pasco County. They brought with them a Noah's Ark of livestock: 65 sheep, several dogs, cows, chickens and a 300-pound pig named Ralphie.
They thinned the herd through auctions and concentrated on raising quality breeding animals, with the goal of making enough money to move to Utah and raise sheep on 160 acres they are buying there.
Coyotes are tearing apart those dreams.
"It's been a major financial setback," Marian Dandridge acknowledged, noting that each ram and ewe costs between $150 and $200, not counting food, medicine and upkeep.
The Dandridge sheep are not the only targets, Marian Dandridge said, noting that a family on nearby Sunshine Grove Road in rural recently lost three goats to coyotes.
The law allows Dandridge to shoot the coyotes, but only if they come onto his land. "The cops told me that if bullets leave my property, I'm in trouble," he said.
Hernando County sheriff's Lt. Cinda Moore said statutes prevent people from shooting over roads and other people's property.
"If it's on your property, it's fair game," she said. "But be smart about it. That bullet can travel, and you would be liable."
According to the Hernando County animal services agency, property owners can shoot coyotes to defend themselves and their livestock as long as they are on properly zoned agricultural land. Shooting within urban areas is not allowed.
Dandridge is trying to play by the rules.
He refrained from shooting at the coyote he saw a few weeks ago because that would have meant shooting across his neighbor's property, even though that neighbor has given him permission to do so.
He has obtained a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that allows him to shoot the coyotes at night.
The couple has put up metal fences, but they can't afford what experts recommend — a 5-foot fence with barbed wire on top.
They've bought and hung nearly a dozen small solar-powered devices called Predator Eyes, which blink a red light that is supposed to scare away coyotes at night. This week they even bought a donkey, named Jed, to help protect the flock.
So far, the coyotes are winning.
Judging by the wildlife commission's Web site entry on the animal, that's hardly a surprise.
"Like it or not, coyotes are probably here to stay," it says. "They are not particular about what they eat, or where they live — coyotes are generalists in an evolved world of specialists.
"Some people like and admire the animal, others vehemently curse everything about it. Treat them as you will; coyotes are survivors."
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On a recent afternoon, Dandridge was sharpening his skills with a hunting bow, preparing for a nocturnal rematch with the coyotes.
He can't count on his five dogs for help. They are all smaller than a full-grown coyote and, besides, they would be easily intimidated by such a wild creature.
Dandridge demonstrated their mettle: He blew on a plastic coyote call, and the high-pitched howl sent the dogs scurrying.
Even the sheep won't sound an alarm if they are attacked at night, he said. "They're too interested in running away."
Dandridge believes the coyotes bed down in a 28-acre stand of trees not far from his property, the same woods that he's seen them slinking out of at night.
He's been told he can hire a trapper, but besides costing money that he doesn't have, it wouldn't solve anything. "That's just moving the problem somewhere else," he said. "I'd just as soon eradicate them."
And so he waits for the coyotes to make a mistake, to come onto his property when he's around. Just inside the front door, on the dining room table, the loaded shotgun lies waiting.