On a recent evening, hairstylist Janelle Reyes was out for a walk with Rosie, her 25-pound Boston Terrier, in their Tarpon Springs neighborhood.
The two rounded a corner and there it was: a coyote, considering them from a neighbor’s driveway.
So how did she handle this surprise wildlife encounter? By quickly walking the other way — “backwards,” Reyes reported.
In the Tampa Bay area, she’s not alone.
From Temple Terrace to Tierra Verde, Seminole Heights to St. Petersburg, coyotes have been spotted trotting down streets at night and surprising joggers at dawn.
They haunt cemeteries and golf courses and roam alleys and parking lots. Neighborhood Facebook pages and Nextdoor sites blow up with coyote sightings and shadowy pictures from home security cameras. A coyote was suspected in the recent death of one of the peacocks that wanders Tampa’s Wellswood neighborhood, according to a resident.
By now, coyotes have been documented in every county in Florida and in every state but Hawaii. How urban do they get? A coyote has been seen in New York’s Central Park.
“They’re not going anywhere,” said Lara Milligan, natural resources agent with University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension in Pinellas County, who gives talks to homeowners associations, garden clubs and other interested groups about them.
“Coyotes are here to stay,” she said.
Coexisting with coyotes
The presence and proximity of urban coyotes leave some residents uneasy — or at least ambivalent — particularly where small dogs and indoor-outdoor cats are common and where people leave food out for strays or raise backyard chickens.
“I have to say I have a lot of empathy for (coyotes) because they don’t have anywhere to live,” said Ellie Baggett, president of the Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association. ”But I also have animals. My empathy stops at someone’s animal getting hurt.”
Todd Short lives on Lake Magdalene in Hillsborough County and feeds two stray cats called Kiki and Buddy. Recently, home security video taken in the wee hours caught images of Buddy dashing across the driveway with two coyotes bringing up the rear.
Buddy got away, but “these two coyotes were sharp,” Short said. “One went one way, one went around the other side.” These days, he’s taking the cats into the garage at night.
Given coyotes’ smarts and adaptability, wildlife experts advise keeping cats indoors, eliminating outside food sources like pet food and garbage, and walking dogs on short leashes.
“The idea,” Milligan said, “is that we learn to coexist.”
Coyotes know how to adjust
Like a lot of Florida transplants, coyotes came from other states and made this home.
In the same family as wolves, foxes and dogs, coyotes have pointy noses and ears and bushy tails. Florida coyotes weigh an average of 28 pounds and have a paw track about 2 inches long, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They’re usually tan, gray, brown and occasionally black.
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Coyotes are extremely flexible on what they’ll eat and where they’ll live, said Hance Ellington, assistant professor at the Range Cattle Research & Education Center that’s part of the University of Florida. Coyotes studied in Newfoundland in the months when blueberries grow there uncovered an interesting result: “For peak blueberry season, that’s pretty much all they eat,” Ellington said.
They’re credited with helping keep the rodent population under control and will eat dead animals, rabbits and other small creatures. They can also prey on domestic cats and small dogs “when the opportunity presents itself,” said Lisa Thompson, spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
How to haze a coyote
Seminole Heights resident Becky Quinn’s home cameras had picked up coyotes overnight a couple of times. But recently at about 7 a.m. when she was outside feeding her chickens, she looked up to see a coyote standing on the sidewalk.
She said she started “clapping my hands and yelling to scare it away, because there are also quite a few neighborhood cats,” she said. The coyote took off.
What Quinn did is called hazing — a way to deter a coyote that’s too near, approaching people or getting too used to humans, according to the state wildlife commission.
“It sounds crazy, but act like a crazy person,” Milligan said. “Wave your arms. Shout.”
Wildlife officials say you can carry a golf club or walking stick or a noisemaker such as an air horn or “coyote shaker” made from washers, pebbles or pennies inside an empty drink container. Spray from a hose or stones or sticks thrown in a coyote’s direction — not directly at it — can also be a deterrent, officials say. (To see a video on how to haze a coyote, go to https://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/coyotes/.)
Other advice includes cleaning barbecue grills and picking up fruit that’s fallen from trees and birdseed from under feeders. (Yes, coyotes will eat that, too.) Wildlife officials also recommend closing off sheds and crawl space under houses to keep them from resting or making dens there. They say people should never feed coyotes — and it’s illegal.
Leaving small dogs in the back yard unattended is not recommended, even behind a fence. Coyotes are known to scale them.
Residents who spot a coyote acting strangely or aggressively can call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Southwest Regional Office at 863-648-3200.
Can’t we get rid of urban coyotes?
So why not just remove all the coyotes from a residential area? Because, officials say, coyotes know how to make a comeback:
“Removal activities such as hunting and trapping place pressure on coyote populations, and the species responds by reproducing at a younger age and producing more pups per litter,” says the state wildlife commission website. “Populations can quickly return to their original size.”
In the early 1900s, massive bounty programs to remove coyotes from cattle ranging areas failed, according to Ellington. “We still have coyotes,” he said.
Someone, at least, is having some fun with the idea of urban coyotes. There’s a Seminole Heights Coyote Facebook page, with stickers of a cool-looking cartoon coyote available at local establishments.
In the recent Tampa mayoral election, several voters picked “The Seminole Heights Coyote” as their write-in candidate.
For more information on Florida’s coyotes, visit MyFWC.com/Coyote.