A coyote’s distinctive howl may seem out of place in Atlanta’s urban environment.
But not to Eric Sorenson. In February, after working a shift at Pizza Hut, he went for a walk in his Briarcliff Woods neighborhood. It was near midnight and he looked up, and ten feet in front of him stood a large coyote.
"Eric started making noises as you're supposed to do to prove that you're the predator, but the only thing the noise did was attract another coyote from across the street to join his buddy," said Carole Sorenson, Eric's mother.
The young man kept making noise, but the coyotes started slowly walking toward him.
"Well, Eric turned around and ran as fast as he could home," Mrs. Sorenson said. "The coyotes followed him all the way home, right into our front yard."
Eric Sorenson learned something wildlife experts already know: the wild canines prowl almost every urban neighborhood in metro Atlanta. They have been blamed for eating pet cats and small dogs. Residents of a Decatur neighborhood recently lobbied the Decatur City Commission to help them rid their neighborhood of the wild animals.
Laura Paul works with the Dearborn Animal Hospital to rescue and rehabilitate stray cats. One friend found a pet cat on his doorstep, dead with his belly eaten out apparently by a coyote. Another couple had a small pet dog taken in front of them while still on his leash, Paul said.
Ferial Feldman said friends of hers who live in the North Druid Hills area blame coyotes for eating two cats a couple of months apart.
“Coyotes are very prevalent in every county in Georgia and in every neighborhood in metro Atlanta” said Stephanie Philippo, a wildlife rehabilitator with Animal Wild Animal Rescue Effort, or AWARE, based at DeKalb County’s Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. As concrete slabs replace trees, wooded areas shrank and coyotes–normally very shy animals who hang out in shadows–have become more visible, Philippo said.
Under Georgia law, wild coyotes must be euthanized and may not be released into the wild because they carry rabies and other diseases. But trapping wild coyotes is unlikely to rid any neighborhood of the animals whose pointed ears, slender muzzles and drooping, bushy tails often resemble German shepherds or collies, Phillipo said.
“We are not going to get rid of them,” she said. “They are here to stay. They are in every neighborhood.”
Relocating a coyote would likely result in its death anyway because animals removed from their home range have a “low likelihood of surviving,” Philippo said. Plenty of myths surround coyotes including that urban coyotes are a hybrid with red wolves, she said. “Coyotes do not interbreed with wolves.”
As omnivores, coyotes will eat anything including your garbage, small rodents, rates, mice, chipmunks and squirrels. The wild animals will eat cats, but Philippo believes coyotes have been unfairly blamed for the disappearance of many urban cats.
The Ohio State University studied urban coyotes in Chicago starting in 2000 by trapping and tagging them with radio-controlled collars to study their movement. They discovered the canines with striking yellow eyes were far more prevalent than they’d previously thought, and they suspected what was true of coyotes in Chicago would be true of the animals in other big eastern cities.
“Originally known as ghosts of the plains, coyotes have now become ghosts of the cities – occasionally heard but rarely seen,” said the report, led by Stanley D. Gehrt of the School of Environment and Natural Resources.
In the study, some urban coyotes howled, others did not. One pack regularly howled in response to sirens from a nearby fire station. Most of the coyotes were killed by vehicles, while others died from shootings, malnutrition and disease such as sarcoptic mange and parvo virus.
Although the Chicago coyotes did eat cats, they didn’t eat many. A graduate student, Paul Morey, analyzed coyote droppings and concluded that domestic cats comprised just 1.3 percent of the coyote diet, and human-related food, such as garbage or pet food, about 2 percent of their diet. Urban coyotes appeared to be feeding on small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent) and rabbit (18 percent), according to the study.
Coyote removal has often been accompanied by an increase in an area’s rat population; they’re also credited with controlling deer and Canadian geese, often overabundant and a nuisance in urban areas. When coyotes reduce an area's population of stray cats, that area's songbird population will rise, wildlife experts say.
Chip Elliott of Atlanta Wildlife Relocator specializes in trapping coyotes throughout metro Atlanta. In 2010, he trapped more than 70 coyotes, and it was an off year, he said. He recently trapped two coyotes near West Paces Ferry Road and has trapped the animals near Lenox Mall.
“Teddy” Kubiak, a licensed DeKalb County wildlife trapper with Trutech, says there isn’t an Atlanta zip code he hasn’t worked in to trap coyotes.
“They’ll eat your garbage, eat your cats, eat your Pomeranian,” Kubiak said. “They don’t care.”
Neighborhood associations will often band together to pay Elliott’s $1,000 fee for two weeks of trapping, including daily monitoring of the traps.
“It’s an animal of opportunity,” Elliott said. “He’ll take the neighborhood cat standing there if it doesn’t run away. It takes the easiest thing he can find.”
Trappers use modern leghold traps, fitted with thick rubber instead of iron teeth, from which coyotes and pet animals can be removed, usually unharmed. Elliott either shoots trapped coyotes, or gives them to equestrian centers who use them for fox hunting in fenced areas.
Shooting coyotes is considered an authorized and humane way of euthanizing them, said Don McGowan, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division.
But trapping coyotes is unlikely to rid a neighborhood of the wild animals because other animals will breed and fill in the area, he said. Trapping can rid an area of nuisance coyotes, McGowan said. In fact, the state maintains a list of currently licensed Georgia nuisance wildlife trappers.
“It’s not totally fruitless to trap,” McGowan said. “You can have individual coyotes who are more brazen than others.”
Although there have been reports in other states of urban coyotes attacking people, McGowan said he has not heard any confirmed reports of such attacks in Georgia. Most coyotes are wary of people and will quickly run away if encountered.
But coyotes “get accustomed to people,” he added. “The only time I see a coyote in a rural area, it’s always running away from me. In urban and suburban areas, they’re not as skittish.”
Carole Sorenson said her son, who works as raft guide with SouthEast Expeditions on the Chattooga River, was very shaken up by his encounter.
"If they had really wanted to eat Eric they certainly could have caught him as they can run about 40 miles per hour," Sorenson said. "My baby was almost a coyote snack. Really, pretty sobering for me, anyway."
Barbara Belcore of Decatur said that “because of human behavior (ie development) these animals have had to adapt, therefore so do we.” Belcore noted, “When people go out into nature, we are going to meet mad dogs, coyotes, possums, bats, mosquitoes, flies and whatever else that is a part of nature."
“I don’t like killing anything,” Paul said. “I put bugs and spiders outside. But if it comes down to animals we love and nurture and make part of our families, yeah, I’m going to chose them over predators.”
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division recommends that urban residents take these steps to protect pets and small children from harm by coyotes:
- Take pets indoors during the night, the coyote’s primary hunting time. (In addition to coyotes, small pets may fall prey to free-roaming dogs and great horned owls.)
- If the pet must be kept outside, install fencing and motion-activated flood lights to discourage predators.
- Small livestock or poultry should be kept in an enclosed or sheltered area. Coyotes rarely bother larger livestock although they are often blamed for such nuisance instances.
- Never under any circumstances feed a coyote.
- Keep items such as grills, pet food or bird feeders off-limits.
- Make trash cans inaccessible, keep lids securely fastened or store trash cans in a secured location until trash pick-up.