St. Tammany Parish — Billie Pendergrast always has lived close to nature; the 57-year-old school bus driver grew up in the country, the child of dairy farmers.
But her rural St. Tammany upbringing didn’t prepare her for the life-and-death struggle playing out on her property between her beloved pets and the coyotes who view cats and small dogs as easy pickings.
Domino, her rat terrier, was grabbed by a coyote early one morning after she let her two dogs out to relieve themselves. They were barking excitedly because they had treed a raccoon — “jumping up and down like city slickers in the country,’’ she said.
But when she went inside to grab a cup of coffee, her Jack Russell terrier, Maggie, began barking frantically at the door, wanting back inside. Pendergrast opened the door to let the terrified dog in, but Domino was gone.
He ended up being lucky. Pendergrast found him a few hundred feet away, stretched out with puncture marks around his neck. The coyote who grabbed him had dropped him, and he survived.
But Pendergrast’s siblings who live nearby have lost dogs and laying hens to the predators, and her mother’s elderly cat was killed, too. Trapper Edward Singletary has caught 16 coyotes this year on her property near Old Military Road in the north central part of St. Tammany.
But Pendergrast’s experience is not unique to the more remote and rural parts of the parish. Coyotes have moved in. And in tranquil leafy subdivisions from Slidell to Mandeville, they are adapting rapidly to the suburban lifestyle and dining on garbage, pet food and pets themselves.
Most worrisome of all: They are losing their fear of people.
On Lakeview Drive, which runs along Lake Pontchartrain outside Slidell, coyotes were showing up in people’s yards during daylight hours last summer. Pat Fitzpatrick, president of the Lakeview Residence Association said the neighborhood group hired a trapper to catch the animals because pets were vanishing, and the coyotes in that area were so bold.
William Baker, of Slidell, who is on the state’s designated list of nuisance trappers, said a man told him he had encountered two coyotes while taking his daily afternoon walk on Cousin Street near the Slidell Police Station.
“One stood in front of him, and the other circled around. They’re very bold,’’ he said.
Cats began disappearing in Mandeville’s gated Beau Chene subdivision in late December, property manager Bill Mayer said. In one case, a homeowner saw the cat being carried off by a coyote.
That subdivision is along Bayou Tete L’Ours, and wildlife is part of the appeal of living there. But 20 years ago, coyotes were not part of the picture — foxes who kept down the small rodent populations were more abundant. Now, coyotes have pushed the foxes out, Mayer said.
Mayer consulted a trapper, but catching coyotes is not an easy proposition. Snares can catch other wildlife and pets, too, and it’s necessary to get permission from a number of property owners.
The trapper also told Mayer that coyote predation is worse in the winter months when young adults are pushed out to fend for themselves and are looking for easy prey. The problem in Beau Chene seemed to ease up once warmer weather arrived, he said.
Parish animal control doesn’t handle coyote complaints and neither does the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which only provides a list of licensed trappers. It’s up to the homeowner to pay the trapper. And that can be daunting.
“People don’t want to pay anything,’’ Baker said. When they learn it will cost them, they sometimes decide to live with the situation.
Singletary, who also is on the state’s list, said that he normally has to make several trips to a person’s home to set bait to get the coyote used to coming to the spot. Then he has to make another trip to set the trap. After that, it might take several nights to catch the predator.
In one case, a homeowner had surveillance cameras all over his property and knew where the coyote was coming in, but it still took four nights to trap it, Singletary said.
On Lakeview Drive, trapper John Schmidt set traps about three months ago, according to Fitzpatrick, and it took about a month to succeed, but then two were caught on the same day.
Singletary described the coyote problem in St. Tammany as “more of a people problem,’’ and others agree that humans need to change their behavior to cope with this interloper.
“If you feed your cat outside, and a coyote happens to come by, he’s gonna come back and check it out,’’ Singletary said.
Jerome Howard, a biologist at University of New Orleans, said that people need to make their homes less attractive to the animals.
Coyotes are scavengers and would definitely be attracted by shrimp shells, for example. Keeping garbage contained and yards scrupulously clean makes a yard less interesting to a coyote, Howard said.
Homeowners shouldn’t feed pets outside and need to make sure that pets are indoors and protected at night he said.
Coyotes are generally more active from dusk to dawn, according to Howard, and pet owners should avoid walking their dogs at those times.
There have been cases of small dogs being attacked while on the leash, Howard said, and that scenario could put a person at risk, too.
While Howard said that coyotes are usually solitary hunters, he said that they are more tolerant of each other now that they are moving into human habitation.
Baker and Singletary saidthey’ve definitely seen pack activity on the part of coyotes in St. Tammany Parish.
What the scientist and the trappers all stressed is the danger coyotes can pose, especially to small children.
They urged people not to let little ones play outside unsupervised.
“They are very dangerous animals, and people do not understand sometimes they are not just strange-looking dogs. It’s a little bit of an education to try to get people to take it seriously,’’ Howard said.
Pendergrast doesn’t need convincing. She walks her dogs on a leash now.
“They are brazen,’’ she said. “They are conniving. They will stalk your pets.’’
And to hear them howl, “makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck,’’ she said.