Coyote problem (copy)

People are taking over what used to be coyote territory, so the highly adaptable canines are becoming common sights in residential areas.

Residents in a south Baton Rouge neighborhood have seen a troubling trend of missing cats. Hardly a week goes by without someone posting on the community’s online message board or pinning a missing cat poster to a power line pole in hopes of reuniting with their lost companion.

So when pet owners in University Acres and the Southdowns area have gone looking for their cats in recent months, they found signs that coyotes were likely behind the disappearances. One person even discovered what he described as a “killing field” of cat remains as the sightings of the pesky predators have become more frequent.

“Five years ago, we never saw coyotes,” said Walter Legett, who has lived in University Acres since 1974 and had one cat mysteriously vanish two years ago. “Now they’re going up to where they can find something to eat, and there’s plenty of cats here.”

Coyote populations are creeping up in suburbs and cities across the nation, and Baton Rouge is no exception. Federal and state wildlife officials say habitat displacement from new construction, availability of food and lack of predators has fueled their growth in cities, among other factors.

Coyotes tend to be skittish around people and are known to scavenge for food from dead animals. But the wily warriors are also opportunistic hunters and most active early in the morning or under the cover of night, making them a danger to unattended pets.

Residents in south Baton Rouge say sightings of coyotes hanging out in backyards and scampering through their streets lead them to believe the animals may be getting more comfortable around human activity.

Earlier this year, Mike McGaugh let his cat Bravo, a 10-year-old Maine coon, out at night, expecting the longtime family feline would return as it has always done.

“He disappeared without a trace,” McGaugh said.

A while later, his other cat went missing, and McGaugh found evidence it had likely been killed by a coyote.

With his neighbors sharing similar experiences with their cats' sudden disappearances, he and others are calling on state and parish wildlife officials to help curb the coyote population.

“There’s clearly a correlation between coyote sightings, cats dying and the amount of cats that have gone missing,” said Mookie Darden, 25, whose big gray cat, Burger, hasn’t returned since it went missing two weeks ago.

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Coyote removal and mitigation is under the purview of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Baton Rouge animal control officers often receive calls about coyotes but are unable to do much about them.

A potential path to reducing coyote numbers my come from a new state law allowing people to take the fight back to pesky critters by hunting them at night.

The law rolled out Friday and makes coyotes, feral hogs, armadillos, nutria and beavers fair game to kill without a permit because they're considered pests that are known to cause property damage and, in the case of wild hogs, are a danger to people.

But the law has a limited effect in East Baton Rouge: firing weapons within the city limits of Baton Rouge is banned, and residents in other parts of the parish can’t shoot the so-called "outlaw quadrupeds” in dense neighborhoods, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman said.

McGaugh has considered trapping coyotes but the logistics of doing would be difficult because it'd require a non-lethal trap and then uncertain next steps if he were to catch one.

Since his cats' disappearances, McGaugh's family got a new cat they plan to keep inside, but he and other residents still worry about their neighbors' pets becoming a coyote's next meal.

State wildlife officials there is a cheap and effective way to control the critters: don't feed them, keep pets inside after dusk, secure trash bins and remove any other potential food sources, among other suggestions.

Also, constantly harassing coyotes is one of the most effective ways to drive them off, said Melissa Collins, the department's wildlife biologist and permits coordinator.

Similar to when people encounter bears making noise, waving arms or installing automatic sprinklers often scares the animals away and lets them “know they are not welcome,” Collins said.

Residents who encounter a coyote that doesn’t appear startled by the hazing or seems especially aggressive should contact the wildlife department’s nuisance animal operator, she said.

Elizabeth Vaughan, who's lived in the area for 25 years and has had three cats disappear in the past three years, said the state needs to take a more aggressive stance on trapping and relocating coyotes to wildernesses. 

She said the state needs to develop a long-term program that allows agents to swiftly respond anytime there's a coyote sighting.

If other wild animals were roaming a neighborhood and posing a threat to children, Vaughan said, "we would immediately have a trap-and-relocate effort in place. 

"Why we have a predator animal and we throw up our hands and say we can't do anything about it," she said, "is nonsense."

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