ODESSA — Coyotes moving into the area are suspected in the killing of two sheep and the disappearance of pet cats and dogs throughout rural northwest Hillsborough County.
The killings, as well as a number of daytime coyote sightings, have residents on edge in this idyllic neighborhood of silvery lakes and rolling pastures.
“Our community is being ravaged by these predators,” said Jim Swain, president of the Lake Keystone Property Owners Association. “This is not normal behavior.”
Swain said there have always been coyotes in the Odessa area, but he insists they are now more numerous and bolder. The scruffy canines have been seen trotting alongside cars and peering in glass sliding doors. Coyotes jumped a 42-inch-high and killed two lambs belonging to Andres Mamontoff off Hutchinson Road.
“After this happened, other people started reacting: ‘Oh my God; my cat disappeared,’” Mamontoff said. “There were attacks happening but people didn’t know what it was.”
Mamontoff said he’s lived in the Odessa area since 1976 and never seen a coyote. He said he knows coyotes killed his lambs because only their internal organs were eaten. Mamontoff now keeps his remaining nine sheep locked up in the barn overnight.
Once free-roaming denizens of the western prairies, coyotes are now as much a part of the urban landscape as Norway rats and feral cats. They are smart and seem to cohabit easily with humans.
Coyotes inhabit cities as large and densely populated as Chicago and New York, and can be found in all Florida’s 67 counties. Pinellas, Florida’s most densely populated county, created a website where hundreds of coyote sightings are posted.
The conversion of Florida’s thick forests to open, agricultural use is one reason coyotes started moving into the state in the 1960s, said Angeline Scotten, a wildlife assistance biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. They prefer open land and like to munch on watermelons, cantaloupes and other crops.
The animals proliferated because they have few predators here. The red wolf, which could have preyed on coyotes, became extinct in the state in the 1920s. Florida panthers are a potential predator but there aren’t enough of them to make a dent in the coyote population.
“Coyotes are part of the landscape of Florida now and they’re here to stay,” Scotten said. “They have high productive rates and they eat virtually anything. It’s not economical and it’s not feasible to remove coyotes from Florida, or even a small area.”
Swain, the Keystone homeowners president, said he’s frustrated that his appeals for help to the county commission and the Fish and Wildlife Commission have brought nothing but advice on what residents can do to keep coyotes away and their pets and livestock safe.
Swain said he will seek support among his neighbors for hiring professional trappers.
“If nothing else, (Fish and Wildlife) needs to issue alerts throughout the media about the dangers these animals pose,” Swain said.
County commissioners discussed Swain’s concerns in February but the county has no authority to deal with invasive nuisance animals such as coyotes, said commission Chairman Ken Hagan.
Hagan said Fish and Wildlife officials have agreed to come to Keystone-Odessa in the next month or so to talk to residents about how to deal with the coyotes.
Hunting and trapping coyotes is allowed year around, according to Fish and Wildlife, but permits are required for steel traps. Trapping with a snare should be done by a professional trapper, Scotten said, because coyotes often recognize and avoid such methods.
The best strategies for dealing with coyotes is to keep pets in at night time and bring in food that attracts the animals. Coyotes, like raccoons, like cat and dog food, as well as bird seed.
If coyotes come near, Scotten recommends “hazing” — throwing rocks at the animals or making loud noises by yelling, banging pots and pans, or using an air horn.
“Coyotes generally are not a threat to people,” Scotten said. “If you take the proper precautions — securing pets and hazing the animals — you won’t have those problems.”
Odessa is largely rural, but coyotes have been spotted in south Tampa and other more urban areas.
Veterinary Dr. Dani McVety was called out by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office several months ago to euthanize a coyote that had been hit a car on the Selmon Crosstown Expressway, just east of Ybor City.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why is a coyote running on the crosstown?’” recalled McVety, who was raised in Odessa.