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Coyote Ugly?:

When Jennifer Donat went for a morning walk the day before Thanksgiving, she never expected to run into a coyote. But there it was, eyeing her from the corner of Lincoln and Marguerita.

“It didn’t look scared or frenzied,” said Donat, visiting from northern California for the holiday weekend. “It looked calm, just meandering around. He didn’t come anywhere near us.” The animal showed no signs of aggression, but the sight of it alone was enough to send Donat’s daughter Briana, 9, screaming and running home. Donat continued walking Pixie, the family’s Australian Shepard.

While it may have been Donat’s first coyote acquaintance, her story is nothing new for the citizens of northern Santa Monica, many of whom have reported seeing coyotes in growing numbers over the past few months. Living with wild animals as neighbors can be an unsettling prospect, and it’s left more than a few residents in the leafy neighborhoods abutting the Santa Monica Canyon concerned for the safety of their small pets and children.

According to Donn Umber, Manager of Animal Control for Santa Monica, there is little to worry about. “Coyote sightings are fairly common this time of year,” said Umber. “Particularly in years where it’s been a dry season, where the winter rains stopped early, and there’s very little vegetation, there will be a higher presence of coyotes who need to forage for food.”

But what happens when the coyotes’ foraging includes cats and dogs? Homemade bulletins tacked onto telephone poles around San Vicente Avenue testify to this fear, warning small pet owners to take caution with their dogs and cats in the evening hours.

Again, Umber urges calm. While Animal Control does not keep official statistics on wild animal attacks, Umber estimates that five or six cats have fallen prey to coyotes in the past six months – numbers that, he maintains, are completely ordinary and do not point towards evidence of growing coyote aggression. He has not heard of any coyote-related dog fatalities.

Still, some Santa Monica residents are clamoring for the city to take action against what they see as a deadly menace. Ronald Part, 47, was walking alone at 7 p.m. the week before Thanksgiving when he turned around to find a coyote behind him at Marguerita and 7th. Now he is exasperated that his calls to Animal Control and City Council have resulted in nothing more than form e-mails and educational pamphlets. “It’s getting worse and worse and the city is doing nothing about it,” he said. “They’re going to ignore it until there’s some tragedy, until some kid gets eaten.”

According to UCLA Biology Professor Robert Wayne, however, a human death is an extremely remote possibility. The only fatal coyote attack he knows of was in 1981, a 3-year-old girl in Glendale. “In contrast, generally 10 or more people are killed and thousands attacked by dogs every year.”

Yet Mr. Part wants the city to trap and euthanize the coyotes, claming that since the nocturnal animals are appearing during the day and displaying a waning fear of humans, the problem will not take care of itself.

Animal Control will trap and kill a coyote, explained Umber, but only in instances when an individual animal displays “extraordinarily unusual behavior,” as occurred five years ago when an emaciated, sickly coyote was repeatedly spotted during daylight hours. Furthermore, explained Umber, a general coyote cull would put Animal Control in violation of California state law: only private companies may trap and kill coyotes without specific cause.

Umber sees the solution somewhere between ignoring the coyotes and killing them. “Our emphasis is on education,” he said, urging residents to keep their garbage cans tightly closed, not leave pet food outside, never willingly feed a coyote, and not leave small pets or toddlers unattended outside, particularly at nighttime. Additional useful tips can be found on Animal Control’s website, santamonicapd.org/animalshelter/shalter.htm.

Professor Wayne echoed Umbers’ advice, but also offered a more blunt suggestion: “People should learn to coexist with wildlife.” And for the meantime, it appears that the residents of northern Santa Monica will have to do just that.

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