Hungrii Flea-Bagius. Carnivorous Vulgaris. Grotesques Appetitus. Evereadii Eatibus. Santa Clara County Wildlife Specialist Peter Gotcher used these names to describe the inherent nature of coyotes that were recently seen roaming College Terrace streets.
Concerned about a recent spate of coyote sightings and the disappearance of two neighborhood cats, members of the College Terrace Residents Association called upon Gotcher, a wildlife expert, to investigate in early May. A wiry man in a brown leather cowboy hat and boots, he had been on the College Terrace coyotes' trail for about two weeks. In just one week, Gotcher had found three different coyotes "so far," he told association members at a May 16 presentation.
In the morning hours the week before, he spotted a male with an injured paw and a mated pair, he said.
The number of coyotes — Canis latrans or "laughing dog" — as they are known to scientists, didn't surprise him. He worked with other adjacent neighborhoods when they had multiple coyote sightings two years ago and regularly encounters all manner of wildlife. More surprising to him is that people think having wildlife in the urban setting isn't normal.
"People ask me, 'How did I get a skunk in my back yard? I live in a gated community,'" he said.
Wildlife get past fences and into yards and they roam down streets in large part because humans make it convenient for them to do so. Culverts, which bring runoff into creeks in winter, provide prime den locations when the creeks dry out in April and May, he said. And people provide easy food and water sources for the generally energy-conserving coyote.
Gotcher asked the residents to look at life from the coyote's point of view. It is not a pretty life. Plagued by mange and heart worms, "it's a hard life when you have to hunt something every day and you don't get regular dental checkups," Gotcher said.
The three he spotted in College Terrace were most likely fleeing hardships in their natural habitat. The injured coyote likely came down from the hills because it would be easier to get around in the flatlands; the pair seemed to have been kicked out of the pack and were seeking new territory, he said.
Given the abundance of fruit trees, garbage, pet food and the animals that feed on them — rats, squirrels, birds, mice, rabbits and the occasional house cat or small dog — a residential neighborhood can be a prime location for easier pickings, he said. And coyotes are not picky, as his names for them have noted.
"They'll eat everything and anything," Gotcher said, flipping his slide show to a photograph of an orange Scrunchie that passed through a coyote's digestive system.
They will search compost piles; they'll destroy irrigation lines. Drip-irrigation systems make a loud whistling noise that is music to the coyote's sensitive ears. The sound is like a mouse's squeak, he said.
The county doesn't plan to trap the coyotes. It's not legal to trap wildlife in most cases in California and coyotes don't do well when relocated. These coyotes are not a hazard to humans. When encountered, they ran away, he said.
But residents can manage the neighborhood coyotes by surrounding yards with a 6-foot-high fence that is secured underground and creating a "defensible" space by clearing brush and ivy from around a house, he said.
Coyotes have a strong sense of smell, so there's the obvious: securing garbage- and recycle-bin lids. But residents should pick up fallen fruit and feed birds in spill-proof feeders so seeds on the ground don't attract rodents. Pet food and water left outdoors, including in feral-cat feeding stations, are also attractants, he said.
Small pets are also potential prey. Owners should keep small dogs and cats indoors, particularly at night. To prove his point, Gotcher showed a slide of a lineup of collars and tags from cats and small dogs hanging in his work cubicle.
"I have to call someone and say, 'Do you have a cat named Fluffy?'" he said.
Gotcher also had advice for encounters while walking small dogs. Keep pets on a fixed-length leash. Retractable leashes allow dogs to travel at an unsafe distance from their owners, he said. Some dogs also become frantic and can break out of a collar, running directly into the path of the coyote.
Gotcher recommended using a pet harness instead and practicing picking up the dog by the harness. Also get the pet used to a loud noise such as a whistle or air horn to scare away a coyote, he said.
A photo popped up on the slide-show screen: a Bichon Frise sporting a deluxe outfit made of Kevlar, metal spikes and Dayglo plastic bristles, purportedly coyote-proof. It elicited howls from the audience.
The best defense is being aware of one's surroundings, Gotcher said. If one encounters a coyote on a trail one can walk around it, giving a wide berth. If the destination would lead to a dead end, it is best to choose another route. Keep turned to face the coyote and keep an eye on it, but also on where one is going.
"Turning your back gives them the bad advantage," he said.
Coyotes sitting or standing on a trail aren't necessarily going to stand their ground or challenge a person. They are curious to figure out what the two-legged creature is up to, he said.
And in the eyes of a coyote, humans can look pretty weird. People look like bright splashes of paint. Brighteners in laundry soap give off ultraviolet specks on clothing that the coyote can see, he said.
Although rare, children have been attacked by coyotes, notably at playgrounds in Southern California where the park was adjacent to open space. But that shouldn't create unnecessary fear. As always, adults should keep a close watch on children — and keep their eyes off their mobile devices, he said.
"Kids are more in danger from a two-legged predator than a four-legged predator," he said.
More information about managing neighborhood coyotes, including fencing, can be found at sccgov.org.