LONGBOAT KEY – Coyotes walking down the beaches and roads of Florida’s barrier islands should not surprise residents or tourists, according to state wildlife officials.
Coyotes are true Florida natives, with fossilized evidence that they lived in Florida before the Ice Age, Angeline Scotten, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), told Longboat Key residents on Monday.
With the recent appearance of coyotes on Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, Scotten offered some time-tested tips on living with them, and some perspective on what can be contentious “love them” or “kill them” debates.
Coyotes are not going away, Scotten said. For generations, they have been hunted from helicopters, strangled in snares and trapped in metal jaws, only to reproduce at higher rates when their numbers fall, a unique characteristic of the species.
“Eradication efforts have dramatically failed,” she said.
They are in all 67 counties in the state, including islands. Coyotes are strong swimmers; one was photographed swimming across a channel, she said. They also walk across bridges.
To understand a coyote, know that they’re smart. They learn fast. Much like alligators, once coyotes learn that people will feed them, they will become nuisances, Scotten said.
Hence, rule number one – DO NOT FEED COYOTES.
It’s actually illegal, she said. Don’t leave pet food outside. Cover garbage cans. Pick up fallen fruit. You are not doing them a favor, you are making them lose their fear of people – the best weapon people have to coexist with coyotes, she said.
Coyotes eat almost anything, including vegetation, insects, fish, birds, nuts and berries. Examinations of coyote stomach contents show they eat dog food, cooked chicken, McDonalds wrappers and candy wrappers. They also eat mice and roaches, she said, adding, “If that’s all they ate, that would be great.”
Coyotes would undoubtedly eat sea turtle and shorebird eggs, but they also may be indirectly protecting them, Scotten said.
Coyotes control small predators like raccoons, which prey on turtle and bird nests, she said.
Florida has been without a mid-level, coyote-sized predator for almost 100 years, since the red wolf left the state, she said, leading some scientists to believe that coyotes are keeping the ecosystem balanced.
“We will take no preventive measures against coyotes,” said Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring, who attended the presentation. “They are all wild animals and they will have to work it out.”
But coyotes also eat domestic cats and dogs.
Therefore, rule number two – RESTRAIN AND REMAIN WITH PETS.
Do not allow pet cats to “free range,” or roam, Scotten said. It is against the law in many communities, and an invitation to coyotes. Keep dogs on a short, 6-foot leash – no retractable leashes – or in a secure, fenced-in yard. And don’t leave your pet unattended, as most coyote attacks on pets occur when people are not around, she said, adding these tips also will protect pets from other wildlife, including alligator, bobcat, bear and panther.
People sometimes report seeing 70-pound coyotes, Scotten said, adding, “Call me, I want to see that.” Florida coyotes are mostly 25-30 pounds, with a very few reaching 40 pounds.
People erroneously think coyotes are diseased when they see them walking in the daytime, she said. They can carry the same diseases that dogs are vaccinated against, but not necessarily. In the last 20 years, only one coyote in the U.S. was confirmed to have rabies, she said.
People report seeing packs of coyotes, fearful of being attacked, she said. Coyotes live with their families, not unrelated packs. They mate for life and are monogamous, often traveling together as human families do, with both parents caring for 6-12 pups in a litter, she said.
Attacks by coyotes on people are “exceedingly rare,” with 3.5 per year in the U.S., and two fatalities in 46 years; one, a child killed by a coyote that was being hand fed, she said. By comparison, dogs caused 181 fatalities in the four years from 2013-17, and dog bites result in about 1,000 emergency room visits a day nationwide.
Still, “People run from coyotes,” Scotten said. “That’s what they want.”
Rule number three – DO NOT RUN.
A coyote will chase you, she said, adding, “It’s their instinct.” If you have a child or small dog, pick it up and follow rule number four.
Rule number four – HAZE IT.
Use your voice, sticks, whistles, pots and pans, water pistols, bear spray, car horns, air horns, shake a can with pennies inside. Haze it until you no longer see it. If it turns around and looks at you, haze it again until it leaves. It may regain its fear of people, Scotten said.
If a coyote becomes a nuisance, property owners are allowed to remove it without a license, she said, but shooting is not allowed in many communities. Coyotes cannot be relocated under state law except to be humanely euthanized. Coyotes are too smart for cages. Setting a noose snare would choke a coyote to death in about three minutes, but will do the same for the neighbor’s cat. Steel traps that clamp on legs require an FWC permit, but if you catch the neighbor’s dog or an angry bobcat, “What are you going to do?”
Rule number five – COEXIST WITH COYOTES. The best approach is to try to avoid problems with coyotes, using the information above, she said.
If you see a coyote and are concerned, call law enforcement – Longboat Key police are keeping a log of coyote sightings – or call the wildlife alert hotline, 888-404-3922.
“Coyotes are just trying to survive, just like any other animal in a really tough environment,” Scotten said. “They have learned in western states to live with them, and we can too.”