Urban coyotes

One Seminole neighborhood finds out that the predators aren't an urban legend.

click to enlarge HERE TO STAY: Coyotes are not only wily, they're permanent Pinellas County residents. - Courtesy Dr. Welch Agnew, Pinellas County Animal Control
Courtesy Dr. Welch Agnew, Pinellas County Animal Control
HERE TO STAY: Coyotes are not only wily, they're permanent Pinellas County residents.

Sherry Casler lay fast asleep when her coonhound beagle mix began barking wildly. It was 3:30 a.m.

Casler jumped out of bed and peered out her bedroom window. Across the street in her Seminole neighborhood, she could see what she thought were two large German shepherds in Nicole Prohaska's yard. The two animals had gotten hold of a smaller animal by the scruff of the neck and were shaking it violently.

Casler realized the smaller animal was her neighbor's black-and-white pet cat, Gilligan. And she realized that the attackers weren't German shepherds.

"It looked like two wolves had Gilligan in their mouths," Casler said. "He was like a rag doll."

By the time she reached the front yard, the predators were gone and Gilligan with them.

That episode occurred a few months ago, but is only one of several recent encounters between Seminole residents and urban coyotes, whose existence here is well known to county animal control officials but largely unknown to the 1-million-plus residents of Pinellas County. The truth is that many families live near the wild canines without even knowing it.

Dr. Welch Agnew of Pinellas County Animal Control says there is nothing that can be done about the coyotes in this county. According to Agnew, coyotes have been spotted from Sarasota to Dunedin, but are afraid of people so they pose no danger — at least not to humans.

"You can't just get rid of them, and they are extremely hard to trap," Agnew said. "If you put pressure on them like that, then they will just start pumping out babies so they won't be driven to extinction."

Animal Control does not warn neigh-borhoods of possible coyote presence but says if residents follow the rules of keeping pets indoors, there should be no problems.

"Coyotes are wildlife, that's our position. We want to just let them be wildlife," Agnew said.

Nicole Prohaska, 28, was asleep that night in December when she heard her neighbor Sherry on the answering machine, screaming for Nicole and her mother, Ilona Ryan, to come outside.

The two women jumped into Nicole's car and, with Nicole behind the wheel, they drove around their development in search of Gilligan and his two attackers.

"For some reason, I had a hunch to drive into this empty cul-de-sac outside my neighborhood," Prohaska said. She was unable to see farther than 5 feet in front of her due to the thick fog, but continued to drive her car into the cul-de-sac and onto a vacant lot.

"Nicole, you don't know what we're driving into here, nails or something," Casler said.

"I don't care, I don't care!" Prohaska said, heaving and crying.

The headlights illuminated two sets of eyes staring back. That's when Prohaska and Casler realized these were not just dogs.

Then the women saw the limp body of Gilligan.

"I tried to chase them away with my car so I could get to my cat," Prohaska said. "They backed off but were circling the car, snarling at us. I was afraid to roll down the window."

Pulling her car as close as she could get, Sherry jumped out and grabbed Gilligan.

Once back in the car, they could see that although the cat was still in one piece, his ears were filling up with blood, and he had no pulse.

"The coyotes had just shaken him to death," Sherry said.

The three women returned to Prohaska's house, crying as they laid the dead cat in a makeshift coffin made of a cardboard box.

"It was the most horrific experience," Nicole said.

Coyotes migrated to Florida from the western states, according to wildlife biologist Jeanne Murphy of the Pinellas County Extension. They have been tracked throughout the United States and into the southeastern part of the country. In Florida, they first appeared in the Panhandle and moved down through the state, with the Keys being the only area where they have not been documented.

"Coyotes are not leaving the state of Florida," Murphy said. "They are here to stay."

The coyote's main diet includes rabbits, rodents and dead animals. It also consumes berries and seeds and, depending on circumstances, may attack cats or small- to medium-sized dogs.

"You know, I could give you a fine right now, because your cat was outside." These were the first words out of an Animal Control official's mouth when Nicole contacted her three days after the attack that killed Gilligan.

"If I could have reached through the phone and hit her, I would have," Nicole said. "I thought, 'You try putting a leash on my cat and walking him.' They weren't any help at all. I told her that if I would have at least known that there were coyotes that could come into my neighborhood, I would have kept my cat inside.

"The guy from Animal Control said, 'Oh yeah, it's so common to have coyotes, I saw one running down Park Boulevard.' I was like, 'What?'" Nicole said.

Although a few neighbors in Seminole Grove Estates had heard of coyotes living in the woods nearby, most had no idea and were shocked that they had ventured into their neighborhood.

"When I first heard about the coyotes, I was like, 'Yeah right.' But then one night coming home, my wife and I saw two coyote pups crossing the street headed back into the woods, so seeing them has changed my mind," said Chris, a neighbor who asked that his full name not be used for this story. He has lived in Seminole Grove Estates for 10 years.

"We are frightened," Sherry said. "We used to take our dogs out for walks in the evening, but you don't see anyone doing that now."


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