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Coyotes Target Pets in Historic Fernandina Beach

Unwelcome visitors are making meals of local cats and dogs

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In Fernandina Beach, the growing presence of coyotes, a formidable, wily and nocturnal predator that hunts in the dusky and dark hours, often targeting cats and small dogs, has pet owners on alert.

People living on and around South Seventh Street, near the downtown business district, said two friendly neighborhood felines were snatched by coyotes searching for dinner in June. This included Jake, an 18-year-old free-range wanderer, who had been fed by local homeowners for years, and Walker, the unlucky, and slower, half of twins given the names Herschel and Walker, after the University of Georgia football star beloved by local alumni. Resident Greg Roland said by phone last week that his wife witnessed Walker’s demise.

“She was very upset because of the attack and because that cat was so sweet and so cute,” he said. “She thought the coyote got Herschel, too, but he managed to get away.”

Jake, according to Roland, who is Nassau County’s deputy fire chief, was a feral cat that walked into yards and up to doors looking for food and water, knowing he would find daily sustenance from homeowners, who had been reliable sources over the years. “The kids on the block grew up with him and now he’s gone,” he said. “It’s very sad, but you couldn’t keep Jake inside.”

Theresa Hamilton, who owns and operates the Fairbanks House Bed & Breakfast at 227 S. Seventh St., said she is “very–very, very” concerned about coyotes in the neighborhood and has seen packs with as many as three animals, which are often mistaken for dogs, roaming local streets. Hamilton has made an effort to keep her cats inside overnight; one night last week, she put them in an unoccupied guest room. “Remember the night of that thunderstorm? I’m glad I had the space. But I waited for hours for one of my cats to return,” she said. “I was really worried because small animals can’t make it on their own. Yes, coyotes are a serious problem.”

According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), coyotes have been found in all of the state’s 67 counties, and populations, while difficult to define, are growing—here and around the nation—all states except Hawaii. Coyotes are in major metropolitan areas, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, often making headlines when they’re spotted. The FWC said their presence shouldn’t be a surprise because coyotes easily adapt to urban environments. The best way for people to coexist with coyotes, according to the agency’s online tip-sheet, is to bring domestic animals indoors at night and secure trash.

Coyotes rarely pose a threat to people, according to the FWC, but attacks do happen. If you see one, make noise–and lots of it. Yell, wave, throw small rocks and sticks–but don’t run, said the FWC, because coyotes may give chase. Feeling threatened? Call the FWC’s wildlife alert number: 888-404-3922. Nassau County’s animal control office doesn’t handle coyote complaints, said Director Tim Maguire.

Most coyotes avoid detection by being strictly nocturnal, building dens in the scrubby brush and old-growth trees that surround the edges of the stately and modest homes in Fernandina’s downtown neighborhood. There have been repeated sightings in the brush near the railroad tracks at the entry to Rayonier Advanced Materials, the pulp mill on Gum Street. “I’ve seen them multiple times over there,” said City Commissioner Chip Ross, who lives in the downtown historic district. “There are more coyotes here than people realize.”

Coyotes have also been seen traversing runways at the municipal airport. Late last year, the city hired a wild animal removal company to trap and shoot coyotes. Four of them were removed by this depredation” effort, according to Airport Manager Nathan Coyle.

The FWC said trapping coyotes is an “inefficient and ineffective” way to control populations and can actually increase the number of pups in a litter.

Biodiversity specialist Pat Foster-Turley, a local resident who is widely known for her newspaper column on the environment, agreed. “No matter how many traps they set, coyotes will keep coming back,” she said. But they’ll do so quietly, she said.

“Unless you’re in camouflage hiding in the bushes, you’re not going to see them,” she said. “They’re pretty wily animals and will come out when they’re ready to eat.”

Coyotes have no natural predator here, allowing them to proliferate virtually unchecked. An “apex”–or alpha–predator, such as a bobcat, which roamed Amelia Island until about eight to 10 years ago, would help control populations, she said, “But we don’t have any.”

A bobcat sighting was reported in the Heron Isles subdivision in Yulee this spring, but no one is anticipating a comeback of the sharp-toothed, sharp-clawed feline, said Foster-Turley. “Nobody knows for sure what happened to bobcats,” she said. “Disease has been suggested but what we know is that coyotes found an empty niche with room to expand.” According to the News4Jax website, a bobcat was seen in the backyard of a St. Johns County home on July 2.

Foster-Turley underscored FWC’s advice to pick up and securely contain trash and keep small pets inside overnight. She also said dog owners should avoid retractable leashes, because pets may get in trouble reaching into bushes where coyotes nestle.

“Coyotes are on our island and they’re everywhere, left and right,” she said. “Be careful.”

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