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Controversy swirls around coyote trapping

February 2, 2009 |  3:42 pm

Coyote trapper Jimmie Rizzo sets the wire noose on his camouflaged homemade trap 
on a coyote trail in the hills at Cal Poly Pomona

When Southern California businesses and residents have run-ins with local coyotes, the man they're most likely to call is Jimmie Rizzo, a trapper who learned his trade hunting muskrat, deer, raccoon, mink, fox and beaver in his native Mississippi. Now he traps mountain lions, bears, and his bread and butter, coyotes (trapping and killing them, he says, accounts for 80% of his schedule).

Rizzo's skills are sought after by owners who fear for their pets' safety in backyards throughout the Southland, and by more high-profile clients such as the Huntington Library.  But trapping coyotes is, naturally, controversial, as our colleague Joe Mozingo explains:

This month, animal rights groups demanded the Huntington Library halt Rizzo's trapping of coyotes in the botanical gardens, threatening in a letter to make a "broader public issue of the case." At the same time, neighbors in San Marino have demanded the library do more to cull the coyotes living on the 207-acre property and feeding on their pets. One woman even sued the Huntington after her Pomeranian was killed a couple of blocks away.

Coyotes are unique in their ability to adapt to life in cities and suburbs, says Mozingo, "often breeding for generations completely detached from the wilderness."  In fact, the predators seem to thrive in cities because  living among humans means easy access to food (including scraps from compost heaps and garbage cans, pet food and wild bird feeders -- not to mention pet dogs and cats, which are often an easy meal for a coyote) and water (from swimming pools and pet bowls).

Coyotes are capable of killing much larger dogs, even dragging them over 6-foot walls, and Rizzo says pets are easy prey. Mozingo reports:

"Why are they going to go chase rabbits when you got Fifi locked up with a bowl of water to drink right next to her?" Rizzo asked.

A square mile of wilderness can support two to four coyotes, said Kevin Brennan, senior wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. A square mile of suburbia might support a dozen coyotes or more, which has allowed them to expand well beyond their historical numbers.

"The situation is not natural," Brennan said. "These are not coyotes who have wandered out of the hills and are trapped in the city trying to make it."

Rizzo's methods aren't exactly designed to minimize pain or stress on the coyotes he captures; he camoflauges wire snares in the underbrush at head-level height. When the animals walk into a snare they're trapped until Rizzo returns, as Mozingo puts it, "with a needle full of sodium pentothal and a Hefty lawn-and-garden bag for the ride to the hereafter."

Animal welfare advocates such as the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute and Project Coyote say there must be a better way to deal with problem coyotes.  Responding to the Huntington's hiring of Rizzo in a letter to its vice president of communications, the groups said that the use of neck snares to trap coyotes is problematic not only from an animal-welfare standpoint, but from a human-safety one as well:

It is widely acknowledged that neck snares can and have resulted in non-target animals, or in this case those other than coyotes, being caught in traps and killed...Domestic animals are no exception and there are innumerable media reports documenting the unintentional deaths of cats and dogs in wire cable snares.  Neck snares may similarly pose a risk to humans, and in particular small children, who may happen to stumble upon a set trap.  All of these risks raise legitimate reservations about the use of snares in a high public use area such as the Huntington.

But advocates for trapping the coyotes say that there's no other way to protect both pets and people from the predators:

A widely cited study by UC Davis in 2004 found that the first reported coyote attack in California not attributed to rabies occurred in 1978. In the next 25 years, there were 89 attacks on people or on pets in the presence of people. More than three-quarters of those came after 1994.

The biggest danger coyotes pose is to small children. The study's authors, Robert Timm and Rex Baker, reported 35 incidents in which coyotes stalked or attacked young children -- including a 3-year-old girl killed in front of her home in Glendale in 1981.

"They do see children as prey," Baker said. "There's no two ways about it."

Regardless of one's personal feelings on the issue, it's certainly preferable to avoid close contact with coyotes entirely.  The L.A. Department of Animal Services offers these tips:

  • Keep your pets indoors or secured in an outdoor kennel. Environmental factors can affect the time a coyote may appear. Coyotes are active during daylight hours also.
  • Walk your dog on a leash at all times. If your yard does not have a fence, use a leash while on your property to keep your pet close to you.
  • You may carry something with you for protection such as an air horn, whistle, walking stick or cane.
  • Confine small animals and birds that you cannot keep indoors to covered enclosures constructed of a heavy gauge wire mesh. Coyotes can break through chicken wire.
  • Put all trash bags inside the trash cans and keep all outdoor trash can lids securely fastened to the containers. Place trash bins inside sheds, garages or other enclosed structures.
  • Pick fruit from trees as soon as it ripens and pick up all fallen fruit. Cut low hanging branches to avoid the coyote feeding from trees. Trim ground-level shrubbery.
  • Vegetable gardens should be protected with heavy duty garden fences or enclosed by a greenhouse. Check with your local plant nursery to see what deterrent products are available. If you have access to the Internet, you may find some items on-line.
  • Keep your property well lit at night.
  • Close off crawl spaces under porches, decks and sheds. Coyotes use such areas for resting and raising young.

For more information, check out Mozingo's story and its accompanying photo gallery.

What do you think? Is the trapping and killing of nuisance coyotes a step too far, or a necessary evil? 

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Coyote trapper Jimmie Rizzo sets the wire noose on his camouflaged homemade trap on a coyote trail in the hills at Cal Poly Pomona. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.

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