Howling concerns

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Almaden Times Weekly

Howling concerns

September 23, 2004
Kymberli W. Brady, Staff Writer

Residents and animal activists argue over mounting coyote threats
Almaden residents have enormous pride in their upscale community of lush homes wrapped in neatly landscaped neighborhoods—complete with children and pets playing freely in front yards and nearby parks filled with a variety of wild birds and animals.
While “Kodak moments” capture late summer images of grazing deer and busy squirrels, a new generation of coyote pups venture out on their own.

Only now, residents in the Villas of Almaden say the animals have crossed the territorial line.

Almaden is one of three coyote “hot spots” in Santa Clara County, where mounting reports of pet casualties and human/coyote interactions in the past three years, which has spurred a community’s cry for help.

A public meeting on Sept. 15 attempted to answer that cry, as Vice Mayor Pat Dando assembled a panel of experts to address community concerns, including Wildlife Biologist Mike Phillips and Dr. Noor Tietze with Santa Clara County Vector Control; Janet Alexander, Manager of the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley; Little Blue Society Director Mary Paglieri; Jon Cicirelli, Deputy Director of Animal Care and Services; SJPD officer A.J. Young; and Don Kelly, with the Calif. Department of Fish and Game.

While most reside in the Villas, a sprinkling of wildlife activists made for a captivating exchange over human behavior versus animal cruelty.

“This is a very emotional issue on either side,” announced Dando. “Some have lost pets. Others feel their children have been threatened. But there are also individuals concerned with how we deal with natural wildlife when we’ve come into their territory.”

Residents say it’s the other way around.

“We never had coyotes until a couple of years ago,” exclaimed one neighbor. “The deer are now being slaughtered. We didn’t move into their territory, they moved into ours—we want them out now.”

According to Phillips, territorial boundaries, combined with residential and golf course developments and ongoing creek restoration ultimately forced the coyotes to migrate into the greenbelt near Guadalupe Oak Grove Park—a natural corridor into the Villas. As homes sprung up, open decks became ideal habitats for rodents, skunks and raccoons.

The emergence of coyotes now has residents terrified to venture outside.
While graphic descriptions of mauled pets fueled the sense of urgency, it was the emotional recounts of a dog attacked while on its leash, and a couple’s battle with a coyote while with their grandchild that raised the eyebrows of the panel.

The extent surprised even Kelly. Further discussion led him to conclude that the danger warranted immediate trapping and euthanasia of specific pack members.

Who’s on first?

Phillips maintained that recent authorization attempts to set traps have failed—denied by Cicirelli because of the city’s “no trapping” ordinance. Although trapping in Almaden was authorized two years ago, the ordinance has been around for 10 years.

When questioned why they had repeatedly violated their own directive over the years, city attorney Bill Hughes stated that he was unaware of any trapping done in a manner that wasn’t consistent with the ordinance.

According to Cicirelli, if county officials declared—in writing that the situation posed an eminent danger, he would take it to the city attorney for a legal determination and action.

“There’s nothing in the ordinance that says the city attorney can decide this,” Hughes argued. “I’m not sure where it says we can grant the authority to allow someone to trap coyotes. We’re going to have to see the letter before taking the appropriate action.”

However, according to Kelly, State Department of Fish and Game Code, Sec 3003.1, Subsection C allows their use, “in the extraordinary case where the otherwise prohibited, padded jaw leg-hold trap is the only method available to protect human health and safety.”

“If we deem a situation an eminent threat that allows the taking of animals, this gives municipalities the right to grant their own agents exemption under Subsection C,” said Kelly. “We have an eminent safety situation here.”

“I expect the city attorney will recommend that we change the ordinance or make a determination about liability toward the city,” said Cicirelli. “Legally, the city attorney is the only one who can say what can and can’t be done.”

Changing the rules

The question prompted residents to ask Dando why initial promises to amend the existing ordinance to mirror that of the state headed instead in a different direction, after the city enlisted Paglieri to provide a report, with alternatives to trapping and killing the coyotes.

“The plan was never to change it,” explained Dando. “It was to allow for an exception that would permit action to be taken if something posed a threat to public safety and enable us to make sure controls stay in place.”

Who’s to blame?
Paglieri’s comments met with harsh criticism when she concluded that the residents were to blame for providing food sources, while allowing their pets to roam free.

“We found evidence of people feeding the animals,” she said. “Rodents feed on fallen birdseed, which draws larger predators. Coyotes are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of that.”

“A lot of them are letting their pets run loose,” admitted Phillips. “And one problem at the Villas was traced back to a neighbor putting out food for the deer.”

Bud Spadafore has lived in the Villas for 18 years and, as the association president, refused to take the accusations sitting down.

“We’ve had birdfeeders here for as long as we’ve had the deer,” he said. “There was never a problem before and I just can’t see that as the reason in the case.”

“The city’s got about 10 days to take care of this,” added Larry Perrin. “If they don’t, these people will.”

“My fear is that a mob mentality has set in,” said Jamie Himmelstien. “I don’t mean to downplay what has occurred with the killing of deer and the threat to human life—as small a percent as I believe that is. Other options besides murdering coyotes have not been looked into well enough.”

“The residents made a compelling case that they were not only frustrated, but deeply frightened by the aggressive nature of the coyote population,” argued Oak Canyon resident Pat Pizzo. “The instances have been well documented on their web pages and reported weekly to Dando’s office.”

A compromise—of sorts

At a subsequent gathering at the Villas on Monday, Phillips, Kelly, Tietze, Alexander, Cicirelli, Kelly, and Denelle Fedore, with Dando’s office met with Spadafore and Villas manager Kurt Shenefiel to discuss measures and orchestrate a plan.

Getting the county to endorse Phillip’s recommendation was the first step toward the written request that, if approved, will allow trapping. As of press time, the county had issued the request, but the city attorney has not made their decision.

“I suspect that they will concur and work closely with Vector Control and Fish and Game—under state guidelines to address the immediate problem,” said Dando.

Long-term measures seek to involve resident education and behavior modification, combined with State and City departmental efforts to review and alter the habitat.

“The community needs to do their part,” reminded Dando. “They can start by taking away some of the temptations, including salt licks for the deer.”

“We’re not really organized,” said TJ

Martin resident Susan Mosher, who complained of coyote problems for five years. “I want to be part of the solution and don’t mind canvassing the neighborhood—a lot of folks have good hearts, but they don’t know how to live with the animals.

This meeting was a first step toward the solution.”

Taking the first step
“Educating people on the determent is key,” explained Alexander. “Even if you’re not actively feeding wild animals, things like fallen fruit can play a role.”

Alexander also recommends that residents refrain from leaving children and pets unaccompanied—especially during the evening hours. Securing garbage cans in sheds or with bungee cords is another deterrent, as are motion sensor lights and six-foot fencing with six-inches below ground. Cayenne pepper sprinkled on areas frequented by wild animals will discourage smaller predators—raccoons, opossums, and skunks.

It’s also very important to spay and neuter your dogs,” she adds. “Unspayed females can attract male coyotes and unneutered males can be lured by a female coyote’s scent.

Although not opposed to feeding the birds, Alexander advised residents in rural areas to use good judgment, as scattered seed attracts smaller predatory animals—all in an effort to coexist with wild animals by remedying their own behavior.

“I hope the solution won’t be Villas specific,” said Pizzo. “A general plan needs to be developed to right bad situations as they arise in satellite communities, such as Oak Canyon, Los Alamitos, Los Gatos, New Almaden, etc.”

“And we will work toward that goal,” said Kelly.