Coyotes go from predator to prey

Atlanta neighborhoods struggling to deal with coyotes turn to trappers

Chip Elliott turned the steering wheel sharply to the left. His truck came to a quick stop in a cluster of hardwoods hard on the Chattahoochee River. “There,” he said, pointing.

Something moved in the morning shadows. It jumped and flipped. It kicked leaves and dirt.

Elliott lowered the tailgate of his Dodge Ram. He retrieved from the pickup bed a 4-foot aluminum pole with a retractable noose. He donned heavy gloves.

The thing in the shadows tried to run. A steel trap held its left front leg.

In a moment, Elliott slipped the noose over its head and tightened the cord so that the creature understood: It couldn’t get away.

Elliott opened the trap and freed the paw. He carried the unmoving animal to his truck, slid it into a mesh cage and secured its door with a length of twisted wire.

For a moment the captive looked at its captor with wide, gleaming eyes.

The eyes of a coyote. It was the 11th Elliott had trapped in two weeks behind homes in the Moore’s Mill community of Atlanta, a five-minute drive from the city’s high rises.

“A female,” he said. “You want to catch them before they have their pups.”

He slammed the tailgate shut. This coyote would never have a litter.

Across metro Atlanta, neighborhoods and communities are wrestling with how to coexist with this primarily nocturnal predator. Some put the onus on humans: contain garbage, keep pets indoors at night, leave the coyotes alone.

Those who regard coyotes as a dangerous nuisance hire men like Elliott to trap — and kill — them.

Elliott, the owner of Atlanta Wildlife Relocator, has been catching unwanted animals for 24 years, trapping everything from squirrels to geese. For the past five years, he’s focused on coyotes.

He’s been busy this month. February is the breeding season for coyotes; the creatures are at large, meeting and mating.

Soon, pregnant coyotes will retire to dens to have pups. Their mates, aided by coyotes the mothers birthed a year ago, will bring them food. In spring, the young coyotes will emerge from their lair to join a growing population of Canis latrans.

“Coyotes are everywhere,” said Elliott, 47, a resident of unincorporated Walton County who spent his teen years trapping animals in Gwinnett County. “There are more and more coyotes coming.”

That’s not just a sales pitch. In just the past year, officials from Atlanta to Loganville, Grayson to Douglasville, have discussed what to do about the wily intruders. Across the metro area, homeowners have compared notes — coyotes sighted, pets vanished, backyard chickens slaughtered.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which licenses trappers, lists more than 300 companies that remove wild creatures from backyards, golf courses and other places where they’re unwanted. Few, said Elliott, specialize in coyotes: Tracking and trapping them is time-consuming.

He admits that trapping them is a temporary measure; eventually, more will take their place.

“He’s the perfect predator,” said Elliott, who estimates he traps more than 100 in metro Atlanta every year. “He’ll eat anything — a dead squirrel in the road, tomatoes in your garden, berries, your cat.”

Western transplants

Coyotes came here from the American West, leaving their traditional arid range for the easy pickings of eastern cities and suburbs. They live in every state in the intercontinental United States, as well as in Canada.

State officials have “no idea” how many coyotes live in Georgia, said Don McGowan, a senior wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. Unlike bear or deer, which are protected and subject to annual counts, the coyote is an unprotected species. DNR doesn’t track coyote populations.

“They appear pretty evenly distributed,” said McGowan, who regularly fields calls from people reporting coyote sightings. “There may be an even higher density of them in urban and suburban areas.”

State law requires trappers to kill what they catch, or sell them to fox-hunting clubs. Some trappers, Elliott included, keep a few coyotes in captivity long enough to collect their urine, laying down tarps under their cages and bottling the stuff. It smells awful, but is an effective scent to bait coyote traps. Other coyotes he skins, dumping their carcasses in a trench.

Coyote pelts aren’t in great demand in the United States, where faux fur clothing is preferred over the real thing. But other nations aren’t as picky. The fur of a coyote captured in Cobb County may end up lining a parka in China.

Still, some coyotes are worth more than others. An animal fancier recently learned of a black coyote that a Rockdale County deputy killed and buried after discovering the animal in one of Elliott’s traps. Because it was unusual — most coyotes are tawny colored — the collector wanted it mounted. He offered Elliott $150 for the unskinned carcass. Elliott dug it up.

Not everyone thinks the coyote needs to be chased off or killed. In a meeting last year, the Decatur City Commission urged residents to coexist with their shaggy neighbors.

In Atlanta, city officials’ plans to trap a coyote family seen at a southwest city park fell apart when a homeowner on whose property the animals were living said she wouldn’t allow “cruel” traps on her land.

Trapping works, said Atlanta resident Jay Smith. Two years ago, he and others in the Mount Paran Road area of Buckhead hired Elliott, who removed eight coyotes. Last fall, Elliott caught 13 more.

Suddenly, said Smith, the coyotes were gone. Their pets were safe again.

“If you allow a coyote to remain in your neighborhood, the longer it’s there, the bolder it gets,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of time ... before these animals will go after larger pets.”

Christy Bosarge agrees. Last month, the Decatur resident organized a meeting to discuss trapping the animals. On a misty night, more than 50 people turned out.

Removing a few coyotes from an area teaches the remainder to avoid humans, Bosarge, whose cat, Zaya, died in a mid-day coyote attack last year, told the group.

“We’ve got to do something to restore their fear of humans,” she said. “It’s not my goal to make them go away, but we’re their only predator.”

Bosarge didn’t succeed in changing Caroline Ledbetter’s mind.

“I am wholeheartedly against trapping and killing coyotes,” said Ledbetter, who suggested removing pet bowls from outside to deter coyotes, as well as keeping pets inside. “It’s not like one is going to attack you.”

Attacks are rare but do happen. An urban coyote study under way in Chicago reports 142 coyote attacks on humans in the United States and Canada between 1985 and 2006. It also notes two fatalities — in 1981, when a 3-year-old California girl was killed, and in 2009, when several coyotes in Nova Scotia mauled a 19-year-old hiker.

The two-hour meeting in Decatur ended as it began — with attendees about evenly split on whether they should hire a trapper.

“That’s how it usually works,” said Elliott, who attended the meeting and answered questions. “Some [communities] take a year or more to make up their minds. Some never do.”

Ground work

Elliott charges $1,000 for a two-week contract to remove coyotes. His clients include subdivision homeowner associations, country clubs, golf courses and people with large tracts. He posts signs across the area warning that coyote traps are set.

He’ll set as many as 50. They’re typically doused with coyote urine and buried under a light cover of earth. The traps have rounded jaws to keep from breaking skin or bone. Each has a tag with Elliott’s name and phone number.

“I’ve had people call me up saying, ‘You trapped my dog!’ ” Elliott said. “If I do, it’s their fault. They were warned.”

Other animals stumble into his traps. On a recent morning, he freed a trapped possum, which hissed once and ran for cover. Deer, he said, also trip his traps, which are engineered so that the animal can yank its hoof free.

Law requires him to check his traps every day. His 4-year-old truck has 199,000 miles on its odometer.

Elliott’s day usually starts at sunup. He likes to be home by dark to spend time with his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

His day often ends with gunshots.

The young female Elliott took near the Chattahoochee was his second catch of the day. Earlier that morning, he caught a mangy old male in a Rockdale County subdivision. “When he saw me,” Elliott said, “he started howling.”

Back in Walton County, Elliott unloaded the cages from his truck. He reached for his .22-caliber pistol.

He fired twice.