Dr. Edward Gross had no idea his tiny Chihuahua, Tito, could have been taken by a predator when it disappeared from the wooded perimeter of his backyard two years ago.
"We went searching for him. We never even found a drop of blood," said Gross, who is a veterinarian at Care More Animal Hospital in Martinez and whose property borders Columbia Middle School and Rinker quarry. "We put fliers out looking for him. Then nothing ever surfaced."
Six weeks after Tito, who weighed less than 9 pounds, disappeared, Gross realized coyotes were in the area. While taking his other Chihuahuas out for a 3:30 a.m. walk in the backyard, Gross said, he heard a scream from the woods and saw Mickey Mouse, his 6-pound Chihuahua, in the mouth of a coyote.
"Honestly, it never occurred to us the first time. We just thought he (Tito) had gotten lost," Gross said. "It never occurred to me that we had coyotes around here."
Donna Evans, the president of the Columbia County Humane Society, said she and humane society volunteers have heard more stories from pet owners this year about animals killed or taken by coyotes and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.
"They are right here in these neighborhoods," Evans said. "They are. People just need to be aware."
Coyotes are not native to Georgia but can be found statewide, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Coyotes usually feed on vegetation, carrion and small mammals, which can include dogs, cats and other pets. Evans said pets weighing up to 12 pounds should be carefully watched while outside, kept in a fenced area and kept away from underbrush and wooded areas.
"It happens so fast," Evans said. "When a coyote comes out and grabs your little dog, they are gone. It happens so fast."
Vic VanSant, the regional Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, said his office in Thomson gets calls all year about coyote sightings, but the most calls come in the spring and early summer when young animals are being born.
More coyotes are seen this time of year because parent predator animals are hunting extra to feed their young or young animals are learning to hunt on their own, VanSant said.
"Young animals haven't learned to be scared of people yet," VanSant said. Coyotes normally feed at night, which is why they are not often seen, he said.
Linda Fulmer, the manager of Columbia County Animal Care and Control, said her office gets calls each year about coyote sightings, but not a lot of them. More are being seen in construction areas as developments gradually move into more rural areas.
"It (the county) was more rural, but now, of course, there is more construction, like out there on William Few Parkway," Fulmer said. "We've had quite a few calls from people out there seeing coyotes."
Fulmer, Evans and VanSant agree that the first and most effective line of defense protecting pets from coyotes is a fence. Gross said that at the time his dogs were taken, his yard was not fenced.
"That was one of the reasons we put a fence around our entire house," Gross said. "We haven't had any other problems."
Coyotes are naturally timid but are becoming increasingly tolerant of humans, which is why they need to be scared away.
"If people don't do things that provide them some adverse conditioning, if people are not chasing them off, doing things that scare them or exclude them, (the young coyotes) don't know any better."
Loud noises, including firearms, usually work. But VanSant warns that firearms used to scare or shoot coyotes should be a last resort and firearms should not be used at all in subdivisions or other areas where county ordinances restrict the discharge of firearms.
VanSant said the best way is to take away whatever is attracting coyotes, typically is pet food left out overnight.
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