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    Residents suspect coyote in cat deaths

    Officials, however, caution that the disappearances could be caused by other predatory animals, or even humans.

    By BRIAN MOORE

    Revised July 11, 2001

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 12, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- Rodney Buel couldn't believe what he was seeing as he drove along Oxford Avenue delivering the newspaper on Easter Sunday morning.

    About 30 minutes before sunrise, he spotted the silhouette of an animal trotting under street-lights on the right side of the road toward his Jeep Cherokee Laredo.

    As it ran by, Buel was astonished to see a coyote carrying a dead cat in its mouth. It gripped the feline by the back of the neck, and the cat dangled as its tail dragged along the ground.

    "About a week later I started seeing the signs for missing cats," Buel said. "When I first saw it coming, I said, "Holy cow.' I've seen foxes occasionally and lots of raccoons, but I've never seen anything like that."

    The coyote didn't even glance at Buel as he flung copies of the St. Petersburg Times onto driveways. It ran onto the Tides Golf Course, which borders the new, 182-acre Boca Ciega Millennium Park.

    Residents surrounding the park say their cats are disappearing at an alarming rate. It's become the talk of the neighborhood, and almost everyone has a theory about what's happening.

    The common thread among the stories: A coyote is coming out of the park and preying on domestic animals.

    Denis Falcon, who lives on 123rd Street N, published a hotline number in the weekly Seminole Beacon newspaper to collect data about missing cats after he lost one cat on consecutive days last month.

    Eight calls reported more than 20 missing cats, and neighbors figured the cats have fallen victim to the coyote after one was seen on Falcon's street.

    But wildlife experts throughout Pinellas County say residents shouldn't jump to any conclusions. A story that has some parents worried about the safety of their children could be urban folklore.

    Boca Ciega Millennium Park supervisor Judy Jarosz confirmed there is one coyote living in the park. But Jarosz said the coyote has everything it needs to survive -- rabbits, mice, fresh water and plenty of space to run -- within the park's boundaries.

    It doesn't need to roam into neighborhoods for food, and if it did, it typically wouldn't eat a cat, she said. The coyotes are "urban wildlife," which is becoming increasingly common throughout Pinellas County. Native vegetation is being reduced as the county becomes densely populated, and spotting uncommon animals isn't so rare anymore.

    Catherine Flegel, research program coordinator for the Environmental Lands division of Pinellas County Environmental Management, supports Jarosz's argument that the coyote poses very little threat to domestic animals or people.

    "Cats see well in the dark and they generally have their defenses up at night," Flegel said. "It would be more likely that a great horned owl would swoop down and get a cat."

    Flegel and Jarosz, as well as officials at Pinellas Animal Services and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are strongly considering the possibility that the cats are being hit by cars.

    Neither Animal Services nor the SPCA have reported a high number of road-kills recently, but many such cases go unreported.

    What's more likely, according to Flegel, is that cats may be hit on the road and then carried off. Crows and other scavengers swoop in and pull the road-kill away to eat, which would keep most people from ever seeing it during the night.

    Officials say there's no proof that the coyote attacked the cat that was seen in its mouth. The feline may have been a victim of a zooming car and merely carried away by the coyote.

    Coyotes by nature are more scared of people than people are scared of them. Flegel said when coyotes spot a person within an eighth of a mile, they usually flee.

    Regardless, some residents remain convinced that the park's development has forced the coyote from its natural habitat into the neighborhood. They consider the roaming coyote a problem and wonder who is responsible for taking care of it.

    "I won't let my son out alone," said Falcon, who has a 5-year-old son and two daughters. "It's a really nice park, but I want to see them do something. My concern is obvious: If someone leaves a little baby in a carriage or playpen at the wrong time, something bad could happen."

    Beth Lockwood, executive director for the SPCA, is investigating the pet-owners' claims. So far, she's found no answers to the mysterious disappearance of the cats.

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