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BY LANDON WOODROOF

They skulk around at dusk, peering for prey wherever they can find it, in forests, open fields, city streets or maybe even your own back yard.

For many Williamson County residents coyotes are nothing new. In fact, for most in Middle Tennessee residents, sightings are nothing new. Even those who have never encountered one on an evening stroll or when letting their dog out at night, may have heard the animal’s distinctive cry from afar.

However, their presence still unnerves many for whom the idea of coyotes in a suburban environment just seems out of place. The animals seem more fit for wide western expanses than they do fenced, one-acre lots.

Yet Brentwood has plenty of coyotes and that means plenty of interactions involving humans or pets. In recent months, local social media has carried reports of several such interactions, which range from mere sightings to a story about a homeowner finding two coyotes munching on a deer carcass in her yard.

These reports have led to some speculation that coyote sightings are up in the area or that coyotes have become bolder or more vicious. While there are conflicting reports about just how much more prevalent coyotes are around town, several experts agree that coyotes are simply a fact of life in Brentwood and throughout the state. Although they can not be completely avoided, there are steps that citizens can take to limit unwanted encounters with the critters.

It is first important to understand why coyotes hang out where they do. Despite persistent popular images of coyotes braying beneath a desert moon, they are at home in suburbia because of the abundance of food options available for them.

“A coyote is very adaptable to different habitats,” Barry Cross, the Region II information and education coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said. “Especially if there’s available food. If a neighborhood’s having trouble it’s likely they’re in wooded areas, or it could be these animals have found food in the neighborhood whether it be other wild animals or trash or somebody’s leaving pet food out.”

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders and the more opportunity they can find the better it is for them.

“A coyote has to hunt for its food,” Cross said. “That’s not easy. It takes a lot of work. But if somebody leaves food out or trash they can get into, that’s an easy meal.”

Coyotes have not always been in the region. A publication by the TWRA says the animals really only moved into Tennessee from western states in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was even later before they got to the Middle Tennessee area.

“They weren’t a native animal 35 or 40 years ago,” Cross said. “They migrated in much like the armadillos.”

J.J. Wegner, an animal control officer with the Williamson County Animal Center, said the center has not really seen an increase in call volume around coyotes this year, but that they do not track that information since they forward calls about nuisance animals to the TWRA.

The TWRA website, though, does state that coyotes are seen more and more in Tennessee these days. They attribute that fact to the encroachment of development into rural areas where coyotes may previously have lived as well as to the availability of food in a more population-rich vicinity.

As far as the threat they pose, coyotes are mostly only dangerous to smaller wild animals or pets.

“I am not aware of an attack by a coyote on a human in the 29 years I have worked for the city,” Brentwood Police Department Assistant Chief Thomas Walsh wrote in an email. “There have been cases where a coyote has attacked a pet, and they certainly prey on other animals in the wild, but by following a few simple steps residents are unlikely to see or encounter a coyote.”

Hunting is the the only widespread means of controlling coyotes in Tennessee, Cross said. Unlike with some species, there is no hunting season for coyotes. The state considers them to fair game all year-round.

Brentwood has an ordinance that puts strict rules on weapon use in the city, though. City ordinance 42-161(c) states that firearms and any other weapons can only legally be discharged “on generally vacant, undeveloped land exceeding five acres in size” or “at a minimum distance of 400 feet from any public road right-of-way or adjacent property.” Even when those conditions are met, the city only allows shotguns to be fired.

Of course, even if the city did not have those rules, the notion of suburban hunting raises obvious safety concerns.

“In most cases it is more dangerous to the public to fire a weapon to attempt to kill a wild animal than the danger associated with the animal itself,” Walsh stated.

Walsh also stressed that just because you see a coyote does not mean you should contact the authorities about it. If the animal is injured or seems unusually aggressive, however, Walsh said it was a good idea to alert police and they would respond to the situation.

Last week the city of Brentwood published a list of things residents can do to make their homes and neighborhoods less attractive to coyotes. The list includes such advice as “Keep garbage in tight fitting containers” and “Do not over feed birds, as birdseed attract small animals like rodents, which in turn attract the coyotes.”

Keeping coyotes away from food was the main thing Cross recommended as well.

“If those animals are continuously coming around, they’re finding food,” he said.

If residents have noticed coyotes around their homes, they need to take precautions to ensure their pets’ safety as well.

“If you’ve got small animals and you want to let them out unattended they need to be in a secured area that wild animals can’t get to,” he said. “A coyote’s not gonna make a distinction between pet and food.”

Cross also recommends trying to keep coyotes uncomfortable around humans. He said  coyotes naturally should be afraid of humans, but that close contact over a number of years has made them more comfortable. As a result, if coyotes seem to be lurking around the same places, he suggests banging pots and pans when you see them or yelling at them in an attempt to drive them off.

That might not always work, though, and in those cases both Cross and Walsh agree on what to do.

“If I was going to recommend anything, if a neighborhood was having trouble and wanted to do something about it, and it’s not feasible to hunt, then contact a professional contractor who will come out and trap animals,” Cross said.

A quick online search turns up a number of such companies in the area. One of those companies that serves the Brentwood area is Animal Pros, owned by Ryan Hall.

Hall said calls about coyotes who do not seem to respond to scare tactics are a regular part of his business.

“It’s a pretty common call,” he said. “It happens a lot more than you would realize.”

Animal Pros typically removes coyotes from an area using custom traps that keep the coyote in one place without injuring it. That way the traps are safe for use in areas with pets and humans around. Trapped coyotes are later euthanized, though, Hall said.

As Hall explained, though, traps are not the first step in dealing with a customer’s call about a coyote.

“We bring realistic expectations to coyote control,” Hall said. “Just because somebody encounters a problem we don’t automatically go out there and set traps.” Instead, Hall said they will often set up a camera on someone’s property for a period of time to determine how often coyotes are passing through the area, how many coyotes are coming through and when they are coming through. Hall said that information can help a client better determine whether they want to spend the money to trap an animal.

Even then, Hall readily admitted there is only so much his company, or any company, can do about coyotes.

Again, Hall said he stresses realistic outcomes with his clients, telling them that Animal Pros cannot simply “come in there and wipe all the coyotes out.”

“I can tell you realistically that’s not gonna happen,” he said. “There’s no way anybody’s gonna go in there and wipe them all out.”

From his experience, though, it is not uncommon for people to have trouble with a “problem” coyote, a loner perhaps who is unusually lackadaisical when it comes to encountering people. In those instances, removing just one coyote can solve a homeowner’s problems, Hall said.