If you see a coyote on Tybee Island or anywhere else, don't feed it. Or try to pet it. And for heaven's sake, hold your fire.
Lynsey White Dasher started with the basics last week at a program sponsored by the City of Tybee Island, then moved on to dispelling myths about these wild predators that have been spotted in increasing numbers on the island.
Two have been found dead in the last month, one shot in the chest, the other hit by a car.
Dasher, an urban wildlife specialist with the Human Society of the United States, explained to about 50 people gathered at the YMCA gym that in spite of the physical resemblance, coyotes don't hunt in packs like wolves.
And no matter what you may have seen on the Cartoon Network, they're far from dumb. In fact, the reason they become a nuisance — poking through garbage or creeping up on the deck to steal pet food — is because they learn so quickly.
"They're so incredibly smart that they're constantly testing us to see what they can get away with," said Dasher.
They are, however, blatant opportunists: Though coyotes instinctively shy away from people, they easily become habituated to human presence, especially if there is easy access to a food source. The more they're tolerated, the more they hang around.
As an example, Dasher showed a photo of "Adrian," a coyote who wandered into a Chicago Quizno's on a warm day in April 2007 and plopped down in the drink cooler.
Coyotes live in every state in America (except Hawaii) and thrive in urban environments and mostly do an excellent job of remaining hidden. Connect has received multiple unconfirmed reports of sightings on Tybee Island as well as the east side of Savannah near Bonaventure Cemetery. Mating season is normally January–March, though one person at the program reported spotting an early litter of pups on the island.
Dasher assured that coyotes are rarely aggressive towards humans, though she warned that feeding them or posing a threat to their pups can provoke an attack. Rodents and fallen fruit make up the majority of their diet, but they have been known to eat cats and small dogs.
Dasher advises leashes six feet or less for dogs and always keeping cats inside.
"The best thing to do when you encounter a coyote is to throw up your arms and yell 'Go away, coyote!'" Dasher instructed, demonstrating to the crowd.
If that doesn't scare it away, then blow a whistle, spray the hose or — every canine's worst nightmare — shake a can of coins.
Such strategies are called "coyote hazing," and the idea is let the coyotes know that they're not welcome. Studies have proven hazing is a highly effective way to "teach" coyotes not to come around, though it may take two to three hazing sessions for the idea to stick.
Once they get it, coyotes will quickly relay the information of an area's inhospitable conditions back to their family group and move on.
Dasher recommended mixing up the hazing tools and encouraged attendees to educate their neighbors.
"It has to be done as a community," she said. "If half of you haze the coyotes and the other half is feeding them, it's going to cancel out the good work the first half does."
Perhaps the most important message Dasher relayed in her program is that killing coyotes won't make them go away. Removing them by trapping or killing them simply doesn't work: Females respond by breeding more, and other coyotes will move in to fill empty territory.
"It really is impossible to reduce the coyote population," she said, citing a Colorado study that tracked urban coyote populations for seven years. Each year, 61 to 75 percent of the population was killed and removed. Within eight months, the numbers were back up to their original density.
"We've seen communities that have tried large–scale removal programs and end up with more coyotes than they started with."
Though at least one person with a gun thinks otherwise, the consensus among Tybee residents is that trying to kill the coyotes is a waste of time and resources.
The Tybee city council approved the purchase of a heavy–duty tranquilizer gun in January, but Police Chief Bob Bryson doubts it will ever get used.
"I don't think we'll ever catch one," said Chief Bryson, though he commends the City of Tybee for responding to the coyote issue.
"It's bold for a municipality to be proactive. Most governments don't want to deal with this."
Dasher said she could understand why coyotes would like Tybee, with its open spaces and plethora of citrus trees. She believes that once residents begin practicing hazing, sightings will become less frequent.
As long as proper practices such as removing heavy brush on private property and keeping pet food indoors are followed, dangers will decrease and a symbiotic relationship can be established.
"They're actually doing us a favor by providing free pest control," she said.
It's a strange irony, yet touted by the experts: The most effective way to curb coyote nuisance is to learn to live with them.