Coyote bounty earns stern phone call for man whose cat got eaten

Coyote trotting on San Fernando Avenue near Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Berkeley the evening of Aug. 2. Credit: Kevin Ball

On Monday, Hadley Louden and Tracy Richardson, of Cragmont Avenue in Berkeley, watched in horror as a coyote pounced on their cat, Moka, and ran down the street, feline limp in the canine’s mouth.

Shortly after, Louden posted on social media that he would pay anyone $250 for killing a coyote within 15 miles of his house.

“As a city Berkeley has clearly lost the will, no doubt in part because of the cost,” Louden wrote in a widely shared post on Nextdoor. “That’s why we are offering a $250 Reward Offered for all Dead Coyotes!”

He went on: “Are you tired of Coyotes threatening your homes, children and pets….. Government hands seem tied here, so we’re taking an old-fashioned approach.”

Shortly after the post was published, a California Fish and Wildlife warden gave Louden a call letting him know that offering a bounty for dead coyotes is against state law. Louden had previously been in contact with the warden about a coyote that was stalking their cats. 

“You can’t legally offer a bounty or a price or anything at all to kill wildlife in California,” said Capt. Patrick Foy of Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement division.

Foy called the Berkeley case “unique.” He’s heard of coyote killing contests in rural parts of the state, he said, “but I haven’t heard of someone in a place like Berkeley putting out a post and offering a bounty.”

Louden was cooperative when contacted by a Fish and Wildlife officer, Foy said, and promised he wouldn’t offer compensation.

In conversations with Berkeleyside on Tuesday, Louden said he is heartbroken about Moka and that he had only meant to offer compensation to people who legally killed coyotes. He stressed that he’s not advocating for the breaking of any laws. “Technically, it’s not a ‘reward’ but compensation for professional trapping services performed within the law,” he said.

Louden describes himself as a coyote lover who also loves letting his now two cats enjoy the outside. He said he would edit his Nextdoor post to make it clearer he isn’t calling for lawlessness.

Hiring a licensed trapper is one of few legal ways to kill a coyote, at least in Berkeley. Under state law, you can hire a licensed trapper to catch and euthanize a coyote, or release it within its habitat. It is illegal to relocate coyotes.

Berkeley gun laws would make it challenging for anyone to legally shoot a coyote within the city. “It is not legal to discharge a firearm within City limits,” said Amelia Funghi, director of Berkeley’s Animal Care Services.

Poisoning coyotes by sodium cyanide is also against the law.

Not the first coyote encounter

“I don’t know if we know how to co-exist with them yet,” said Doug Bell, wildlife program manager for the East Bay Regional Park District. Credit: Kevin Ball

Moka, a 1 1/2-year-old black cat, was one of Louden and Richardson’s three feline pets. For the past few weeks, a coyote has been stalking and threatening them, Louden told Berkeleyside last week.

He believes this is the same animal who killed Moka.

Sunday morning two weeks ago, Louden and Richardson were enjoying coffee and the newspaper on the front porch, as is their routine, when a coyote jumped on another of their cats, Cali, who snarled and managed to run off.

Louden yelled at the critter, who, he said, growled back. Louden chased the coyote down the block, throwing a rock, but it returned to his house twice within the hour.

Louden said he called 911, and the city’s animal services, and finally state Fish and Wildlife, learning that because no humans were hurt, there wasn’t much officials would do. Getting rid of the coyote was legally complicated, he said, with the simplest option being hiring a licensed trapper. He consulted with a trapper a few days later, Louden said, but made no firm plans.

The Loudens’ loss comes at a time when reports of coyotes in the East Bay are exploding, at least on social media.

Many sightings are in the hills, near East Bay Regional Park District land. But people are also spotting coyotes in downhill or flatland neighborhoods, from Oakland to Richmond. Postings often include photos, including of missing or dead cats.

These reports bring varied and sometimes contentious points of views. Some, like Louden, argue coyotes are a growing intrusive threat in residential areas and should be controlled by the government. Others call them part of nature, even in settled neighborhoods, who should be respected and left alone.

Wildlife experts stress that it’s impossible to know if coyote populations are increasing in urban area because there are no scientific population studies. Are numbers going up, is habitat expanding, is density increasing, or are just the ways of sharing sightings growing?

“Coyotes know how to co-exist. I don’t know if we know how to co-exist with them yet. But we’ll have to moving forward.” — Doug Bell, EBRPD

“I would say it’s a safe bet to say coyotes numbers are increasing; we just don’t have the population estimates for the area,” said Doug Bell, wildlife program manager for the East Bay Regional Park District.

“[The coyote] is a tremendously adaptable animal and it has absolutely no doubt learned how to move into suburban and even urban habitat,” Bell said. “They’re taking advantage of the habitat we produce.”

Funghi at Berkeley Animal Services, who is aware of Louden’s initial post, reports fewer calls of pet killings by coyotes this year than in previous years. And a spokesperson for state Fish and Wildlife said a review of its Alameda County coyote reports didn’t show a recent increase.

For his part, Capt. Foy said his division of Fish and Wildlife only deals with human injuries caused by animals. He said in his 24 years on the job, attacks by coyotes have slowly and gradually increased from almost none, to 12 last year. Foy stressed that he is not a wildlife biologist and couldn’t comment on animal behavior.

Many wildlife experts agree that, regardless of actual numbers, the bottom line is that humans need to learn to live with coyotes.

And East Bay residents aren’t alone. Coyotes, native to North America, occupy many of the country’s urban centers, including San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“They’re expanding their habitat. This is a trend that started in the 1990s into the 2000s,” Bell said. “They made that jump; they know how to co-exist. I don’t know if we know how to co-exist with them yet. But we’ll have to moving forward.”

Coyotes warm to the basics – food, water, shelter

A coyote sighted Aug. 2 on The Alameda in Berkeley. Credit: Michelle Grunfelder

Adapting or co-existing means coyotes have access to the essentials of living, Bell said. “If you build it, they will come. We’re giving them food, water, shelter.”

Once coyotes settle into an area where they get their needs met, they’re likely to stay.

The coyote diet includes rodents, rabbits, deer, birds, insects, fruit and pets, including cats and small dogs. Shelter is brush, bushes and sometimes under decks — secluded pockets for dens.

A few factors likely contribute to more coyote sightings this summer, experts say.

Once coyotes settle into an area where they get their needs met, they’re likely to stay.

Matt Graul, chief of stewardship for the park district, said this year’s extreme drought has affected where coyotes forage, leading them to look “for food in areas where we wouldn’t typically see them.”

Ken Paglia, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said summer always brings out wildlife. “Every year around this time we start to get more reports of wildlife in our areas. … All wildlife have to expand their search for resources,” he said. “Every year during the mid to late summer there’s just a lot more wildlife sightings period; mountain lions, bears, this is when food resources are drying up.”

In spring, coyotes give birth to litters. Throughout summer, young coyotes are venturing out, with family or on their own.

By the department’s estimate, 250,000 to 750,000 coyotes roam California. The wide range represents the lack of hard data.

Attacks on people rare 

Hearing or reading about wildlife killing pet cats or dogs is extremely sad, Paglia said, clarifying he was commenting personally, and not for the department. “We do get calls about coyotes eating pets. That’s a very, very real issue. It’s heartbreaking.”

To a coyote, small animals are a relatively easy food source, he said. “Once coyotes habituate to an area that has food and water, they take advantage of whatever opportunities they have. That’s what we see with pets.”

“They’re a very effective predator,” Bell said.

Some posters on local social media have called for culling coyotes or using extreme measures to reduce populations. Others speak out opposed.

“As a state agency, we’re not going to go out and mow down coyotes for being coyotes.” — Ken Paglia, California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Culling won’t work, many experts agree. Mass euthanization or relocation won’t solve the problem, Paglia said.

“Everybody says it’s not possible to completely remove coyotes from a given area. Before too long, they’ll be replaced. That’s not an effective way of controlling the population,” Paglia said. “As a state agency, we’re not going to go out and mow down coyotes for being coyotes.”

“Try to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place by removing attractants, food and water,” said Alexander Heeren, a research scientist with state fish and wildlife, who studies the social science of living with wildlife. “Then it is time to have a polite conversation with other folks in your neighborhood [to do the same].”

Coyote attacks on humans are still rare, experts say. At the same time, they can happen, and the East Bay was home to traumatic incidents about a year ago, when the same coyote bit five people in Moraga and Lafayette over several months, including a 2-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl.

This coyote, identified through DNA, was trapped and euthanized.

According to the University of California’s integrated pest management program, some coyotes that have acclimated to the suburbs appear to lose fear of humans.

“In some localities, this has resulted in the development of local coyote populations that seemingly ignore people, while a few coyotes have become increasingly aggressive toward humans,” reads the program’s website.

The site says there have been more than 160 attacks on humans statewide since the 1970s, mostly in Southern California, and “they are becoming more frequent.” It also said there is only one recorded death by coyote in the state.

The state’s Fish and Wildlife department works with local jurisdictions to remove aggressive coyotes who attack humans.

Make your neighborhood unwelcome

Wildlife experts stress that human behavior is the main reason coyotes move into neighborhoods, even unknowingly.

Changing behavior at the household level is the best way to keep coyotes away, they advise. Things you can do include:

  • Not feeding coyotes or giving them water. “Feeding coyotes is the worst thing in the world. It makes them lose their fear of humans,” Bell said.
  • Not leaving out pet — or any kind of — food
  • Securely fastening garbage and compost bins
  • Picking up dropped fruit from around trees
  • Hazing coyotes if seen, by making loud noise, standing tall (and looking big), shaking sticks, throwing small rocks. Note: Hazing may lose its effectiveness over time, according to the University of California’s integrated pest management program.
  • Feeding all pets indoors
  • Keeping cats, rabbits and small pets indoors or in secure pens
  • Walking dogs only on leashes in well populated areas, and not at dusk or after dark, especially during pupping season
  • Thinning thick yard vegetation
  • Getting rid of bird feeders which attract rodents which attract coyotes

“Areas with lush landscaping provide ample food, water, and shelter for coyotes. Suburban coyotes can reach densities far greater than they do on rangeland or undeveloped wildland. Homeowners can reduce the attractiveness of their property to coyotes by clearing or thinning thick vegetation and by removing brush and dense weeds from the landscape, thereby depriving coyotes and their prey of shelter and cover,” the pest management website says.

Berkeley animal services adheres to the advice of Project Coyote, a nonprofit that aims to “foster coexistence.” It encourages many of the steps above.

From Project Coyote’s website:

“If approached, don’t run. Wave arms, make noise and walk toward the coyote until he retreats. Be ‘Big, Bad and Loud.’ Avoid areas where coyotes may be denning or feeding/hiding pups. Appreciate coyotes from a distance. Share this information with family and friends.”

Project Coyote has helped several jurisdictions with communication around safely coexisting with coyotes including Marin County, San Francisco and Calabasas.

A community divided

Much coyote advice leaves residents unsatisfied, or at least divided.

They want their pet cats to enjoy the outdoors. They want to be able to run their dogs in grassy open spaces. They don’t want to live in fear. Yet others describe the magic and awe of seeing or hearing coyotes close to home. “They were here first,” some say.

Louden said his experience makes him question if he wants to keep living in the Berkeley Hills, and wonders if Relators should be required to disclose the presence of coyotes. He makes it clear he doesn’t think the government response to urban coyotes is reasonable.

Last week, after the attack on his cat Cali, he said he would bring in his cats in at night.

That wasn’t enough.

“If your cat is out free roaming, you’re taking a risk. If your small dog is out free roaming, you’re taking a risk,” Bell said.

What to do if you are concerned by a coyote:

  • If a coyote attacks a human, call 911
  • If a coyote acts aggressively or threatens a human, posing a safety risk, call Berkeley Animal Services at 510-981-6600, and report incidents online to California Fish & Wildlife online or by calling the Bay Delta Regional office at 707-428-2002
  • If you see coyote-human or coyote-dog aggression in East Bay parks, call the EBRPD at 510-881-1833 or report on the park’s incident report website

Other coyote resources:

  • State Fish and Wildlife’s 2021 urban coyote workshops via YouTube, March 26, and June 24.
  • Sightings reported on University of California Cooperative Extension’s “coyote catcher” mapping tool are used for state data analysis (so far used mostly in Southern California).
  • Report sightings on inaturalist, a citizen mapping tool reviewed by scientists

John Metcalfe contributed reporting to this story.

Update Aug. 18, 5:30 p.m. Tracy Richardson, co-owner of the cat who was killed by a coyote, sent an email to Berkeleyside after this story was first published and subsequently spoke with a reporter on the phone.

She said she and her husband had kept their three cats indoors at night since they moved to Berkeley two years ago.

She took Mocha (she and her husband differ on the spelling of their cat’s name) out for a supervised dirt bath midday on Sunday when the fatal attack occurred. 

“We let the cats out during the day for a few hours to roll in the dirt and enjoy a little sunshine and fresh air,” she wrote in the email. “We were supervising however not well enough for the superior Hunter like a coyote.” 

Richardson said this was the first time her cats had been outside in a week, and they were watched the whole time. “We did everything to protect our animals,” she said. “They’re like our babies.”

She is in deep mourning for Mocha, with whom she said she had a special bond. 

Richardson said she loves wildlife, including coyotes, but feels strongly that the current situation with coyotes in urban areas isn’t tenable.

“It cannot be tolerated and as long as I live in Berkeley I will be working towards something different happening, hopefully before a human gets bit. … But that day will be coming, if we do nothing.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story’s headline characterized as “stern” a phone call made by a California Fish and Wildlife warden rebuking Hadley Louden for putting out a coyote bounty. Louden said the warden was friendly and helpful.