TUSTIN, Calif. – On the shady paths of this sprawling Southern California retirement community, neighbors have been told to carry sticks.
The menace is a group of emboldened coyotes who have attacked leashed pets, killing two dogs in the last week and dragging down pet owners who rushed to their rescue.
On Thursday, the city of Laguna Woods voted to take matters into its own hands by authorizing professional exterminators or animal control experts who obtain permits to shoot the wild animals. Officials promptly issued a permit to one such firm, which is required to notify law enforcement within 10 minutes if any shots are fired, said Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Steve Doan.
The city — a network of gated retirement communities shrouded in trees — already has tried other tactics to round up the pack of roughly seven animals who, unlike most coyotes, don't scatter at the sight of humans.
Officials used pepper spray to disrupt trails and dens. Tranquilizer guns and traps were also utilized. But most of the coyotes have eluded capture.
"We just have not been able to catch the other four and the incidents just seem to be escalating," City Manager Leslie Keane said.
Coyotes are often a problem in the vast suburbs in Southern California where homes are built right up to creeks and foothills where the animals roam. But coyotes are perfectly content to live in urban environments where the food supply outstrips that of the wild — garbage, tree fruit, pet food and pets offer ample grub, said Kevin Brennan, a wildlife biologist with California's Department of Fish and Game.
Laguna Woods is unique because the city made up of retirees has a median age of 77 — which has local officials concerned that such a tussle could take a bigger toll.
But confrontations between coyotes and suburbanites aren't new. Jurisdictions including Riverside and the county of San Bernardino also have hired private firms to trap or shoot the animals when preventative measures to keep them out have failed, Brennan said.
"What happens is familiarity breeds contempt," he said, "The longer coyotes hang around people, they lose their fear and they start becoming more bold."
"Basically you should never allow a coyote to feel comfortable around your home. You should always scare it off."
In Laguna Woods, two women were injured in the last week when they were knocked over after coyotes pulled on leashes to maul their small pet dogs. City officials said they don't want to wait until someone gets attacked by a coyote to take action and state authorities only get involved when there an imminent threat to public safety.
One of the challenges is many retirees have smaller pets who keep them company. In the absence of their now-grown children, the dogs and cats often become family and are attractive to coyotes.
Lorraine Barr, 92, said she took her 7-pound Yorkshire Terrier named Pumpkin on a late-night walk last week and was watching out for coyotes, but was still stunned when one of them went for her dog and ran off with it.
"My wrist was yanked so hard that I fell forward on my stomach, and I'm a heavy woman," Barr said. One of her neighbors later found the collar, bloody. The dog was not found.
Barr called the loss of Pumpkin "exceptionally difficult emotionally."
"We understood each other. She followed me around my small apartment, and after her naps the first thing she would do was get up and make sure how I was," Barr said. "It's the hardest thing I've ever experienced since the first person I loved ended the relationship 65 years ago."
Another woman, Karen Sharif, suffered a black eye, a swollen cheek and a cut lip when a coyote snatched her dog Pooh in the middle of a midmorning walk. Sharif refused to let go of the leash, and she fell on her face before eventually having to let go. The coyote soon dropped the dead dog, and she got it back.
"Dog owners know that when they buy a dog, they're going to face their pet dying in 10 years, 15 years, but they don't expect to see the vision of it in the mouth of a wild animal," Sharif said. "That's what's causing me sleepless nights."
But some in the community don't want to see the animals shot. Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and some Laguna Woods residents have said the city could review other options before reaching for a gun.
That includes Barr, who despite losing her dog to coyotes said she doesn't want them dead.
"Everyone I know is aghast, and I'm aghast, at the thought of killing the coyotes," she said. "They serve a purpose too. I would hope that they could be captured and re-released."
Sharif agreed, saying "I am not blaming this coyote. It did a natural thing."
But Sharif said she learned from city officials that the coyotes can be trapped but there is nowhere to take them.
"In the short run you've got to kill them, I'm afraid," she said.
Officials say the problem likely starts in communities where residents didn't take measures to keep coyotes away before they got aggressive. Local officials have found leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes left outside, leading them to believe residents were feeding the wild animals, Keane said.
That would lure coyotes to retirees' homes instead of shooing them away.
Mayor Bert Hack said most coyotes run off when they see people. He said he recently spotted one take off down the street with a cat in its mouth.
"We have dealt with this — it waxes and it wanes," Hack said. "But when people get hurt, you tend to want to do something about it."