Story by Tony Tucci
Neighborhoods in the Escarpment-Convict Hill Road area of Southwest Austin appear to be setting a record on the number of lost pets.
“Lost Cat” is a sign of the times in the Legend Oaks, Western Oaks and Villages of Western Oaks neighborhoods, where there has been a recent increase in reports of missing cats—and small dogs, too.
Chances are that many of the pets are not lost, however, but have been snatched up by coyotes or other predatory animals.
“Three ‘homebody’ older cats have gone missing from my corner within a two-house radius in just five weeks,” according to Rachelle Vega. “One was our 11.5 year-old girl (cat), and we found her bloodied breakaway collar in our yard mere feet from our house,” said Vega, who lives on John Chisum Lane.
Two of her neighbors give similar reports. Janell Black said she lost her 15 year-old cat, and Randal Pitts said he has lost three cats over the years, the most recent this month. The three live just doors away from each other. They’re keeping their other cats indoors at night, and urging neighbors to do the same.
“There are many more signs for missing cats, and even a small dog, then I’ve ever seen posted in these neighborhoods, and many postings on craigslist for Lost Cats,” she said.
Vega said she believes the culprits are coyotes coming from Dick Nichols Park, where there have been recent sightings. From there, they travel a greenbelt that runs right into her neighborhood.
“I think if you took an aerial view of that greenbelt, and compared it to reports of missing cats, you’d find a lot of similarities,” she said.
One of her neighbors saw a coyote on Escarpment behind John Chisum Trail recently, and another heard the eerie, high pitched howl of coyotes, also known as prairie wolves, in the greenbelt just west of Escarpment.
Vega said a neighborhood service man has begun carrying a .22-caliber pistol because he entered backyards a number of times to find a coyote trapped inside the wooden fence and was afraid of what a cornered coyote might do.
“I was told when I called 311 to inform my neighbors to call 311 to report any coyote sightings or howling so the city can monitor activity. If those reports don’t go in, then the sad stories remain just that—anecdotal without correlating factors, and coyote population assessments will never be conducted.”
Jacob Hetzel, a wildlife biologist with Texas Wildlife Services, said unless people report coyote encounters to 311 the state has no way of keeping track.
“I looked over all of the 311 call data that I have from the last three months (July-September) and there are very few calls in the Oak Hill area. All total there were 8 calls to 311 reporting coyote sightings in the following zip codes: 78735, 78736, 78737,78739, and 78749. Please have everyone report all coyote sightings or bold and aggressive behavior of coyotes to 311.
“If you have cats, keep them inside,” Hetzel said. Reminded that cats that have always gone outside are difficult to keep indoors, he said, “Would you rather have an upset cat, or a dead one?”
Vega said that since her cat went missing, she enrolled in the homeagain.com alert service, and now gets notices for micro-chipped cats in her area that have vanished. ”I reached out to someone who posted on craigslist about her missing cat in Villages of Western Oaks; and she forwarded my email to someone else missing a cat, who contacted me and said there are many people looking for answers and wanting to stop further losses for families.
“We knew that coyotes were a problem in outlying areas, but people need to be aware that they’re a problem in these neighborhoods, too,” added Vega. “The neighbors in my immediate vicinity are taking extra care to bring their cats in before dark and not let them out of the house. We’re training our remaining cat to do the same.”
Candace Hummel said her cat Newsy is an indoor cat, but managed to slip through a broken screen one night and hasn’t come back. Hummel lives on Abilene Trail, which is east of Escarpment but close to the same greenbelt area that extends into Vega’s neighborhood. However, Hummel said she has never seen or heard a coyote.
“We’ve gotten calls from people who said they’ve seen our cat, so I’m still hopeful that someone has him,” said Hummel. She said she has two other cats, also kept indoors. Two of her three cats, including Newsy, were declawed.
Meanwhile, a wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said coyotes aren’t the only threat to family pets. Terry Turney said there’s a good chance a bobcat might be the culprit.
“Cats can climb trees, but coyotes can’t. A bobcat, however, can run right up the tree after it,” Turney said. The wildlife specialist said bobcats are so secretive and so hard to see that they can live in urban areas unnoticed.
There’s a lot to be wary of in the great outdoors. Turney said another possibility is the great horned owl, which can swoop down on silent wings and pluck a house cat out of the backyard.
“I was at a buddy’s house sitting on his patio one night and his cat was sitting in the fork of a tree. All of a sudden it flew past us. An owl had attacked it and punched a pretty good-sized hole in its back with a talon. If it had gotten a better hold that cat would be gone,” said Turney.
Parks and Wildlife does not keep records on reports of missing pets, but all one has to do is check the want ads in any neighborhood newsletter to see it’s a pretty common occurrence.
Turney said the state does not handle animal nuisance calls. Persons living in the city should call 311 to reach the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department’s Animal Protection unit. The number for county residents to call is 974-2000.
“We put in a request to the city’s Animal Control unit and they use it for tracking purposes,” said a customer service representative for 311. The information also goes to the state’s Animal Damage Control, which might set traps in particularly troublesome areas.
Parks and Wildlife provided some suggestions to help residents deal with problems involving coyotes and other wildlife.
• Do not feed coyotes! Keep pet food and water inside. Keep garbage securely stored, especially if it has to be put on the curb for collection; use tight-locking or bungee-cord-wrapped trashcans that are not easily opened.
• Keep compost piles securely covered; correct composting never includes animal matter like bones or fat, which can draw coyotes even more quickly that decomposing vegetable matter.
• Keep pets inside, confined securely in a kennel or covered exercise yard, or within the close presence of an adult.
• Walk pets on a leash and accompany them outside, especially at night.
• Do not feed wildlife on the ground; keep wild bird seed in feeders designed for birds elevated or hanging above ground, and clean up spilled seed from the ground; coyotes can either be drawn directly to the seed, or to the rodents drawn to the seed.
• Keep fruit trees fenced or pick up fruit that falls to the ground.
• Do not feed feral cats (domestics gone wild); this can encourage coyotes to prey on cats, as well as feed on cat food left out for them.
• Minimize clusters of shrubs, trees and other cover and food plants near buildings and children’s play areas to avoid attracting rodents and small mammals that will in turn attract coyotes
• Use noise making and other scaring devices when coyotes are seen. Check with local authorities regarding noise and firearms ordinances. Portable air horns, motor vehicle horns, propane cannons, starter pistols, low-powered pellet guns, slingshots, and thrown rocks can be effective.