CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Residents of Stonehaven are accustomed to seeing wildlife - deer, raccoons, opossums, foxes, snakes, squirrels, birds - because the neighborhood abuts McAlpine Greenway, between Monroe and Sardis roads.

They're not accustomed, however, to finding dead animals in their front yards, to having their dogs chased and their cats disappear.

All signs point to one of the region's newest growing populations: the coyote.

Charlotteans started seeing coyotes for the first time about 10 years ago, said Chris Matthews, natural resources manager for the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department.

The coyote population used to be concentrated in the Midwestern region of the U.S., before it slowly migrated across the country.

In the last decade, coyotes have started converging on the Carolinas.

Coyotes tend to migrate to large tracts of land, greenways, nature preserves, large parks and creeks. But they're very smart and adaptable, said Matthews. They can live anywhere within the county.

Cousins of the gray wolf, most coyotes are 30 to 40 pounds, though they look bigger because of their thick fur.

Adept hunters, housecats used to be considered top-level predators in the area (meaning there aren't any animals to feed on them).

With the new coyote population, that's no longer the case. Coyotes eat anything they can catch or get a hold of, which includes pet food, trash, opossums, chipmunks, raccoons and the like.

Cats, especially those that are declawed, could fall in that category.

Bob Lessor, who lives at the corner of Easton Court and Tara Road, right beside a greenway entrance, hasn't seen a coyote himself, but says his neighbors have. Lessor has caught a number of raccoons in his yard, one of which even turned out to be rabid. If a coyote preys on a rabid raccoon, where do you go from there? he said.

Around 9 p.m. one evening, a coyote about the size of a husky dog walked in front of Stonehaven resident Lisa Davis's car, while she was paused at a deer crossing.

Given her neighbors' recent encounters and her own, Davis said she and her husband, Kem, who live on Easton Court, are cautious with their three dogs when they walk on the greenway, and they bring their dogs in at night, when coyotes are most active.

But Lisa Wilkins and her husband, Chris, who live off Boyce Road, have seen a number of coyotes in broad daylight - crossing the street and at the edge of their yard. Wilkins even saw a pack of coyotes 20 or so yards from the greenway path she was walking with her dogs at noon.

There must have been some kind of a kill, said Wilkins. There was a pack. Sounded almost like wild dogs, howling, whining, barking as if they'd taken down something.

Wilkins used to have a cat that enjoyed sitting on the front porch every morning. A few months ago, Chris Wilkins saw the cat in her usual spot when he left for work.

They never saw the cat again.

But a little more than 20 yards from the front porch, they found large clumps of her dark fur.

She got attacked in our front yard...during the day, said Wilkins. (The coyotes) are hungry, and now they're expanding.

Wilkins isn't the first or the last to have her cat disappear.

Katherine Lewis' 12-year-old cat, Carmel, disappeared more than two weeks ago.

Lewis has blanketed the neighborhood with missing cat posters, offering a reward for anyone who finds it. She's hopeful her cat is still alive.

Barbara White, who lives off Tara Road, isn't as optimistic about hers. She lost her long-haired, declawed calico cat named Moet at the end of August.

White said Moet was playful with people but used to chase feral cats away and was aggressive to dogs that came in the yard.

If a coyote had approached, she would have charged it, said White, who is certain that's what happened.

The county's position has been to encourage people to take precautions.

Keep your dogs on a leash, keep your cats indoors as much as possible, don't leave pet food outside, he said.

Matthews also warns against declawing cats and letting them be outdoors unattended.

To a coyote, a cat is just another meal, said Matthews. A declawed outdoor cat...can't defend itself.

Coyotes generally operate at night, but not always.

If people see a coyote and feel threatened, the best thing to do is make noise, throw sticks and scare them off.

Matthews said he understands how people could be concerned and worried for their pets.

But, he adds, these coyotes are now considered a naturalized species.

So unless a coyote is rabid or sick, the county isn't going to get rid of it.

They're part of our natural wildlife now, said Matthews. We're just going to have to figure out a way to educate people on how to interact with them.

But for Wilkins, that's not enough.

They tell me (to) keep my cats in. How do you keep non-housecats in? she said. That's not a solution; it's a temporary fix to a problem. ... I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think it needs to be addressed.

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