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— In mid-February, Bug, our neighbor's orange-yellow cat, disappeared. Last week, a woman in a Jeep Cherokee pulled up in front of our house. She asked me if I had seen Ivan, a black cat with a white diamond on his chest. He'd been missing for a week, and there had been reports of coyotes on the undeveloped bluff across the street. She left a number for me to call if I saw Ivan.

We fear the worst, but our neighbors do have the cold comfort of knowing they are not alone: 261 coyote complaints received "operational assistance" from Animal Damage Control, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in fiscal year 1996, according to district supervisor John Turman. I spoke with Turman on the phone, and he described adc's method for dealing with coyotes.

"We use a soft-catch trap. It's a rubber-lined foot-hold trap, the only approved trap in California. Near the trap is bait and a lure or scent. You can use coyote urine; behaviorally, they're similar to a dog. We use meat-type baits, usually more rotted stuff. In certain situations, we can use neck snares where coyotes are coming under fences. It's always lethal. We don't relocate coyotes."

Coyotes do not live on cats alone. John, who raises geese in Ramona, remembers: "I used to keep the geese loose, and of course, the coyotes jumped the fence and came in at two o'clock in the morning and killed as many as five a night. At $20 apiece, it doesn't take long to run into a lot of money. So I have pens that I lock them up in every night. As a rule, the coyotes won't go into an enclosed shed - they have a kind of phobia about going into a building. But the raccoons, hell, they'll go right in there.

"Legally, you can't do much," admits John. "You can't shoot a gun within city limits. Illegally, you have to deal with what comes. If you catch the coyote in there, you have to shoot it. It's like the guys up in Wyoming, when they brought the wolves back into Yellowstone, and the wolves started killing their sheep. They said, 'You just have to do the three s's.' People asked, 'What's that?' They said, 'Shoot, shovel, and shut up.' It's kind of a touchy situation."

Coyotes and raccoons are not the only sources of livestock damage. There is also the problem of dogs, both domestic and those that have been dumped into the wild. "We find that most of the dogs causing problems out on the ranches are truly feral dogs," claims Turman. Maybe so, but Steve Zeigler, who raises sheep for 4H on a small lot in Ramona, says otherwise. "What really affects us here more than anything is local dogs." Coyotes nab an occasional chicken but don't pose much of a threat to his lambs because he keeps them in pens while they're small. Dogs, on the other hand, don't mind molesting full-grown ewes. "They get to playing with the sheep, and all of a sudden, it's more than play. They come up and bite the back of the leg, so you end up with a lot of punctures. Anybody that's seen what a dog could do to a sheep, you'd remember it. It's not pretty."

What to do? "Legally, we can shoot the dog if it's harassing livestock, but I have too many neighbors, and that's not good. Animal Damage Control has come out here and provided me with live animal traps, a big box, two foot by four foot. You bait it with something, and when you catch the dog, Animal Damage Control comes out and takes it. I imagine they try to locate the owner."

Zeigler has also procured a llama. "I got it this year for a predator-avoidance system. Llamas are supposed to be great for running with sheep. They don't deal with dogs and coyotes at all. I guess they run them down and stomp them with their front feet." The llama's name is Elvis, and his front feet look like they belong on a bird of prey - the two prongs of the hooves curve into near talons. Zeigler grants that his troubles with coyotes are limited because of his location. His land is fenced, not open range, and he is surrounded by neighbors and dogs. "I don't think this is a place they would choose. If I were on the outskirts of the county, I'd probably have more problems."

A little ways over the county line, out north Route 79 past Temecula, the flat stretches between the clumps of mountains ripple up into rolling, heathery hills. A right on Holland Road takes you to Domenigoni Ranch, where sun-wizened Valentine Cenoz winters his sheep. A friend, whom Valentine preferred not to name, is with him. I ask how they deal with varmints, and his friend immediately goes on the defensive. "What's a farmer to do?" Valentine laments. "You have preserve areas next to your ranch, where everything is protected, and pretty soon, the coyote is not afraid of anything. Coyote is not an endangered species. Valentine is on private land, protecting his asset. The coyote is robbing his asset, so he gets rid of [the coyote], within the means of 'the law.' "

Why the quotation marks? "If you poison," explains Valentine's friend, "put poison meat out, you have to have permission from Fish and Game. I don't know what they require now because the law changes so much."

Valentine breaks in. "I'm going to tell you, no matter it's against the law or not. When I see [a coyote], I bring a spotlight, I chase it, I shoot it with a .22. I shoot the ones I catch in action. With the coyotes and the stray dogs, I lost 450 head last year. I think it's time to start controlling a little bit, because I don't think these things come before people. I always think people are first." For Valentine, "people" includes property, like his $75 to $120 sheep.

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