COLUMBIA, S.C. — An advertising firm was shooting a commercial Dec. 19 at Janet Hopkins’ home in Elmwood Park, just blocks from downtown Columbia, when a crew member saw something he didn’t expect.
Geoff Herbert, a worker on the shoot, was taking a short walk in a vacant field across the street from her home during a break. He heard movement and saw a rustle in the tall grass.
“I thought it was a deer at first,” said Herbert, who knows wildlife from frequent deer hunts back home in Abbeville County. “Then its head popped up, and I said, ‘Look at that. It’s a coyote.”’
It’s a sighting that is becoming more frequent near downtown Columbia and other urban areas across the Palmetto State. And it has residents like Hopkins – a former member of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and now a voice teacher at the University of South Carolina – concerned.
Although coyotes are not much of a threat to adult humans – they likely will run away if spotted – they are wild animals and could attack small dogs and cats and even children, experts said. And their behavior would be very erratic if they are rabid.
“I have small pets,” Hopkins said. “Two cats and two miniature dachshunds. And the dogs are smaller than the cats. I don’t think the little stone fence around my yard is going to keep (the coyotes) out.”
The dog-like predators, smaller cousins of the wolf, began migrating to South Carolina 30 years ago.
They also were imported for decades by South Carolina hunt clubs because they were considered better quarry for mounted fox hunts than foxes themselves. Problem was, Hurricane Hugo blew through in 1989, and falling trees ruptured many pens, setting even more coyotes loose.
Today, because of expanding cities and a growing coyote population, the animals are being spotted more and more in urban areas. Most often those neighborhoods abut natural areas.
The Wildewood subdivision in northeast Columbia and King’s Grant adjacent to Fort Jackson have frequent sightings, said Charles Hendrix, of Long Leaf Services wildlife removal company.
“And they seem to be increasing,” he said.
Even if coyotes are reported in a residential neighborhood, they are very difficult to get rid of, Hendrix said. They don’t hole up in your attic like racoons or squirrels. They rarely will enter a live trap. And they are constantly on the move.
“They’re slick as owl dookie,” Hendrix said of the coyotes. “You’re not going to catch them in a neighborhood. And if we did, which neighbor would pay for it?”
The claw traps (think classic bear trap) most frequently used to catch them in more rural areas aren’t feasible in highly populated neighborhoods because of the presence of pets and children.
Still, the state’s military installations like Fort Jackson, McEntire Joint National Guard Base, Shaw Air Force Base and Joint Base Charleston all have programs to eradicate coyotes and other nuisance wildlife.
“You don’t want them running out on a runway with F-16s,” said Noel Myers, state director of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In Charleston over the summer, the Air Force bagged six coyotes near its housing areas in just a couple of months. Base spokesman Marvin Krause said that in addition to creating a hazard on runways, the coyotes posed a threat to pets and small children.
“Especially if they are rabid,” he said.
Fort Jackson spokesman Pat Jones said hunters at the sprawling post are allowed to kill as many coyotes as they can. And well-mapped trapping areas are laid out around the area of the fort that has homes and training and administrative buildings.
Coyotes have become so established in South Carolina that hunters are killing 30,000 of them a year without making much of a dent in the population, according to the South Carolina DNR. (If that seems high, hunters also bag 30,000 wild hogs each year, sometimes from helicopters.)
And the agency is even offering free hunting licenses for life for hunters who bag specially tagged coyotes.
The coyotes attack domestic livestock, especially cows during calving season, and they raid sea turtle nests. And they are having a big impact on the state’s deer population, mostly by culling deer fawns, according to Charles Ruth, director of DNR’s big game program.
The deer population is down 25 to 30 percent since the coyotes began migrating in the 1980s, he said.
But despite trapping, hunting and other eradication methods, don’t expect the coyote population to drop off anytime soon, Ruth said.
“Cockroaches and coyotes will still be here when we all turn to dust,” he said.