At first, the stories sounded like playground lore — coyotes snatching house cats around Beacon Hill neighborhoods in the middle of...

At first, the stories sounded like playground lore — coyotes snatching house cats around Beacon Hill neighborhoods in the middle of the night.

But then Tub, Teenie and other felines weren’t coming home at night. More than the usual number of fliers about missing tabby and Siamese cats began showing up on utility poles and community bulletin boards.

By summer, reports of sightings were becoming frequent on community e-mail listserves and at neighborhood crime-watch meetings in this South Seattle community.

In late July, resident Tina Miller said, two coyotes mauled and killed the family’s beloved 3-year-old cat in her backyard. Two weeks later, Miller said, her son saw a coyote trying to snatch a stray cat near her house.

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“It was traumatizing,” Miller said. “We had no idea there was such a big problem with coyotes.”

While coyotes have been spotted in recent years in a few neighborhoods, the Seattle Animal Shelter and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said reported sightings have increased dramatically this year and are coming from more neighborhoods than ever before.

To keep coyotes away

• Keep pet food and water inside.

• Keep cats inside.

• Keep wild bird seed elevated and in feeders designed for birds, and clean up spilled seed from the ground; coyotes can either be drawn directly to the seed, or to rodents drawn to the seed.

• Keep fruit trees fenced or pick up fruit that falls to the ground.

• Minimize vegetation near children’s play areas to avoid attracting rodents and small mammals that will in turn attract coyotes. Keep clusters of shrubs, trees and other cover and food plants away from buildings and children’s play areas.

Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Officials said the coyotes typically have been sighted at night or in the early morning, often near parks or wooded areas in such Seattle neighborhoods as Beacon Hill, West Seattle, Magnolia and Laurelhurst. They also have been seen in rural areas of King County, as well as in parts of Snohomish County.

This year, the wildlife department is receiving about 30 to 50 reports a day of coyote sightings in Western Washington, double what it received last year.

Wildlife and animal-control officials attribute much of the cause to housing developments in the outskirts of King County that have encroached on coyote habitat and displaced the coyotes. The animals then roam into neighborhoods through city parks, golf courses and greenbelts.

Officials say the high number of reports doesn’t necessarily mean a large number of coyotes are prowling urban streets. In some cases, residents may be seeing — and reporting — the same coyote.

Still, “we have to recognize that coyotes are a fact of life in Washington state,” said Capt. Bill Hebner of the wildlife department. “We continue to see extensive development. We continue to intrude on these wildlife areas.

“And we have all kinds of greenbelts that lead to a city.”

About the coyote

The coyote is a member of the dog family. The scientific name is Canis latrans, which means “barking dog.” In size and shape, it looks like a small German shepherd, but has a shorter, bushier tail.

Weight: 20-50 pounds.

Numbers: At least 50,000 are estimated to live in Washington.

Color: Varies from shades of black, brown and gray to yellow and white, sometimes with a reddish tint.

Lifespan: 15 years in the wild.

Mating season: January-March. Coyotes can breed with domestic dogs and wolves. A dog-coyote mix is called a “coydog.”

Geography: Found throughout North America and south through Mexico to Panama.

Typical diet: Small mammals, insects, reptiles, fruit and carrion. In urban areas, coyotes sometimes eat pet food, garbage or garden crops.

Curious fact: A coyote can run nearly 40 mph and can get over an 8-foot-high fence.

Sources: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife,

Coyote bit 2 children

Fish and wildlife officials say Washington state has about 50,000 coyotes. The animals are nocturnal, stand about knee-high, weigh some 30 pounds and are mangy-looking.

They eat berries and vegetation, as well as raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and — as they get closer to populated areas — cats and small dogs.

On Beacon Hill, some pet owners fret because wildlife officials won’t trap or shoot coyotes unless they are a threat to humans.

In April, a coyote bit a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old in separate incidents in the Eastgate area of Bellevue, wildlife agents reported. State wildlife agents later shot the coyote.

It’s absurd that a coyote has to attack or threaten a person before wildlife agents hunt it down, said Miller, the Seattle resident. If coyotes are “out there attacking pets and running around the neighborhood, that should be enough,” she said.

Wildlife agents said it’s rare for coyotes to attack humans, but in the Bellevue case the coyote had lost its fear of humans, perhaps because people fed it.

Don Jordan, executive director of the Seattle Animal Shelter, agrees.

“Generally, coyotes are more afraid of humans than we are of them. But because of the environment that humans create by leaving out dog food, cat food, not securing garbage cans … we are creating a perfect habitat to sustain coyotes in an urban environment.”

Coyote connection

On Beacon Hill, one of the earliest attacks occurred last fall when, according to Kathryn Rathke, a coyote entered her backyard and snatched two chickens from their pen, leaving a trail of white feathers and mutilated remains.

A few weeks later, Rathke said, her 15-year-old cat didn’t come home.

She didn’t make the coyote connection until neighbors reported seeing coyotes around and pet owners started posting signs about their missing cats.

Seattle Animal Shelter often gets a rise in missing-cat reports after a coyote sighting, and officials suspect that in most of those cases, coyotes ate the pets.

Beacon Hill resident Ben Dugan, who arrived home one evening to find a coyote in his driveway, said that when he sees a missing-pet flier in the neighborhood now, “I think, well … hopefully the coyotes didn’t get to them.”

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or