By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
If there were any coyotes hanging around outside Sullivan’s Island town hall on the night of Tuesday, January 21, they were more than likely scared away by the noise. With more than 100 people crammed into the temporary town hall, the cheers, claps and murmurs of agreement/disagreement filled the very cold night air.
Why were they all there? Judging by the fact that half the room emptied following the public comments section, and before the vote on the $4.1 million bond, it’s safe to say the town’s fiscal agenda was not the motivating factor for the high attendance. Almost everyone was there for a chance to have their say on the current coyote conundrum.
“I’ve lived on this island since 1944,” Nancy Fortiere, a Sullivan’s resident, said. “It’s always been peaceful and wonderful; now we have a threat. A serious threat. It’s not the bars and the restaurants, or the traffic. It’s the coyotes. I have coyotes in my front yard. I see them.
“These animals are a threat to us,” she continued. “Coyotes are not meant to be on an island like this. We were here first, and they do not belong here. I think it’s wrong for people to be losing their pets. It’s a great detriment to Sullivan’s Island.”
Fortiere’s sentiments were echoed by the majority of the residents who spoke at the meeting. There were some voices speaking out for the canines, however, including three students from Moultrie Middle School, whose class had worked on a project debating the issue of coyotes on the island.
“Killing animals for being themselves: that’s what the town is debating doing,” Jackson Stebbins said, reading from his school essay. “I don’t think Sullivan’s Island wants a reputation as wildlife killers. Coyotes aren’t even the worst things on Sullivan’s Island. I’m more worried about snakes, sharks and jellyfish.”
Sara Michelin, a resident of Sullivan’s, argued that the population will stabilize itself: “Nature changes all the time.” Her comment is supported by recent anecdotal evidence from a Seabrook Island Property Owners Association survey of wildlife on the nearby island. Twenty-four reported coyote sightings occurred there in 2013, spread evenly throughout the year, just under half as many as the 54 sightings in 2011.
Providing some external perspective on the situation, Kim Kelly, the South Carolina Director of the Humane Society of the U.S., addressed the meeting.
“We’re concerned about a killing program, as they’ve been proven to be ineffective,” she said. “You have to kill up to 70 percent for it to be effective. And even then coyotes will just come in from the outside, so you will be killing and killing and killing.
“Hazing is effective,” she said. “But it needs to be consistent. The whole community needs to be involved. They’re smart; it doesn’t always work straight away.”
Kelly defended the animals, saying that coyotes really aren’t aggressive towards humans. Annually there are 10 reported attacks, she said. “Compare that to five million dog bites a year. We’ve worked with hundreds of communities around the county and would be willing to work with you about adopting a humane approach.”
One resident asked what he was allowed to do to protect himself and his animals.
“If it’s actually attacking your dog, you can do what you need to do,” Sullivan’s Island Police Chief Daniel Howard said. “If you use a gun there’s a possibility you may get charged. We will look at the whole incident and see if we’re going to make that charge. I don’t want the Wild, Wild West out here and everybody shooting everything.”
Kathy Anderegg has already taken matters into her own hands. The Thompson Avenue resident hired a trapping company after a coyote came into her yard. In two weeks, she said, the traps caught five coyotes, one dog and a cat. Four of the coyotes were put down, while the fifth escaped. Neither of the domestic animals were harmed by the traps, according to Anderegg.
Later in the meeting, Council discussed the Public Safety Committee’s recommendation that the town “research, fund and implement a program to reduce the coyote population while not harming the environment and protect Island residents.”
“We’re all listening to what people are saying,” Council member Chauncey Clark, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said. “We currently have a procedure for cohabitation, and we have a procedure for a problems: call the police. What we don’t have in place is a good action for the police to perform if needed. We need to contract a resource for the police to call on if need be to trap and deal with the coyote.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Kaynard disagreed: “If all we’re going to do is respond when there’s a sighting, we’re getting behind the problem, not in front of it,” he said. “We need to do something more aggressive. The committee should bring back proposals from local companies to address the overall problem.”
Mayor Perkis agreed that the need to protect residents was paramount, but he stated he thinks a culling program may not be the solution. “There’s clearly enough evidence that says that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said. “We need to find out more before we move forward willy-nilly. We need neutral people with sound scientific backgrounds, to provide the facts and then move forward with a developed plan, which may include culling, as soon as possible.”
Perkis pointed out that there is no evidence that the population is growing and that the town needs to hire professionals to determine the extent of the problem.
“Culling can do more harm than good,” he said. “Clearly this has become a media event, and we need to avoid falling into that trap. [If we’re going to cull] we need someone to tell us how to cull and how many. I don’t support going out and culling them without research.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, Kaynard motioned to adopt the Public Safety Committee’s recommendation, ask the Public Safety Committee to provide council with recommendations on the coyote issue, and allow the police department to hire a trapper as needed to address any coyote issues. The motion passed unanimously.