In the fall of 2013, Stanford Kirshtein set up a motion-activated wildlife camera to watch the trail behind his Sullivan's Island home. The neighbors had been swapping stories about coyotes stalking the island woods, and Kirshtein wanted to keep an eye out.
He was already treading softly in his own backyard, putting his golden retriever Zooey on a leash and keeping a wary eye on the treeline. One night after setting up the camera, he remembers walking out into the cool dark with Zooey, walking around the yard for a few minutes and then heading back inside. The next morning, while reviewing footage from the wildlife camera, he saw a time stamp from the exact moment he had walked out into the yard. A coyote was standing at the fence, silently looking in.
He was being watched.
"They move around like ghosts at night," Kirshtein says.
As summer tourist season approaches, Sullivan's Island is looking to fix its coyote problem. Town Council has authorized the town's Department of Public Safety to hire a private company to trap coyotes. The available budget for the project is $25,000, according to Mayor Mike Perkis.
Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Kaynard says islanders started to report coyote sightings as early as October 2013. Cats and small dogs have disappeared from residents' yards since then, but no carcasses have been found. At a January Town Council meeting, one resident reported being stalked by a coyote in her own yard.
But Jay Butfiloski, supervisor of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Furbearer Project, says extermination might not be a sustainable answer to the coyote problem.
"I caution people that if you set a precedent of going down a path of eradication, then you're going to revisit that path next year, and the year after, and the year after," Butfiloski says. "They could trap every single one of them on the island right now, but there's no guarantee that a month later there's not going to be somebody's cat being killed."
Although coyotes are traditionally portrayed as creatures of the American West, they have been spotted in every U.S. state except Hawaii. According to SCDNR literature, coyotes began appearing in the South Carolina Upstate in the late '70s and have since spread to every county.
So why the uptick in news stories recently about coyotes entering people's property? Butfiloski says reports of coyotes in suburban areas have increased in the last five to 10 years. Residents in Mt. Pleasant, for instance, started spotting coyotes on the paths near Patriots Point. But it wasn't until last year that the canines crossed the Ben Sawyer Bridge (or possibly swam across the Intracoastal Waterway) en masse to Sullivan's Island.
"In most cases, with people in suburban areas, cats are one of the first things to go missing," Butfiloski says. "But in a lot of cases, it's just the fear of this new animal out there." He says attacks on humans are extremely rare worldwide, with only two known human fatalities in recorded history.
In rural areas, South Carolinians have adapted to living with their wild canine neighbors. Farmers have trained donkeys, Great Pyrenees dogs, and even llamas to defend their livestock against coyotes, which range in size from 30 to 60 pounds. SCDNR also recommends building electric fences, installing strobe lights, and trimming underbrush to eliminate hiding places.
And if all else fails, it's always open hunting season for coyotes in South Carolina. Landowners with a hunting license can obtain a free depredation permit from SCDNR to shoot coyotes on their own property, and no permit or license is required to shoot a coyote within 100 yards of a home. Under South Carolina law, it is illegal to relocate most nuisance animals including coyotes, so even if property owners use traps instead of hunting rifles, coyotes must be put down or released on the spot.
"Its natural instinct is to avoid people. Quite frankly, ones that hang around people, in most cases, get shot," Butfiloski says. "Of course, that's where these suburban issues become a problem, because you can't normally do that. But you still can make it uncomfortable for it to be there."
In heavily residential environments like Sullivan's Island, Butfiloski recommends that homeowners make loud noises to scare coyotes off when they enter their property. He also says it's important not to inadvertently feed the animals, which can gather seeds from bird feeders and eat food from pet bowls left outside. Towns can also work to ensure that overgrown weeds are trimmed back and that trash cans are not overflowing with food scraps.
As Town Council debated what to do about the coyote problem, a few Sullivan's Island residents took matters into their own hands. Kaynard says one woman hired a trapper herself, and within two weeks, four coyotes had been trapped and killed on her property. Another homeowner chased a coyote out of her yard by hurling a brick at it.
And Kirshtein still has his camera mounted on the fence, watching the path through the woods for the eyes that show up glowing in the infrared camera flash. He has taken to posting his videos on YouTube, where some have garnered hundreds of views, and he has become a bit obsessed with researching the animals online. Based on his reading, he questions whether hiring a trapper is a good long-term plan for Sullivan's Island.
"Learning everything that I've learned, I don't know if there is a solution," Kirshtein says.
Whatever the town chooses to do, the decision is sure to be accelerated by the approach of tourist season, which coincides with peak coyote season. According to the SCDNR, coyotes mate in the spring and are likely to increase their predation from late spring to early fall.
Kevin Murphy, owner of Critter Control of Charleston, says at least five different trapping companies sat in on a recent Town Council meeting to learn about the opportunity for a lucrative government contract.
But even Murphy is skeptical about the possibility of eliminating coyotes from Sullivan's Island. For one thing, he says, the jaw-type traps that are used to catch coyotes are just as likely to catch pets, and while many rubberized traps are considered humane, they can still easily snap the legs of a cat or dog. Murphy has been called out to a few local golf courses to hunt coyotes at night, but he says residential areas present unique challenges.
"They're easier to shoot than they are to catch. But on Sullivan's Island, it ain't the wild, wild West out there," Murphy says.