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City Council debates coyotes

Friday, October 7, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council spent most of the morning Thursday discussing what to do about coyotes.

Council was asked by city staff to approve an ordinance that would authorize the Animal Services Department to negotiate and execute a contract with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Services-Wildlife Services (otherwise referred to as Texas Wildlife Services) to assist in the city’s coyote control efforts.

For local animal rights activists, the prospect of handing over any part of animal control to Wildlife Services would be a giant step backward. Concerns about the way the agency handles coyotes and other animals led the Animal Advisory Commission last year to urge the city to get out of a three-year-old wildlife management agreement between the city, Travis County and Wildlife Services. For the past year, the city has dealt with coyotes on its own.

“This is a total, colossal waste of time, energy and possibly money,” David Lundstedt, chair of the Animal Advisory Commission, said in remarks urging Council to reject the proposal. “We don’t need this contract. Everything is going fine the way it is.”

Lundstedt and others, including a representative from the Humane Society, object to Wildlife Services’ practice of setting traps for coyotes or shooting the wild animals. Both actions are in violation of a 2014 ordinance passed by Council, Lundstedt said.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, who supported the proposal, pointedly asked Lundstedt where in the city he lived. Learning that he resided in District 9, which covers much of Central Austin, she said that the coyote problem was a far greater issue in the western fringes of her West Austin district, such as in the Northwest Hills neighborhood.

Council Member Don Zimmerman pushed the point further, arguing that the 2014 ordinance should hardly serve as a guide, since it was approved by the “downtown Council” that existed before there was district-based representation on Council. Suburban voters, marginalized under the previous system, he argued, had “revolted” against the “old way of doing business” and were demanding solutions to the coyote issue.

“The ordinances of this city are supposed to protect the people,” not coyotes, he said, earning a rebuke from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who took offense at the suggestion that the former Council, of which she was a member, focused only on representing downtown interests.

Craig Nazor, another member of the Animal Advisory Commission, dismissed the notion that coyotes are a threat to people. In the history of the state of Texas, he said, “no man, woman or child has ever been killed by a coyote.” Incidents of bites were exceedingly rare, he added, usually occurring when people try to feed the animals.

What is largely driving anti-coyote sentiment, however, is concern for the plight of pets – “neighbors that are having cats and dogs taken away and eaten by coyotes,” said Gallo.

The ordinance proposed by staff would not compel the Animal Services Department to negotiate a contract with Wildlife Services; it would simply authorize it to do so. Nevertheless, in response to the concerns articulated by opponents of the contract, Council Member Delia Garza offered an amendment that specified that the department would have the discretion to authorize and execute a contract if it deemed additional help from Wildlife Services necessary in the future.

It took a while for Mayor Steve Adler to get a straight response from Animal Services Director Tawny Hammond about whether she wanted to approve a new contract with Wildlife Services. Her main goal, she said, was to have the option to negotiate a contract with the agency that does not involve Travis County, as was the case from 2012 to 2015. She also touted the efforts of her staff to engage in community outreach over the past year with neighborhood groups about coyotes, including educating people on how to avoid problems with the animals.

Ultimately, Hammond said she would like to have the ability to contract with the agency if needed.

“If we think we have a public safety concern, it’s absolutely something I would pursue,” Hammond told the Austin Monitor after the meeting.

The ordinance, along with Garza’s amendment, was approved 10-1, with only Zimmerman in dissent.

Council spent nearly the entire morning session debating what will amount, at most, to a $10,000 expenditure.

“I did not anticipate we would go that long on that issue,” said Adler after the vote.

This story has been corrected to fix a typo. Photo by Dru Bloomfield made available through a Creative Commons license.

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