A bold predator that has been snatching house cats and displaying insolence to humans is sure to be the topic of conversations at holiday barbecues in Steamboat Springs' Whistler Meadows neighborhood this weekend.
Animal control officer Sanna Pollack confirmed Thursday that there have been 50 reports of missing cats in the city since May. That number is not unheard of in Steamboat, Pollack said, but the concentration of missing cats near the base of the ski area is noticeable.
The presumed coyote has been seen in back yards and vacant lots in the neighborhood of Meadow Lane, Timothy and Brome drives. The subdivision's southern boundary abuts a large natural area of sagebrush, scrub oak and aspen trees stretching up a steep slope to a ridge that is part of the rural Priest Creek Ranch subdivision.
Personnel with the Colorado Division of Wildlife say the animal is a coyote but point out that the incidence of missing cats probably is because of a mix of coyote and fox predation. Pollack said some of the missing cats probably have returned home and that owners haven't reported their change in status.
Some residents of the neighborhood who had up-close-and-personal encounters with the animal don't think it is a coyote.
"It's definitely not a coyote," Leslie Ahlmeyer said. "When I first saw it, I said, 'What is this thing?' It's so not afraid. If I had to guess, it's like a dog/coyote cross."
Ahlmeyer's first encounter with the animal was last autumn while horseback riding. She recognized it in her yard on Brome this week, and she encountered it again the next day while horseback riding at Priest Creek Ranch with a friend.
District Wildlife Officer Mike Middleton said it was possible that the predator is some form of feral dog or hybrid animal.
Mike Brama, who lives on Meadow Lane, gained firsthand knowledge of the animal's predatory habits early Monday morning. Brama, who works a night shift, had come home from work and was soaking in the hot tub in his back yard about 6:30 a.m. when he saw the neighbors' dog sprinting across a vacant lot that separates the two houses.
"I saw the dog running toward me, and then all of a sudden my dog, Satchmo, took off like a bolt toward him," Brama said
Before the two dogs met in the middle, Brama observed them flushing a third animal out of the tall grass. All three came toward Brama's house, and the third animal, resembling a coyote, had a cat in its jaws.
The trio continued into his yard, and the presumed coyote dropped the cat. The animals veered across the street and disappeared.
Brama retrieved the cat -- dead, but still warm -- and placed it in a plastic bag in his garage. He went inside to call animal control officers and settled in with the morning paper.
The next time he glanced up, he watched as the coyote circled his yard twice, apparently seeking to retrieve his breakfast.
Pollack examined the dead cat and said it appeared to have suffered a broken neck. She advises cat owners to keep their pets indoors. Dealing with the coyote is the responsibility of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, she said.
Middleton said that typically, the DOW would not remove a coyote simply because it was drawn to a residential neighborhood. First, officers would work to educate the neighborhood's residents. Later, they would consider removing or destroying the animal.
"There has to be a point," Middleton said. "If it becomes a danger to people, we would have to consider it."
DOW's "Living with Wildlife" manual urges: "If you live in areas where coyotes have been seen, protect your pets. Coyotes will attack and kill cats and dogs. Do not allow your pets to roam, especially at night."
Coyotes and dogs sometimes run together and appear to be playing. But the coyotes are apt to turn on the dogs when they feel a need to defend their territory.
DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said the Colorado Wildlife Commission made it illegal this year to knowingly feed coyotes and foxes. It is a statewide problem, Malmsbury said, and coyotes that learn they can find food in residential neighborhoods become emboldened.
"Pets are easy and abundant," Malmsbury said. "Please do not feed wild animals, unintentionally or intentionally."
Another neighbor who has seen the predator and is skeptical about whether it is a coyote is Clay Rogers.
"I've never seen a coyote that looked like this," Rogers said. "I saw it (Wednesday), and it's huge. I've never seen one this big and this healthy looking."
Rogers and his wife, Candace, said the animal's coat is in prime condition and darker than the coyotes they have seen in Colorado.
Candace Rogers said that one morning the animal was in her back yard and appeared indifferent as she yelled at it and stomped her feet in an effort to scare it away.
Alli Barr looked up from her home office one morning last month when she heard dogs barking and watched, startled, as the coyote loped through her yard.
Ahlmeyer's experiences with the animal have been more confrontational. When it followed her as she rode horseback in Priest Creek Ranch last year, she had the distinct impression it was after the smallest of her three dogs. Ahlmeyer steered her horse directly at the animal and nearly trampled it before it shied away.
She lost a cat last month, and when she spied the predator in her yard Monday, she knew who it was. She returned to the same horseback trail where she had seen it last year, and again, it followed her and her friend in an aggressive manner.
Sunday may be Independence Day, but housecats in Whistler Meadows aren't enjoying their freedom this weekend.
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205
or e-mail email@example.com