Coyote sightings in the Beesleys Point and Seaville sections of Upper Township, along with reports of missing cats and injured dogs, have local and state officials warning residents to be cautious.
There have been several reports of coyotes in the township in the past few months, according to Mayor Richard Palombo. These are not the first cases of coyotes in Upper, but the number of sightings this year is much higher than normal, he said.
"It's not widespread. It's not an epidemic, but we want to make a point for people to be aware of it," he said.
Coyotes live mainly in wooded areas and eat plants and small animals, such as rodents, said Andrew Burnett, a wildlife biologist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife who oversees the state's coyote efforts. He said coyotes instinctively avoid humans.
But with summer bringing warm weather, Palombo is urging residents to be aware of all wild animals when doing outdoor activities. People should stay away from all animals, since they may carry rabies or pose other dangers.
"If an animal walks up close to you, it's not normal," he said. "They shouldn't want to be near humans."
Chris Hillman, an animal control officer for Shore Animal Control Services in Upper Township, said he has seen coyotes on hikes in the woods and they did not engage him.
"They do try to stay away from people," he said.
But there have been incidents of coyotes attacking small children.
In 2007, there were separate incidents involving a 22-month-old and a 5-year-old who were attacked in Middletown, Monmouth County. These are the only two documented attacks by coyotes against humans in New Jersey. The children were not seriously injured.
Coyotes will try to seek food from Dumpsters and garbage cans, and people should keep their pets safe or leave them inside, said Dr. Nick Holland, owner of Shore Animal Control Services. Coyotes can attack pets, such as dogs and cats, he said.
"The best way to protect your pets is to let them outside only when you are with them - especially at night - and to keep pet food and water inside," he said.
Upper Township Deputy Mayor Curtis Corson said his 18-pound Jack Russell terrier was killed by a coyote in the wooded area behind his Seaville home last summer. He said he had seen coyotes on his property but did not think such an attack could occur.
The deputy mayor said he traps coyotes on his property and has killed six of them. The state allowed coyote trapping in 1980 and hunting in 1997.
"They won the battle but I won the war," he joked. "Coyotes are very dangerous animals. The only thing that can stop them are humans."
The state Division of Fish and Wildlife reports there are between 5,000 and 10,000 coyotes in the state.
The first local coyote was documented in Lower Township in 1948, but it wasn't until 1975 that the state acknowledged coyotes were permanent residents of the area - especially in rural, sparsely populated communities such as Maurice River Township and Corbin City.
Coyote sightings have risen since the 1980s, and the animals have expanded into nearly every town in the state - even some beach communities. The main center for coyotes in this area is Maurice River Township, which has had about 100 sightings, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
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To report coyote sightings, call the state Division of Fish and Wildlife at 908-735-7288.