Column: Column: When wild critters move into tony neighborhoods

A fox relaxes in the garden of a cottage in La Jolla's Windansea area. A mom and four kits romped in the yard for two weeks.
(Courtesy photo)

Wild animals are camping out in yards and walking the streets of Pacific Beach and La Jolla.


One doesn’t have to go to the Safari Park to see wildlife. Some wild animals are camping out in yards and walking the streets of the beach communities of Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

Photos and videos of sightings of foxes and coyotes, many captured on night-time cameras and security surveillance devices, are commonly posted on the Nextdoor app, which shares residents’ neighborhood news.

This is no surprise to Jim McCaughan, who has specialized in trapping and humanely relocating unwelcome wildlife in San Diego for the past 22 years. His occupation started when a skunk took up residence under his hot tub. He couldn’t find a service to remove it, so he trapped it himself. Neighbors pleaded with him to relocate their unwanted skunks, and a new career was born.

In past years, McCaughan has been called in to track a bear and her cub in Escondido, a mountain lion near Soledad Mountain Road in the North Pacific Beach/La Jolla area and a bobcat living in a residential complex by La Jolla Mesa Drive.

He theorizes that when some wild animals’ main food source gets scarce, they venture into more urban areas, following local canyons and streams.

One popular animal trail winds along Rose Creek, running through North Pacific Beach and emptying into Mission Bay by Campland on the Bay. Thus, this resort and tourist mecca can be a destination for wildlife as well, McCaughan notes.

California wildlife biologist Rebecca Barboza says urban wildlife sightings are not a new trend. Wild animals have always lived among us. We just didn’t see the wildlife as often before the advent of nighttime motion-activated cameras and ubiquitous security video surveillance.

Barboza specializes in urban-wildlife conflict for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s South Coast Region.

“Because the pandemic lifted in California, people are getting out and observing more wildlife,” she adds. “It’s not uncommon for coyotes and fox to be just about anywhere. They’re very adaptable to different environments. The calls we get are typical of this time of year.”

Foxes are denning animals during birthing season and look for safe places under decks, in crawl spaces, inside sheds and elsewhere to raise their kits. Once pups are weened at 3 to 4 months of age, the youngsters disperse.

Because they haven’t put radio collars on coyotes and foxes to monitor their movements in San Diego, state wildlife officials don’t have detailed roaming data. However a program by the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has collared and is tracking 20 coyotes in Los Angeles County.

They discovered that some spend 100 percent of their time in suburban Los Angeles and some spend 20 percent of their time in urban areas. Some live right next to natural habitats but never venture into them, says Niamh Quinn, a human-wildlife interactions adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension who works on the program.

Coyotes have been roaming around Hollywood for decades, she adds. The animals are able to take refuge on small fragments of habitat — a nursery or a city park or school grounds, then venture into populated areas where there is plenty of food. In suburbia, their biggest predators are cars sand trucks.

Unfortunately, along with the online posting of cute wild animal videos by San Diego residents are messages about missing cats and small dogs and the occasional somber note about the discovery of pet remains.

The UC Cooperative Extension in Orange County has posted an interactive Coyote Cacher map online at inviting the public to record their encounters with coyotes, ranging from a sighting (green), to a threatening interaction (yellow) to an attack (red) on a pet or human.

A study of 500 coyotes completed last year by the UC program concluded that cats, rabbits and rats are their preferred menu items.

Foxes are a different story. They dine on small rodents, rabbits, snakes, bugs and berries. They aren’t considered a threat to humans, nevertheless, it’s wise to keep small pets, food and water inside the house, Barboza suggests.

A still shot from video of a mother fox  and four kits in a La Jolla yard where they stayed for two weeks before moving on.
A still shot from video of a mother fox and four kits at a La Jolla cottage where they stayed for two weeks in June before moving on. An adult fox (dad?) was keeping an eye on them from atop the roof.
(Courtesy photo)

One woman who posted a backyard video of a group of four playful fox kits and their mom in the Windansea area of La Jolla removed her post after some respondents expressed fear for their cats and even mentioned poison.

“Putting poison out for wildlife is illegal,” stresses Barboza. “The most important thing to remember is these foxes are not a threat to human safety.”

Foxes are skittish and will run away if they detect human presence. As long as there’s an escape route, making a loud noise will send them scurrying, she adds.

The foxes commonly seen in San Diego County are indigenous gray foxes, despite a reddish cast underneath and on their legs and ears, Barboza adds. While red fox do exist in Southern California, they aren’t members of the endangered native red fox population that inhabits the Sierra Nevada.

They are a non-native species. An L.A. fur company that used to raise imported red foxes released them in the 1970s, and the population has since spread, Barboza says.