It's been a difficult few weeks for Nona Levie of Mount Holly. All three of her cats have disappeared, and Levie is certain it's because of coyotes in the area.
"We let (the cats) come and go as they please," said Levie, 70. "Most of the time, they came in during the evenings, but the coyotes got them."
Levie said that she and her son have seen packs of coyotes near their homes. And in the last year or two, residents have reported seeing coyotes from Union County to Davidson.
Although Mecklenburg County does not track coyote numbers, anecdotes about sightings suggest that the population has increased in the Charlotte region over the last couple of years, said Chris Matthews, natural resources manager for Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation.
Meanwhile, the statewide coyote population has remained stable, said Matthews, suggesting that the animals are being pushed into more developed areas.
"I would imagine a coyote would feel safer not in someone's backyard but in a more natural area," said Matthews. "But because natural areas are being developed slowly over time, coyotes are being pushed out and having to use a more urban habitat."
Because coyotes are so adaptive, experts say that residents shouldn't expect them to leave the area anytime soon.
Levie said that when she called the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to report a coyote sighting, staff told her that they had no plan to eradicate coyotes from the area, "but they said we could feel free to shoot them if we saw them," said Levie.
Although it's legal to kill a coyote, experts said all that is really necessary to peacefully cohabitate with coyotes is a little education and small adjustments to residents' daily routines.
For instance, Matthews said, residents should not leave small pets unattended outside, especially cats.
"People have to recognize that when they let their cats outdoors, they become part of the wildlife, essentially," he said. "Unfortunately, cats are a kind of food item for the coyote."
Residents should also not leave food outside because it will remove a coyote's natural fear of humans and cause them to associate people with food.
"People need to figure out how to change the way they're behaving," said Matthews. "It takes a little extra effort to make sure they're not making the situation worse."
And when walking, residents should keep their dogs on a leash. Since coyotes are so closely related to dogs, they view them as a threat and may act aggressively, said Matthews.
Levi said that since her cats disappeared, she's been especially cautious when taking her Welsh Corgi outside.
"I keep a good watch on him," she said. "I'm afraid to let him out into the yard."
Still, aggressive coyotes are rare, said Matthews.
"Coyotes are very common but very, very shy," said Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle. "They are a prey species, but they are typically not aggressive - just opportunists. They can easily be frightened away in most circumstances."
In fact, Matthews said, there are a lot of misconceptions about coyotes that feed into people's fear of them.
"It's very rare for a coyote to get rabies," said Matthews. "The more common strain we have here is raccoon-based."
Matthews acknowledged one recently confirmed case of coyote rabies in south Mecklenburg County, but added, "It's more common for a cow to be rabid in our area than a coyote."
Residents should call 911 if they encounter an aggressive coyote. But they shouldn't report mere sightings because coyotes are indigenous to the area, said Hoyle.
"They are here and will always be here, just like deer," said Hoyle. "A coyote merely curious and shadowing a pedestrian should not be considered aggressive."
And since wolf populations in the area are at historic lows, coyotes don't have any natural predators to thin out their population.
Matthews said his department plans to invest in tracking devices to learn more about local coyote populations, and he hopes the project will help reduce residents' fears.
The devices would help county residents learn about coyotes' home ranges and their tracking patterns.
"We could name some of them and put their locations up on Google maps so people can see and understand," he said. "It may put some of this mystery away about what the coyote is and what it does."