A band of sneaky, savage, bloodthirsty hunters has migrated from the western United States to the woods, farms and prairies of Florida.
They've been observed prowling residential yards in the Panhandle, killing cattle in Central Florida and staring ominously at passersby in Everglades National Park.
The marauders are coyotes, and so far, there's no stopping them.
"There is little that can be done about it," said Eddie White, veteran naturalist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "You can't eradicate them. Out west, they've been trying to eradicate them for 100 years now. They've used poisons, shot `em from helicopters and trapped them, and I don't think they made a dent in them."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Ledger-Enquirer
No one knows how many of the wild canines have made it to Florida. Some came on their own; others were brought in by hunt clubs as prey for dogs, escaped and began multiplying. Averaging a litter of six pups a year, they also have been bred with domestic dogs.
Some problems they cause: killing domestic pets; harassing livestock and wild game such as turkey and deer; and digging up buried sea turtle nests on beaches.
Everglades National Park biologist Skip Snow reported an increase in coyote sightings in the park this year.
Hialeah firefighter Roy Huff reported shooting one last year at the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress spokesman Bob De Gross said there is evidence of coyotes in the Bear Island area at the north end of the preserve.
"What impact they're having isn't known, but we hear from the hunters saying they see fewer pigs," De Gross said.
Huff, who frequently hunts turkeys in Big Cypress, said he inadvertently lured a coyote to a decoy when he was calling birds. He shot it.
"We don't want them there," Huff said.
Huff's friend, Andy Pis, is caretaker of a 3,000-acre ranch in Hendry County, a 2 ½-hour drive north of Miami-Dade. Pis blames coyotes for preying on the deer population.
"The numbers have exploded everywhere," Pis said. "Since they're a non-native species, native animals will come under attack. The animals indigenous to the area are not prepared for this _ a predator that hunts all day and all night."
To cut down on the coyote population, Pis has tried using a remote-control predator call, a small amplifier that broadcasts tape-recordings of wounded woodpeckers, rabbits - even young coyotes in distress - to lure the predators close enough to shoot. He says he shot three with a .22 rifle but didn't recover them, which means they might have escaped.
Pis has tried rigging snares on trails where he has seen their tracks, but the coyotes sidestep them. "It's the hardest animal I've ever hunted," he said.
Several weeks ago, armed with a high-powered rifle and scope, Pis set up a camouflage tent blind in a pasture.
Well before dawn, he put an amplifier in the middle of the field, then hid in the blind and pressed the remote to sound a rodent squeaking in distress.
"Coyotes approach from downwind," Pis explained in a whisper. "They want to identify what predator has the prey. If they cross your scent trail coming into the call, they're gone."
When the rodent squeak failed to draw any takers, Pis attempted to switch to the sounds of a wounded rabbit. But when he pressed the remote button, nothing happened. He was forced to leave the blind and change the call manually.
After 10 minutes of wounded rabbit cries, a scruffy-looking gray coyote suddenly appeared about 100 yards away.
"There he is - don't move," Pis warned as he brought up the rifle.
But before he could get off a shot, the animal disappeared.
"Man, he was coming good," Pis said. "We almost had him. They're just not stupid. When he didn't see a bobcat holding a rabbit, he left."
By mid-morning, Pis gave up in defeat.
"We're never gonna get rid of these coyotes," he grumbled. "I never knew it could be this hard."
Some Florida ranchers offer $100 bounties to hunters for every coyote they kill. Others have applied to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for special, free permits to hunt the animals at night with guns and lights.
Renee Strickland, who manages a 2,500-acre spread with her husband near Myakka City in southwest Florida, tried a unique approach to protect her cattle - a donkey named Jamaica.
"They hate coyotes, dogs and wolves," Strickland explained. "And they protect baby calves. But Jamaica kind of went overboard. She kept the calf away from her momma so she couldn't nurse her."
Reluctantly, the Stricklands gave Jamaica away to another rancher and are seeking a protector who's not quite so Type-A.
"Before next calving season, we will have another one," Strickland vowed.
Some ranchers wish the state would step forward to eliminate coyotes, but FWC spokesman White said that's not likely.
"As far as FWC taking a stance to eradicate them, our money is better spent on projects where we can succeed," White said.
"At least they're native to North America. Most of (Florida's) exotics aren't native to this country."