Coyote in the Sandbox

updated 05/26/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/2008 01:00AM

Madison Schuler was playing in a sandbox in a Chino Hills park one May morning when a most unwelcome visitor appeared. A coyote stood eyeing the 2-year-old while her nanny, Alejandra Morales, and baby sister sat nearby. "It was like looking into the devil's eyes," recalls Morales, 32. As she raced to save Madison, the coyote bit the girl's buttocks and a tug-of-war ensued. "I was yelling and jumping up and down," says Morales. "Then the coyote stopped and ran away."

Luckily little Madison fully recovered. But the attack—the first of three confirmed in California in five days—underscores growing concern among experts that coyotes, like bears and other wildlife, are losing their fear of humans as housing developments brush up against natural habitats. "Someone is going to be killed," says Kevin Brennan of California's Department of Fish and Game. "Most likely it will be a child." He advises families not to leave pet food outside and to scream at coyotes if they approach.

Fernando Hernandez, 39, already learned that lesson. A coyote bit his daughter, Iliana, 3, while on vacation in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., in March and began to drag her away like prey until a friend shouted at the animal. "You can't take nature for granted," says Iliana's mom, Maria Hernandez, 37, "especially with small children."

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