NEW ELLENTON — Coyotes would have a hard time winning a popularity contest in South Carolina. Many people fear them or think they are pests. Hunters don't like them because they prey upon fawns, causing the deer population to decline.

“I used to be like everybody else; I thought coyotes were bad,” said Sean Poppy, who is the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory's outreach program coordinator.

But after Poppy rescued a starving and dehydrated male coyote pup more than a year ago and named him Scooter, his opinion about the animals changed.

“Now I have an appreciation for coyotes,” Poppy said. “They eat a lot of insects and rodents, and they eat dead animals. They're also very good at adapting to changing environments.”

Scooter makes regular appearances in Poppy's wildlife education presentations at schools and other places. With Poppy's arms wrapped around him, Scooter stands or sits quietly, giving scores of children and adults their first up-close look at a coyote.

“Some of them think that he's beautiful,” Poppy said. “I've gotten notes from people saying, 'I was kind of scared when you brought him out, but then I wasn't because he was so calm.'”

Poppy hopes that his audiences will understand coyotes better after he provides them with information about Scooter and wild canines in general.

“I try to talk about some of the good things that coyotes do because you hardly ever hear about those good things,” Poppy said. “It's unfortunate that they eat a lot of deer, but they're not mean and vicious animals. The wild ones are going to run away from you when they see you. They're only going to come up to you if they're rabid or something else is wrong.”

Poppy found Scooter in May 2012 while returning to the Ecology Lab from a presentation in Georgia.

“I was driving on Highway 125, and I could see an object that looked like a piece of trash blowing across the road,'” Poppy said.

As he got closer, Poppy realized what he had spotted was a small animal in peril. But even though speeding cars and a semitrailer truck passed over it, the tiny creature survived and crawled off the road into some tall grass.

Concerned that the animal had been injured, Poppy stopped and went looking for it.

“He was sitting perfectly still, and it took me awhile to find him,” Poppy said. “He was in really bad shape. There were blisters on his belly because he obviously had crawled over an anthill and had been bitten. His lower end was bloody from urinating blood because he was dehydrated.”

At first, Poppy thought Scooter was a very young domestic dog that looked a little unusual, but it didn't take him long to realize the baby creature's true identity.

Poppy's sister, Tara Poppy, is a veterinarian, and she helped her brother save Scooter's life. After the coyote's health improved, Poppy decided he wanted to try to turn Scooter into an education animal even though co-workers warned him it would be dangerous.

“They told me, 'That animal is going to grow up and turn on you; he's going to rip your face off,'” Poppy said.

But Poppy was determined to carry on, so he got a permit from the Department of National Resources that allowed him to keep Scooter at his house, and he had the young coyote neutered.

“I sort of raised him in a way from the very start by thinking about how I would use him in my education programs,” Poppy said. “I would pick him up and put him on the crates that I had to transport animals. I also got him involved in a routine where he was outside in the day in a pen and in a kennel in my garage at night. When I took him out in the morning, he would get a treat, and when I put him in the garage at night, he would get a treat.”

So far, Poppy's plan for Scooter has worked out well.

“He's not a pet; he just tolerates me,” Poppy said. “But he behaves great when I take him into a classroom. He sits on top of his crate, he looks around and he yawns. I'm glad that I've had the opportunity to learn from him and share what I've learned with other people.”

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.