Wildlife in Our Backyards

For residents of New York City, Central Park is an oasis within the city's concrete jungle, where the hustle and bustle of city life can be forgotten amidst the greenery. But for a coyote named Hal, the park became a death trap as he was doggedly pursued by ground and air until chased, cornered, sedated and finally captured over the course of two days in April 2006. After recovering at a wildlife rehabilitation facility, Hal's story should have had a happy ending with his release back into the wild. Instead, it ended in a tragedy when he died due to aggressive handling to attach an ear tag.

While his official cause of death was clear, Hal's demise began as soon as he was identified as an unwelcome canine guest in a human-dominated landscape. Because Hal had a name, his story became fodder for television news stations. Other large animals with teeth or claws, such as bears, lions and alligators, also attract media attention when they conflict with humans-often exacerbating society's fear of these creatures. Largely because of such fear, many animals lose their lives as a result of conflicts with humans. In some cases, state or agency policies require animals who attack people to be killed, while in other cases, animals are exterminated out of convenience, revenge, or because they are unintended victims of human development, activity or ignorance.

The US Department of Agriculture, through its controversial Wildlife Services division, kills millions of animals each year in response to these conflicts. In 2004, Wildlife Services personnel killed 82,891 carnivorous animals, including 191 wolves, 317 black bears, 359 mountain lions, 1,918 bobcats and 75,674 coyotes, purportedly to protect cattle and sheep. However, the most recent government statistics reveal only 3 percent (224,200) of 8 million sheep and only 0.18 percent (190,000) of over 104.5 million cattle were killed by predators in 2004 and 2005, respectively, with 29,800 sheep and nearly 22,000 cattle killed by dogs. Indeed, far more sheep (376,100) and cows (3,861,000) were killed by causes other than predation.

In addition, the largely unregulated private wildlife control industry cruelly kills hundreds of thousands of animals annually in response to homeowner complaints. Many such companies rely on lethal strategies to quickly resolve wildlife-human conflicts. When live traps are used to capture and remove a "nuisance" animal, the animal is often killed using inhumane techniques such as drowning, without the knowledge of the homeowner and outside of his or her view. Homeowners associations frequently call on private animal removal companies to resolve homeowner complaints until compassionate residents create an uproar, contesting the killing of innocent animals to placate a few complaining homeowners. Since such companies must generate a profit, they usually avoid providing permanent, non-lethal solutions to wildlife-human conflicts, preferring to rapidly remove the particular "problem" animal, while retaining a client who will inevitably become a repeat customer. Even when a state or municipality adopts rules banning the use of leghold traps, snares or other brutal killing devices or strategies, there are frequently exceptions that allow such devices under the guise of animal control.

Understanding Conflicts
While it is easy to label alligators as man-eaters, mountain lions as savage and bears as killers, understanding the ecology and behavior of these species demonstrates their ecological value and explains why conflicts with humans occur. In Florida, the media failed to look beyond the sensational nature of the recent alligator attacks to understand what may have contributed to those incidents. The alligators were not man-eaters, but were in fact searching for habitat in response to the area's ongoing drought. They were also more active than normal because it was breeding season. In combination with increased development destroying vast amounts of their habitat, conflicts between alligators and humans were and still are inevitable. Yet they can be minimized-by not swimming where alligators may be present, avoiding areas where alligators may be resting, and not dangling feet into alligator-occupied ponds, lakes or canals.

If you have spent time in mountain lion habitat, you have probably been watched by one of nature's most reclusive big cats. While mountain lion attacks receive significant media attention, such attacks are extraordinarily rare. A study by Northern Arizona University's Dr. Paul Beier showed that from 1890 to 1990, there were nine fatal and 44 non-fatal mountain lion attacks on people in the United States and Canada. Though a few additional attacks have occurred since 1990, their likelihood remains extremely low. In fact, you are far more likely to die from a lightning strike than from a mountain lion attack.

In the case of bears, their presence in suburban neighborhoods is usually the result of young bears in search of their own habitat to call home, hungry bears looking for food, or thirsty bears seeking a drink. Though a bear is not likely to be tolerated living in a residential neighborhood, as in the case of mountain lions, bear attacks are rare. According to Dr. Stephen Herrerro, a professor at the University of Calgary and the author of several books on bear attacks, there are an average of three fatal bear attacks (across all species) and five to 15 serious injuries attributable to the animals each year in North America. Considering the millions of bear-human interactions each year, the injury rates are extremely low.

While such attacks are uncommon, there are steps you can take to further reduce the risk of an encounter if working, living or enjoying outdoor activities in mountain lion or bear country. These include carrying and knowing how to properly use pepper spray, making noise when hiking or hiking in a group, storing and securing leftover food or garbage when camping and paying attention to your surroundings to avoid unintentionally creating a conflict situation. If you do have the fortune of observing one of these animals in the wild, do not panic and do not run. If the animal is in close proximity, make yourself appear as big as possible, pick up any small children, be prepared to use the pepper spray, and slowly leave the area while always keeping an eye on the animal.

Less physically threatening animals are also often viewed as a threat. Coyotes, foxes and deer are extraordinarily adaptable species able to live within human altered landscapes. Coyotes and foxes are ecologically valuable, consuming berries, fruit and grasshoppers, along with rats, mice, gophers, voles and other species that can carry diseases. While they are frequently accused of depredating family pets, there are plenty of ways to protect companion animals while learning to peacefully coexist with these wily canines. In Vancouver, Canada, a program called "Co-existing with Coyotes" has proved enormously successful in reducing coyote-human conflicts through education and action. Robert Boelens, a self-taught naturalist, created and implemented the program, teaching people to avoid feeding coyotes, to clean up or alter urban lots that provide cover for coyotes, and to take direct action-what Boelens describes as being "big, mean, and loud." His efforts have significantly reduced human-coyote conflicts and are far more effective than lethal coyote control programs used in the past. While deer are both loved and hated in suburban America, it is inevitable that deer-human conflicts will continue to increase as more deer habitat is converted into residential developments. In many cases, by building in forested areas, we create more productive deer habitat by retaining forest cover while providing deer access to our lawns, ornamental shrubbery and gardens. With more roads and more vehicles, an increase in deer-vehicle accidents is likely, regardless of the size of deer populations. We can learn to live with these creatures by landscaping with unpalatable plants, creating safer roads for drivers and wildlife, or simply slowing down at dusk and dawn in the fall when deer-vehicle accidents are most likely.

Though some people experience conflicts with larger mammals, most wildlife-human conflicts involve smaller animals like skunks, squirrels, bats and raccoons. Other species, including voles, woodchucks, beavers, chipmunks, pigeons and various other species of birds, can also clash with humans. These conflicts can be resolved using non-lethal strategies and products as well. Prevention is the key to avoid a conflict situation. By using wire screen or hardware cloth to seal any access points to your attic, under your house or porch, or into your shed or storage facility, you can reduce the risk of unwanted guests living in your home. If these guests are already present, then depending on the species, a variety of strategies can be used to evict these unwanted guests humanely, including being patient and allowing the animals and any potential offspring to leave on their own or using adverse environmental stimuli (e.g. lights, blaring music, noxious smells) to create an unpleasant atmosphere. In some cases, one-way trap doors can be used to allow an animal to leave a space where he or she is unwanted, while not allowing reentry. Regardless of the non-lethal strategy used, it is important to remember that there may be baby animals involved, so it is critical to avoid separating a mother from her young.

Lasting Solutions
As our suburbs continue to spread, as we spend more time enjoying the outdoors, and as wildlife adapt to living amongst humans, conflicts between wildlife and humans will continue to escalate. Whether the issue is field mice in our cupboards, beaver dams flooding our yards, coyotes strolling our streets, deer eating our gardens, black bears entering residential neighborhoods, or geese defiling our favorite golf course, we can learn how to live with these species humanely using education, common sense, ingenuity and some useful tools. First, we must change our attitudes about wildlife and become more tolerant of wildlife in our midst. We tend to fear what we do not know. Many people are not often around wildlife and are therefore scared when they see a deer or a coyote in their backyard. It is appropriate to fear wild animals since they are unpredictable. However, that fear must be balanced, sensible and tempered with the knowledge that most wild animals are more fearful of humans than we are of them.

A coyote in your neighborhood does not mean your pets or children will be attacked. Such a conflict can be resolved by making your yard coyote-proof or accompanying your pets outside at dusk and dawn, as well as simply chasing the animals away. Feeding your dog outdoors may be common practice in the city, with leftovers providing nourishment to backyard squirrels. But in the suburbs, a coyote, fox, raccoon, opossum, skunk or bear could be attracted to such leftovers. In the city, open garbage containers may be inviting to birds and rats, while in bear country, bear-proof garbage receptacles are essential to reduce the attractiveness of an area to these curious and hungry animals. It is important to analyze the conditions of your particular habitat when taking steps to avoid wildlife conflicts.

When living or enjoying recreational activities in wildlife habitat, it must be remembered that wildlife are not invading our homes, but rather, we are guests in theirs. As a consequence, our values and expectations must be altered to recognize that wildlife conflicts are possible and are a cost of living or enjoying outdoor activities. However, they can be humanely prevented or eliminated. If you are experiencing conflicts with wildlife or live in areas where wildlife-human problems are likely, there are several fundamental strategies to reducing them:

  1. Keep trash in animal-proof containers with tight lids, and store such containers in a secure location until trash pick-up day or until the contents can be disposed of;
  2. Eliminate all other potential wildlife attractants from your yard by cleaning or storing barbecues in a secure building after each use, feeding your companion animals indoors, temporarily or permanently removing squirrel or bird feeders, and storing all food products indoors;
  3. Do not feed wildlife by offering food to wild creatures in your yard just because they look hungry or are cute; and
  4. Enjoy wildlife from a safe distance and never closely approach, touch or play with a wild animal.

For small animals, there is virtually never a situation that requires an animal to be killed in order to resolve a wildlife-human conflict. There are, however, instances when bears, lions, coyotes or other potentially dangerous species need to be trapped and relocated or euthanized to protect public safety. Every homeowner, however, can help reduce the need for such lethal control by making their homes less attractive to wildlife and learning what to do if he or she sees these species in the wild. For each animal, there are techniques, tools and products that can reduce, prevent or eliminate conflicts. Some work better than others and some may require labor, trial and error and patience. Yet by providing humane solutions, your family and property will be protected while you peacefully coexist with your wild neighbors.

For More Information
There is an abundance of information on how to coexist with wildlife and how to humanely address a particular wildlife conflict. Sources include your local library or humane society, your state's wildlife agency and the internet. To learn more about addressing specific wildlife-human conflicts, visit www.wildlifehotline.org, a website developed by animal protection advocates that provides non-lethal and humane solutions to wildlife conflicts. For information specific to resolving predator-human conflicts, visit the Living With Wildlife Foundation website at www.lwwf.org.

Innovative Tools
Many wildlife-human conflicts are unintentional. For example, homeowners who enjoy the benefits of pools and hot tubs must sometimes remove dead frogs, mice, turtles and other animals from their pools. It is estimated that more than 100 million small animals die in pools and hot tubs each year. Rich Mason, a wildlife biologist in has developed the Froglog - a device that reduces this mortality by providing animals who have fallen into pools and hot tubs a chance to escape. For more information about the Froglog or to order some for your pool, please visit www.froglog.us.

The Coyote-Roller, a device that attaches to the top of a fence and rolls when an animal attempts to use the top fence rail to access a yard, provides an effective coyote deterrent and also keeps dogs and cats from escaping from yards. More information about the Coyote-Roller can be found at www.coyoteroller.com. Additional humane products for resolving wildlife-human conflicts can be found on the internet. Please note that many companies sell both lethal and non-lethal control products, so it is best to think humanely and buy from those who sell only non-lethal products.

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