“We should have respect for animals because it makes better human beings of us all.” Jane Goodall
A few animals such as rats, feral dogs and cockroaches have lived around humans since they first gathered into permanent settlements thousands of years ago. Until little more than fifty years ago, these animals were viewed as nothing more than unavoidable pests. Even in the early 20th century, they were ignored by wildlife researchers because they were something less than ‘real’ wild animals. For unclear reasons, during the ‘60s and ‘70s, public attitudes towards wild animals and their environments began to alter. It would be interesting to study the roots of this societal change but, whatever they were, the results were revolutionary. Attitudes towards animals such as wolves, bald eagles and killer whales moved from extermination to conservation and even re-introduction.
Around this time, the increasing tolerance and respect for wildlife coincided with an amazing increase in the diversity of wild animals that started to move into urban areas. This is a worldwide phenomenon and is certainly not limited to N America. The types of animals involved will vary widely depending on city environments and the lifestyles of local animals but the colonization of cities by previously non-urban ‘wild’ animals is found everywhere. In North America, the common colonists include raccoons, skunks, coyotes, black bears, foxes, deer, beavers and a number of raptors, including peregrines and even bald eagles. However, the full list is surprisingly long and ranges from polar bears in the suburbs of Churchill down to alligators on Florida’s golf courses with many other species in between.
As numbers have increased, interactions between urban wildlife and humans become inevitable. In fact, since more than half of N Americans now live in cities, their opinions concerning wild animals are likely strongly influenced by the wildlife they meet in towns. While there has been a huge change in attitudes towards the rights of animals, ranging from lethal control measures to their commercial display in zoos, for a variety of reasons, that tolerance is selective. When it comes to managing the adverse effects of urban wildlife, there is probably more sympathy for Canada geese and deer than there is for rats and coyotes.
Although there are now university courses on urban wildlife, the subject is still a small niche topic. The available research literature is small and also biased towards the disadvantages of urban animals rather than emphasizing any possible benefits. Adverse events such as road traffic accidents associated with deer or property damage from badgers digging setts, can be counted and quantified but how are they balanced against the intangible advantages gained from observing wild animals going about their lives in the middle of a city? There are now twenty active bald eagle nests in Vancouver. Watching a pair raise their chicks has no daily dollar value but it is far from worthless. Many urban animals have measurable value as predators of insect pests. For example, some Italian cities now encourage bat roosts in order to control the invasive tiger mosquito.
Fatalities and serious injury from human-wildlife conflicts can occur but they are fortunately very rare. In an era of avian influenza and COVID 19 epidemics, a much greater societal concern is the risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases from urban animals to humans. This is a complex problem that certainly requires careful research and monitoring. The common belief that coyotes and foxes are major predators of domestic pets is not supported by research in Europe or the USA. On average, 5% or less of coyote scat consists of cat remains. In fact, cats cause far more environmental damage than coyotes and foxes. Environment and Climate Change Canada estimates that domestic cats kill between 100 and 350 million birds each year across Canada. Both problems could be solved by keeping cats indoors at night.
The interactions between human pets and wildlife is a large subject on its own but the impacts of domestic dogs should be mentioned. It is certain that most animal lovers have had the horrible experience of having to watch as unleashed dogs chase a flock of resting birds. “They are just having fun” is the usual response from oblivious owners. In truth, only one of them is having fun, the rest are running for their lives. Even if they aren’t killed or injured, the effects of constant harassment have serious effects on the birds. A large body of wildlife research, from numerous countries, has confirmed that unleashed dogs have a significant effect on the survival of birds, particularly in the seasons when they are breeding, nesting and migrating. Australian research has shown that a single attack on a colony of shorebirds can result in the whole group abandoning their nests.
Since bald eagles have joined the urban migration, they are now a common sight along local shores – particularly Spanish Banks, Jericho and Wreck Beach. At low tide, it is common to see unleashed dogs chasing Eagles who are simply searching for food and a bit of peace. They are especially vulnerable around April-August when they are trying to feed themselves along with one or two hungry chicks. There are many tens of millions of dogs and cats across North America. Such numbers of predatory animals have a huge cumulative effect on wild animals. It is not unreasonable to expect owners to consider the safety of wild birds as an important aspect of pet ownership.
While current approaches to the management of urban wildlife have little or no scientific foundation, they are at least formed within a more enlightened set of beliefs concerning the environment and animal welfare. Urban wildlife policies are often uncoordinated, even within a single city, but they are far more benign and inclusive than was considered normal only a few decades ago. As a good example, many American cities have changed their policies concerning coyotes. With the exception of aggressive animals, they accept that trapping and either moving or destroying coyotes is a futile exercise since other coyotes soon take over those vacant territories. They rely instead on education aimed at making sure the animals are not approached or fed.
Another example is the shift in attitude towards the use of rodenticides. Second generation rodenticides act slowly so giving time for their effects to be magnified as poisoned rats are consumed by predators. The result is particularly severe on owls and other raptors amongst whom poisoning is now a common cause of mortality. As recently as September 2020, the sale and use of second generation rodenticides was banned throughout the State of California. Alternatives such as traps, improved sanitation and rat exclusion measures are effective and far safer for other animals.
If humans are to live peacefully with the growing population of urban wildlife, the issue needs serious political attention. The main requirements are:
- Serious research targeted at understanding local human-wildlife concerns is a fundamental foundation that must inform all planning and decision making. It should be funded sustainably within the city budget as an essential element of city management.
- There needs to be a single urban wildlife unit that is tasked with coordinating the varied agencies involved in managing urban wildlife conflicts. They should develop clear policies to address the most pressing issues.
- Success ultimately requires an informed population so public education is a vital element in ensuring peaceful coexistence between humans and their wild neighbours.
If you discover an injured animal, the following will provide expert assistance:
- Eagles, birds of prey: Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation 604 946 3171
- Other birds: Wildlife Rescue Association, 604 526 7275
- Injured mammals: Critter Care, 604 530 2064
Dr Michael Seear,
Director, Hancock Wildlife Foundation.
The views expressed are mine and don’t necessarily represent the opinions of the KPRA.
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