Wildlife Moving Into the Suburbs

By<a href="mailto:dean.schabner@abc.com">Dean Schabner</a>

Jan. 26, 2004 -- When a Greenwich, Conn., mother of three heard about the new neighbors, her first reaction was that there was no way they were going to get along and she was going to do whatever it took to drive them out.

When the woman, who asked that her name not be used, called around to get help ridding her neighborhood of the unwanted new arrivals, though, she was advised to be a little tolerant and try to get along.

She did just that, and what she found was that the new family was a wonderful addition. That was something she didn't expect, because the new family was … a red fox and her kits.

From Connecticut to California, suburbanites and even urban dwellers are more and more often finding themselves living alongside wildlife. It's not just familiar nuisances such as deer and Canada geese, but small predators like coyotes and fox, and in some places such large animals as bear and moose.

For the Connecticut mother, what started as a cause for concern turned into a learning experience. She and her children loved watching the babies play as they grew up, and once they had, they all left as quickly as they had come, abandoning the den they'd built under the shed in her backyard.

"We'd never seen a fox and at first we were a bit frightened because we have three little kids," she said. "They didn't bother us at all. It was kind of neat to have the kids see them grow up, but I don't want them back."

But she and others like her may not have a choice in the matter. Indications are there are likely to be more fox — and other wildlife — in her neighborhood rather than less.

A Nuisance Factor … Mostly

Experts say the trend is due to a combination of factors.

For one thing, the human population is spreading out into areas where wildlife already lives. For another, habitats are being destroyed by logging, mining or other human activities, forcing animals to seek out new homes. In addition, towns and cities, by creating new parks and cleaning up old ones, are making attractive habitats for the more adaptive species that don't need large ranges.

"I think that this kind of interaction is going to increase as people expand into their habitat and as their habitat is destroyed," University of Southern California Professor Jennifer Wolch said.

There are no nationwide statistics on the number of incidents involving suburbanites or urban dwellers and animals like coyote and fox, but the anecdotal evidence that the number is increasing is very strong, wildlife experts say. For example, the number of calls the Fund for Animals' wildlife hotline has received increased from about 1,500 in 1996 to 5,000 last year, FFA urban wildlife program director Laura Simon said.

And while the suburban coyote population may not match the hundreds of thousands of whitetail deer that now live in suburban and urban areas, their comeback has been dramatic. Fifty years ago they have been virtually wiped out east of the Mississippi River, but now have been reported in large numbers in every state.

That interaction between humans and animals can be more than a nuisance. A stark reminder of the dangers were the recent mountain lion attacks in a wilderness park outside Los Angeles that left one man dead and a woman critically injured.

But animal experts say such attacks are a horrible aberration. For the most part, even predators such as bear pose little threat to humans, and smaller hunters like coyote and fox should be no problem at all if people take a few precautions, wildlife experts say.

(To read about how to deal with wildlife, click here.)

In fact, experts say most of the problems are really only ones of perception. John Hadidian, urban wildlife program director of the Humane Society of the United States explains "perceived problems" arise when people with little or no experience with wild animals think a fox or bear is in their backyard is there to eat them, when really it is just passing through.

And when there is an actual problem, whether it is a small household pet becoming food for wildlife or the mess created by a coyote raiding the garbage can, it most likely could have been avoided if people would take the trouble to understand the animals and to discourage wildlife from seeing them as sources of food, Hadidian and other wildlife management specialists say.

"In order to have greater coexistence, more peaceable coexistence, people need to learn more about the animals who they're going to be sharing space with and be willing to assume a higher level of risk and responsibility than most urban dwellers are used to dealing with," Wolch said.

"People want to be close to nature, but they want to be close to their image of nature," she added.

Animal Adaptation

One thing in common among the animals showing up in suburban and urban setting is that they are extremely opportunistic and adaptive in both their lifestyle and their eating habits.

For evidence of just how adaptive some wildlife can be, consider this: on more than one occasion, coyote have been found in the heart of one of the densest urban centers in the world — New York City's Central Park.

"That animal [the coyote] does a great job of taking advantage of the human landscape," said David Drake, a wildlife specialist at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. "They'll eat your garbage, they'll eat grubs in your lawn, they'll eat rodents and they'll eat your cat."

The coyote's natural range is not restricted to the West. Like the fox, the coyote is found naturally in every state in the continental United States — and Hadidian said there's no reason to see them or any other animal as being out of place when they show up in your backyard, no matter where you live.

Making Themselves at Home

Also very adaptive in terms of what what they will eat are black bears.

And seeing them showing up in places like New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, should not really be a surprise, wildlife experts say. After all, they were once were plentiful virtually everywhere in the United States except the Great Plains.

"Animals almost by definition cannot be out of their habitat if they can find food and shelter and raise their young," Drake said. "If you asked a bear in your backyard, if he could answer you he'd say, 'No, I'm not out of my habitat.'"

For example, both Los Angeles and Phoenix have more coyotes inside the city limits than they know what to do with, he said. And other cities around the country are trying to learn to live with the animals.

Tom Stanley, the natural resources director of Cleveland, Ohio, Metroparks, a 20,000 acre park district around the city, said they have had coyotes in virtually every area they oversee, and while there have been some reports of conflicts, most turn out to be "concerns about conflicts."

That is not always the case, but wildlife management experts say the best answer when problems do develop is usually not to kill the animal.

Most problems are easy enough to resolve either by taking preventive measures or no longer doing things that encourage unwelcome wildlife into your yard, they say. In most cases, without such measures, just getting rid of the offending animal won't guarantee the problem won't come back in the skin of another.

Because killing or relocating one animal likely only opens a range for a new animal to move in, what has been found to be more effective is taking steps to change behaviors — of both animals and humans.

Make Room for Bears

Mammoth Lakes, Calif., is evidence of how effective altering behavior can be, wildlife experts say.

Several years ago, black bears were all over town, raiding garbage cans, breaking into homes and cars and generally making a scary nuisance of themselves.

But instead of relocating or killing the problem bears, the town adopted a program to "train" the bears and the humans to live together.

The city began by replacing all the dumpsters with bear-proof garbage bins and taught residents how to make their homes and cars less inviting to bears.

At the same time, police were armed with guns loaded with rubber bullets and were given pepper spray and noise makers to scare or discipline bears at the time they were doing something wrong.

"The option of trying to instill in them through humane means some boundaries about where they can and cannot go and what they can and cannot do is really to be admired," Wolch said. "The animals we're talking about are really smart."

The result of the program, developed by Steve Searles, a 20-year resident of the town and now the wildlife management officer, has been that some 30 bears and the human residents of Mammoth Lakes have learned to coexist, Hadidian said.

A similar strategy, on a smaller scale, worked in Bethany, Conn., for Vicki Crocco, when a family of fox turned up in her back yard three years ago.

She had already lost two cats to coyotes, but she says she still loves wildlife. She didn't want to get rid of the foxes, but she was a little concerned about how they and her own family would get along.

She took advice she got from Laura Simon at the Fund for Animals, not to encourage them to befriend her or her family. When one of the adults started getting bold enough to come up on their deck, right to the sliding door into the house, the Croccos scared it off, but didn't try to drive the family away.

The adult pair have stayed in the Croccos' yard and raised three litters from their den under a downed tree and she calls them her "pride and joy."

"Some summer afternoon I'll be sitting outside watching my kids ride their bicycles in my driveway, and the mom fox is over there watching her pups, and you know what, she's got one eye on us and I've got one eye on her and her pups," Crocco said. "We can live together in the yard and get along fine."

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