Nuisance and Hysteria

Human ignorance often inflames wildlife conflicts

If you're a critter, you'd best steer clear of Varmint Al. Hailing from Bethel Island, Calif., the self-proclaimed "coyote hunter" runs a website crammed with pictures of the snarling creatures and spiced by lurid accounts of these wild but often urban-dwelling canines attacking humans.

"A New Brunswick woman who wrestled with a coyote Wednesday was still shaken hours afterwards but managed to walk away needing only a tetanus shot and a bandage," Al reports.

In another incident, Al reports: "Coyote Drags Toddler from Front Yard ... 3rd incident in 5 days." Finally, Al notes that a coyote killed a 19-year-old Canadian singer named Taylor Mitchell.

Yes, these unfortunate and sometimes tragic incidents do occur—but not very often. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, there have only been around 150 coyote attacks on humans in Canada and the United States over the last 50 years—and in 42 of those incidents, people were feeding the coyotes when they were bitten.

Meanwhile, Al somehow fails to mention that attacks by domestic dogs vastly outnumber those by their coyote cousins—to the tune of nearly 5 million each year.

Varmint Al didn't respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

But experts say such attitudes cut far beyond ranting attention-seekers. Instead, they contend that our increasingly urbanized society has become isolated from the natural world, and therefore, many people view wild animals in our midst as dangerous invaders—even as urban sprawl increasingly leaves those creatures little choice. (See "Damage Control," Nov. 25.)

"There is a huge disconnect between people and wildlife," says Laura Simon, field director of urban wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States. "But people and wildlife have never lived in closer quarters than they do now."

Simon runs a nationwide hotline that helps defuse volatile situations that can result. The Humane Society also offers tips on its website for dealing with wildlife conflicts, ranging from a how-to guide for snake-proofing your home—one-way "snake doors" are invaluable—to advice on clogging the holes of skunks who've settled in your yard with straw or loose leaves.

But most important, says Simon, is to simply understand why wildlife ends up on your property in the first place, and how to react sanely when it does. "The total lack of understanding between people and wildlife creates real and perceived conflicts everywhere. It's so unfortunate, because it really stems from a lack of familiarity. That leads to fear, and to people doing things to wildlife that are really unnecessary and appalling."

Of course, there are plenty of people, such as Varmint Al, who are eager to fan those fears, while encounters with "vicious" wildlife can be irresistible fodder for local TV news crews. Consider what recently happened in midtown's Sam Hughes Neighborhood, where residents spotted packs of grunting javelina in backyards and along sidewalks.

"My dog and I were attacked by 3 of these javelina Nov. 30," wrote one woman on the comment section. "I called 911 and they refused to respond to the call. My screams brought the neighbors and with the help of one, we were able to escape out his back yard into the alley."

According to biologists, javelina are prey animals that don't distinguish between domestic dogs and wild predators such as coyotes. Hence, the "attack" was more likely a defense tactic.

The task of calming ruffled residents often falls to Locana de Souza. As an urban wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, she's part wildlife biologist and part over-the-phone crisis counselor. She penned a small advice section for the Sam Hughes website and constantly fields calls from across Tucson. She describes her work as "mainly an effort to educate people, to empower them to help themselves."

That includes advising people to remove obvious "attractants" such as pet food, birdseed blocks or pumpkins, and to install barriers that restrict animals from a yard or home. What it doesn't mean is dashing for the phone to demand that every wild creature be immediately removed.

"I ask people, 'Do you feed your birds?'" de Souza says. "'Do you feed your pets outside?' (I ask) those kinds of questions to find out what might be attracting wildlife onto their property."

Consider javelina. "They love birdseed and the quail blocks that people put out," she says. "So we encourage people to use feeders to feed up above the ground, and using a tray to catch the spillover seed."

Leftover birdseed also attracts rodents, which in turn lures snakes. "It just goes on up the food chain," de Souza says. "You have to step back and look at the big picture: Whenever you attract prey species, you're going to attract predators as well."

Draw them often enough, and the animals will start to dismiss you as little more than a two-legged nuisance. While wildlife such as javelina, coyotes and bobcats can become habituated to humans—making them tougher to chase off—that doesn't necessarily mean they've suddenly turned extra-dangerous. And it does lead to perhaps the most important wildlife-conflict tip of all: Take a deep breath, and chill out.

Locana de Souza says callers to Game and Fish routinely describe animals they encounter as "vicious," when the term hardly ever applies. "What you see a lot of times with animals is indifference—a tolerance of human presence. It doesn't translate into aggression."

She patiently explains this day-in, day-out. "Typically, when people call, they've already reached their own solution" to an animal problem, she says. "And their solution is, 'I want it out of my space.' Invariably, they want to have the Game and Fish Department come out and remove that offending animal. In the past, the department did a lot of that.

"But we did some studies and realized that it wasn't a long-term solution for the people or for the animals. From a people perspective, a lot of times, the animals are just going to return. It would be like taking you and dumping you in China with no cell phone and no credit card. You don't know the language. It's completely foreign. For animals, there's obviously a very strong urge to return to their home range."

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