(Originally Posted in March 2018, reposted as a prelude to a talk on wildlife conflict at the Mission Blue Nursery in Brisbane, CA on November 3rd at 11am)
Conflicts between people and wildlife are in that space between what someone needs from her or his habitat and what wild animals need from the habitat they share with us. People share resources with other species whether we like it or not. From our gut flora to the mites in our eyebrows, our very bodies support micro ecosystems (see “Life on Us” for an amazing and wildly gross cinematic experience about what lives in and on your body). Is it any wonder that cities like San Francisco, rich in human food and garbage sources, support lots of other animals, too?
Across North America, and even in my urban neighborhood near the SF Bay, many animals are sharing this habitat with me (e.g. seagulls, nighthawks, peregrine falcons, pigeons, honey bees, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and possums to name just a few I've seen) and doing what comes naturally to them. For example, they are finding food and eating it, finding a safe den and having kids there, resting where predators can’t catch them, etc. Sometimes that something-to-eat could be your roses, or your garbage, or an unlucky pet. That den might be under your house or in your attic. And, that safe resting roost may be on the awning over a sidewalk cafe. Wildlife conflicts such as these range from small inconveniences to real health hazards.
How do we find the patience to resolve conflicts with other animal species? Must they always lose their conflicts with us, or is there room for compromise? Tolerance? I think we find more tolerance in the company of empathy, and for empathy it is not what you know but who you know. An animal, too, can be a “who” if you are willing to spend the time to get to know them. Wildlife ecologists know this because we spend our lives watching wild creatures, observing everything about them to learn how they behave and make a living in their environment.
Did you know that if you just look at our close primates relatives for a period of time you can learn to see individual differences in their faces and bearing? It’s like meeting a group of strange humans, right? For a while you can’t tell people apart then you remember their names from when you met them before or think of some association with what they said or did. That’s true of a lot of animals, too. Just ask the scientists who study them: each individual has a history, habits, relatives, and markings that set them apart from others to the careful observer. Take a look at Joe Hutto’s amazing work with mule deer (Touching the Wild) and wild turkeys (My life as a Turkey) if you need evidence of personality and the possibility of empathy for individual animals.
Here’s an example of my empathy for wild creatures. In last week’s blog (The Secret of Happiness) I spoke of Charlotte the golden orb web weaver that lived on my front porch, who I named for E.B. White’s heroine in the book Charlotte’s Web (here is a link for the kindle addition). I could not tell my Charlotte apart from her conspecifics (i.e., other members of the same species) except by her presence in her web every day and her size (big as my hand). I included a photo of her below.
I was a PhD student in wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, studying bees, but I had long been a student of nature before getting to Florida. Before Charlotte moved onto my Florida porch I had seen her species (Nephila clavipes) in the forests of northern Argentina. I knew that her kind was a tasty snack for birds and foraging capuchin monkeys there, and that their golden webs could be three feet across and strong enough to hang up the forward motion of a monkey-chasing person for an instant before breaking! I was chasing monkeys to get them used to note-taking field assistants like me in a process called habituation for a research study. On my porch, I similarly habituated myself to Charlotte. Her mate (also in the photo) is a little less than an inch in size, making Charlotte a relative giant. My attitude toward this spider was a bit unusual, but I embraced tolerance of her and her many, many spiderlings that hatched in late summer. When she disappeared from her web one day (probably in the beak of a hungry bird fattening up for winter), l missed her presence there, but that’s life.
Not everyone has empathy for the crawly and spindly-legged (that has taken me years of observation and practice), or even the cute and fuzzy. Back in the 90’s when I worked in Missouri a woman called my office whose husband was terrified of large Polyphemus moths that may have been attracted to their porch light at night. These moths have up to a 5.5-inch wingspan and are quite fuzzy (i.e., pretty adorable, as far as insects go). Even though I reassured her that these moths don't even eat as adults so they were harmless to her husband (I don’t know of any flesh-eating moths that eat mammals anyway, but there is a moth in Madagascar that drinks tears). Still, this lady wanted to know what pesticide she needed to use to get rid of them. Spraying pesticides to get rid of harmless Polyphemus moths would have also killed a lot of beneficial or benign insects on their property and would have been very expensive, and so was not reasonable. Also, the caterpillars eat a number of tree leaf types that are common in the Ozarks, so she could not remove the food that was attracting them to her husband’s vicinity, as it was literally the leaves of the forest in which she lived that they eat. Simply turning off the porch light or getting a non moth-attractive bulb was what I recommended, and I hope that is what she did. Turning off the light was in the realm of the reasonable. Education for her husband about harmless, fuzzy moths might also have been beneficial, but I did not mention that to her.
People from certain religious and cultural traditions can be intolerant of competition for resources with other species. Look at our wolf populations in the US, for example. Even in this age of Anthropocene extinctions, some people just can’t find it in themselves to tolerate small populations of wolves out West or the red wolves in North Carolina …even when many of their natural prey animals populations have grown to the extent that they are hurting their habitats. Natural predators can change whole ecosystems for the better. This idea of wildlife intolerant human traditions was in a book a friend recommended by Daniel Quinn called, Ishmael. Ishmael is a story of a guy who answers a want ad and finds out the job is with a telepathic gorilla who teaches him about human behavior from the imagined perspective of one of our fellow, Earthbound species. Some human attitudes have led to great successes but also to great global tragedies like the extinction of our fellow species and loss of wild nature.
Let’s try to practice more patience and tolerance with each other, with our pets, with wildlife, and with our own selves. Empathy, tolerance, patience, and curiosity are what we need more of to handle wildlife (and human?) conflicts. Here are some examples of what tolerance in wildlife conflicts can look like:
· What if your cat kills wild birds or a wild coyote eats your cat? The American Bird Conservancy recommends to keeping your (new?) cat safely inside the house or risk losing it, too. Also, all the birds human-associated cats kill are another one of those Anthropocene tragedies.
· What if a wandering skunk passes under your open window at 4am, perhaps on its way to digging grubs out of your manicured lawn (nod to my home town and its skunk troubles)? Get up and shut your window, and consider growing more native and drought tolerant plants that are not plagued by the grubs that skunks love to eat.
· What if someone fed a black bear a sandwich and now his mom and siblings are in your backyard looking for free food handouts? This is a safety hazard for both you and the bears (for bears are strong and can open parked cars and patio doors once they learn the magic of our high-calorie foods). Call animal control or a wildlife professional and don’t feed them, ever. Forbearance for bears means watching them at a safe and respectful distance.
· What if you are afraid to be stung by a bee? People always ask me this because I worked with bees for my PhD. I have captured and handled a lot of bees, but I rarely get stung. This is because I'm careful of the pointy end, and because bees don't want to sting unless their lives or hives depend on it. If you are allergic to stings try to limit your exposure to bees and their favorite plants that they pollinate. If you are not allergic, don’t threaten the gentle bees as they go about their work on flowers. Their job is not to hurt you but to collect resources to feed their offspring or their sisters (typically, for honey bees) depending on what kind of bee you are looking at. Also, reduce perfume use if you plan to be in a meadow or garden. Don’t compete with flowers for bee attention by smelling like a flower.
· What if pigeons crap all over your car? Declare war on pigeons? No, of course not, many people seem to believe it is lucky to be pooped on by a bird. Count your blessing (it is only poo) and don’t park there anymore…the pigeons found that spot before you did. Or, park there and treat yourself to more frequent car washes. There is one on Van Ness that lets you ride in your car and watch the bubbles and brushes, so it is also entertaining for kids.
· What if deer eat your roses? Plant enough roses to withstand a bit of nibbling and diversify the plants in your garden with deer-resistant, native plants.
· And, If raccoons tip your garbage over? Secure your garbage in a raccoon-proof container, and prepare to try to outsmart them, the smartest of urban dwellers (aside from us...well, usually).
I hope this advice helps, and that you enjoyed the links. See you next week, and feel free to leave a comment below.