Crossing Paths With Critters

By Randy Gaddo

“Wildlife” used to be a term associated with plains, prairies, and forests, but these days the great outdoors and critters who live there have inched their way into cities, or in many cases, the other way around.

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The 2010 census confirmed that nearly 81 percent of Americans live in urban centers, up from 79 percent in the 2000 census. As America becomes more urbanized, concurrent development slowly infringes on wildlife, forcing more human-animal contacts. This can be good, or it can be bad, depending how events unfold.

Bad examples are abundant:

  • Summer 2017—A woman in the city of Bayfield, Colo., calls wildlife officials to report her children being chased by a bear, which was later shot.

  • May 2016—Wildlife authorities capture a 7-foot alligator in the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta, Ga., and two other alligators are spotted nearby.

  • March 2018—In Westchester County, N.Y., police shoot and kill a coyote after several attacks.

  • May 2018—A 32-year-old man is killed by a cougar while biking in the foothills near North Bend, Wash. Another male biker is injured, and the cougar is found and euthanized later that day.

The stories go on and on.

Empower Maintenance Staff Members
When parks are maintained for people to enjoy, the areas also become inviting for animals. In most cases, this co-existence is intentional; after all, it isn’t really a walk in the park if you don’t see some squirrels, rabbits, or deer. However, the critters aren’t necessarily fluffy bunnies or bushy-tailed squirrels. These days, critters have fangs and claws.

Maintaining these environments so both humans and other animals can co-exist without injury to either species becomes an exercise in risk-management.

“Risk is increasingly being recognized as important in park maintenance and takes two general forms—immediate response to certain situations as they arise, and long-term mediation through educational outreach,” says John Hadidian, who was the Director of the Urban Wildlife Program for the Humane Society of America from 1995 until he retired in 2016. From 1985 to 1995, he was Regional Wildlife Biologist for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service. Suffice to say he has had more than his fair share of human-wildlife encounters.

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“Black bears in picnic areas are a good example of where an immediate response by trained personnel is needed to deal with the presence of a large and potentially dangerous animal, as well as a long-term commitment to public education,” he explains.

Oftentimes, maintenance staff may be the first public servants on the scene of a human-animal conflict, whether it’s a squirrel acting erratically or a hungry-looking panther sitting on a tree limb in the city park. So training should extend to maintenance staff as well. They may not need to know how to wrangle an alligator, but they should at least know whom to call and how to handle the situation until trained staff arrives. It is part of a larger effort Hadidian calls “professionalism in wildlife conflict resolution.

“This area is increasingly being recognized as one that requires special training and skill sets not unlike those employed by professionals in conflict resolution between different human groups,” he says. “Wildlife conflicts are often less about human-wildlife relationships than they are about human-human relationships over wildlife,” he adds, again emphasizing that it is park management that needs to be communicating the potential risk to park users.

Point The Way
One of the most effective ways of mitigating risk by communicating information in parks is signage; to be effective, signage must be worded clearly and carefully, placed strategically in an area where it is easily viewable, and it must be well-maintained. This ultimately falls to the parks crews that generally install them, see the signs every day, and are responsible for their upkeep.

“One of the best forms of communication in parks is signs,” Hadidian says, further explaining that there are various types of signage. “There is passive signage, such as that found in nature centers or parks headquarters, where the information is presented and people who are interested will come in seeking that information.” This type of signage is often longer and more detailed because people deliberately come in looking for information.

Another common type of signage conveys a message to people who are using outdoor recreational amenities but who are not necessarily looking for specific information. These signs will use fewer words but will convey important, risk-oriented information designed to either mitigate a potential risk or react to a specific threat, such as, “Do Not Feed The _________,” filling in the blank with “Bears” or “Geese” or “Coyotes,” or whatever the critter-de-jour happens to be.

Another example, Hadidian suggests, is a hiking trail that transits an area where bears may be present; then a sign would be worded to alert hikers to that potential and possibly suggest things that hikers should and shouldn’t do.

“But if a bear is sighted, then a sign more specifically defining that should be put up, and in some cases a park ranger or other staff member may be posted by the sign to warn people and emphasize the importance,” Hadidian says. He emphasizes that the success of good signage is contingent upon development and training of professional staff, such as rangers, interpreters, or maintenance crews.

Discouraging Critters From Hanging Around
If animals are prevalent in a park setting, they can be made to feel uncomfortable there, which Hadidian summarily refers to as “hazing” methods, performed by staff members who are trained and practiced in their use. “These methods can include rangers with bear spray, using rubber buckshot in shotguns, or employing dogs that are trained to chase bears,” he says. Bear spray is an aerosol bear deterrent, similar to pepper spray, that can spray 25 feet or more to deter aggressive or charging bears. Rubber buckshot can get the animal’s attention but not hurt it. Dogs are trained to herd the animal out of the danger zone.

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Signage can inform people, but there are other means of risk-management that parks crews can employ, all of which require ongoing maintenance.

These include:

  • Animal-proof trash containers that require hands with opposable thumbs to open them (i.e., human hands—though you may want to be cautious if you have monkeys in the park).

  • “Beaver deceivers,” which are trapezoidal fences built at points where beavers are damming but shouldn’t, such as road crossings or other drainage areas. The fences are part of a family of equipment called “flow devices.”

  • Bird netting, which keeps birds from using structures to loaf on or build nests on, which is often a problem with park buildings and other structures.

  • Bird wire, to keep birds off ledges or away from areas where their droppings are not welcome.

  • Various types of fencing to keep animals away from roads, parks, picnic areas, etc.

  • Tree-guard fencing, to keep beavers from chomping trees down or to keep deer away from eating the lower limbs.

Who Ya Gonna Call?
When it comes to a central point of contact where parks managers can call to get information on the best methods of critter control, Hadidian notes there really isn’t one as yet. “My thinking is that a lot of what parks managers are dealing with here is becoming more professionalized and academically it’s gelling into more of a practical field of inquiry, but it’s not a discipline as yet,” he says.

In some cases, there may be local animal-control service personnel who either have in-house expertise or know whom to call. If not, the best fallback is to call the local university-extension service, Hadidian suggests. “That would be the best first call to make,” he says. “They may not have resident experts, but they probably know where to find them.”

Hadidian notes that the rate of human-animal contact is increasing and is an area that will deserve more attention in the future. “It’s a foot race and sometimes we keep even, and sometimes we drop behind,” he says. “For example, with bears I think we are keeping up, but with alligators there’s still a learning curve. With humans, animals in parks are a curiosity, a novelty, and there’s going to be someone who wants to try and feed them. We need to convey to them that it might make a good photo op, but it is very dangerous and unpredictable and not advisable.”

Educate The Public
Feeding critters of any sort can be dangerous. While feeding a 600-pound bear is a no-brainer, feeding a Canada goose might not seem as dangerous.

“Being chased by a Canada goose is no laughing matter!” says Megan Draheim, Ph.D., with the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington, Va., and on the faculty of Virginia Tech. “Those birds are strong. However, when it comes to physical controls on animals, it really goes back to controlling people and making sure they’re behaving appropriately.”

Draheim uses coyotes as an example, animals in which she specializes. “It is very important not to let people feed them, as feeding can lead to a coyote displaying overly bold behavior and eventually might even become aggressive,” she stresses. “So, that again goes back to education and convincing people that it’s in their best interest and the best interest of the animal to not feed them or otherwise interact with them.”

She echoes Hadidian’s ideas about animal-proof garbage cans that serve the purpose of not letting wildlife become used to seeing humans as a food source.

Draheim emphasizes that there are no absolutes when it comes to wildlife-human interactions, so even with signage, barriers, education, and trained staff members, it is impossible to totally protect both people and animals. However, she says, “It’s important to create management plans that don’t condemn animals for displaying natural behavior. Going back to coyotes, a lot of conflict stems from letting dogs run off-leash in parks. Especially during certain times of the year, coyotes will see dogs as threats to their pups, and they’ll also see small dogs as prey.”

Humans and most forms of wildlife should generally not be given the opportunity to come into direct contact, as that can end badly for both. “Having said that, promoting people’s interest in and awareness of wildlife is a great idea,” says Draheim.

“I think effective outreach and education can be valuable here. Face-to-face programs are a great way to engage people, even if they are relatively informal by having staff or volunteers wandering around chatting with members of the public. Signage and other printed materials can also be useful if they are well-done and well-maintained.”

Use Community-Based Marketing
Education and outreach involve changing how people look at and think about wildlife and their behavior. That can be difficult to achieve; it’s not the easy way out of a problem, for sure—but can be valuable in managing human-wildlife interactions. For example, convincing people to not feed wildlife is a great way to reduce the risk of conflict, and should be part of any management plan. It’s important to gauge what messages work best with your target audience—it might be that people are most receptive to messages about protecting their own health, or perhaps they’re more receptive to messages about protecting the health of the wildlife.

“There is a lot of good literature out there on community-based social marketing, which I think is a highly effective way to create educational programs and develop strong materials, such as signs,” says Draheim. “An excellent introduction is the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing by Doug McKenzie-Mohr.

“The tricky part to this is that it involves researching what works best for your audience and in your situation,” Draheim says. “Resources such as the McKenzie-Mohr book do provide some tricks of the trade, but depending on how specific and tricky the issue you’re dealing with is, you might need to do some legwork to figure out what is going to work best.”

Maintaining urban forests involves a lot of planning and Hadidian suggests the following:

  • Have an effective, written park master plan, and be aware of all scenarios and possible options for dealing with critters.

  • Have a good sense of community interests and values.

  • Have a well-trained and prepared staff.

  • Have resources at hand.

  • Have an established relationship with local first responders, who will oftentimes be the ones dealing with animal-human issues in the field.

Parks are ultimately designed for human use, and wildlife has to adapt. “I guess what we try to convince park managers to do is not to do any harm, such as making proposals for creating more ballfields in an area where it would fragment a lot of natural habitats,” says Hadidian. “I’m not criticizing them for doing it. I know they have to meet the demands of their constituents. But in order to avoid eventual human-wildlife conflict, it is wise to take wildlife into consideration.”

In other words, where it concerns maintaining urban forests, be conscious of the critters in the park.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.