I went to a wonderful talk last week on “Wildlife Encounters” given by an employee for a state wildlife agency. His office is one that deals with “nuisance” animals. They include deer, bear, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, bats, snakes, and woodpeckers, as well as others. There are several reasons they become “nuisances” for human beings. They come into a yard, scare people, and harm or eat pets. They eat garden plants and landscaping. They hole up in attics and poop everywhere. They drill holes in homes to dig out insects. They run across roads and cause us to hit them with our cars. They cost us money in insurance claims and extermination fees.
But there is another way of looking at the issue. In most cases, it seems, we create the problem. Animals such as bears and raccoons would not normally want to come so close to houses and yards because they consider humans a threat. But they do so when we provide ready food sources, such as garbage piled in the yard or by the street. The speaker pointed out that almost all bear sightings near houses occur in the early spring, when bears are coming out of hibernation and hungry; they fall off in early summer, when natural food sources for bears are in ready supply. The most successful bear-avoidance strategy is removing garbage from open places, such as placing garbage outside on the morning it will be picked up rather than letting it sit there for days at a time.
Deer would not normally take the risk of spending time eating backyard gardens if they were not hungry because of overcrowding. In many places around the mid-Atlantic where I live, there are four or five times the number of deer per acre than the “carrying capacity” of the land will allow; that makes for a lot of hungry deer behaving in ways that are not natural to them (including eating backyard gardens and even eating baby birds in the nest). Overcrowding of deer leads to diseases that affect humans, such as Lyme Disease. [On a side note, because I’m also a grammar and punctuation freak, please note that it is simply “Lyme” Disease, no s or ‘s at the end!] The most successful means of treating the problem of deer overpopulation is hunting them, and unfortunately lots of well-meaning people actively oppose hunting or seek to over-regulate it.
I asked the speaker if his agency ever has a seat at the table in discussions of new housing developments, and of course the answer was no. Development is rampant in my area, swallowing up woods and pastures in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. We’re crowding wildlife into smaller and smaller wilderness areas and then considering them “nuisances” when they come onto our property. The speaker explained that, once an animal has become habituated to humans and human neighborhoods, there is no going back. Moving a “nuisance” bear to another part of the woods doesn’t work; studies of tagged bears show that such bears will continue to seek out humans and grow bolder and bolder about approaching homes, campsites, and cars. Thus the slogan “A fed bear is a dead bear.” State wildlife agencies, and the animal removal agencies with which they contract, generally no longer catch and release. A “nuisance” animal that is trapped will be euthanized. A very sad end to this particular story of the relationship between humans and nature.
What would happen if we started to see ourselves as “nuisance” humans? What if we thought a bit about the world from the point of view of wildlife and then acted accordingly: stopped putting pet food and garbage outside, considered deer movement flows and put up fencing accordingly to keep them out of our gardens, watched to see how squirrels and bats were getting into our attics and then simply filled those holes, drove a little more slowly and carefully during the deer rut, and so forth? What if we planned development a little more carefully, to decrease the amount of land fragmentation that resulted, or to allow some habitat to remain in large developments so that animals were less likely to come into our yards looking for food and shelter? What if we accepted well-planned hunting as a necessary solution to an unnatural problem? And what if we stopped letting our fears of animals get the best of us? As always with nature, how we perceive it affects how we act. The question is: can we change our perception?