In Nara, Japan, sika deer are wandering the silent streets and subway platforms. London’s red foxes are enjoying the morning sun in quiet parks. Mountain goats in Llandudno, Wales, are munching their way through gardens and mowing down hedges. Black bears are lumbering through the streets of cities in North Carolina and California, Maine, and Maryland. Peacocks are perching on cars in Mumbai. Whales are gliding through the usually busy waters off Marseille.
Coyotes in Chicago and San Francisco. Mountain lions in Boulder. Boars in Bergamo, Italy. A pizza-eating groundhog in Philadelphia. Across the globe, animals — urban wildlife — are tentatively filling the vacuum left behind by humans staying home.
“It really does seem like the apocalypse when you have goats roaming in the streets,” Suzanne MacDonald, urban wildlife expert and psychologist at York University in Toronto, said with a laugh.
We’ve had only a few weeks to glimpse what the world would be like without us — or, perhaps more accurately, with us around less. Yet it’s striking to see how quickly things have changed. Some of the animal stories circulating on the Internet — the dolphins in the Venetian canal, the “drunk” elephants — are fake, but many of them aren’t. Nature is taking advantage of our absence.
“As soon as you remove us, the wildlife will come back, it doesn’t take long,” said MacDonald. “We are a really weird species in that we control all the other ones, just by our presence.”
What we’re generally seeing now, she said, are animals that are around us all the time but somewhat wary of us, so we rarely spot them. Raccoons, for example, now might be inclined to spend more time out during the day.
The same goes for coyotes, which live in most North American cities — including Boston and the suburbs — typically inhabiting green spaces and parks. “Even though coyotes are active day and night, in the city, they restrict their activity to nighttime to avoid us,” explained Stanley Gehrt, principal investigator of the Cook County Coyote Project and wildlife ecology professor at Ohio State University. But with our departure from shared spaces, he said, coyotes are more likely to come out during the day and explore areas that they normally would avoid, such as golf courses or cemeteries. “Space and time becomes much more accessible to them,” he said.
Urban animals are also benefiting from the relative decrease in car traffic. “For coyotes and any other terrestrial mammal, the biggest challenge is crossing roads and avoiding being hit by cars,” said Gehrt. With lower traffic volumes, many animals, including deer, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, and foxes, will expand their home ranges across roads. (And quite possibly, bears. Bears, Gehrt said, are just “large raccoons.” Very, very large raccoons.)
However, for all the animals that seem to be thriving in these weird times, there are other examples of urban wildlife that are not. Those deer in Nara, Japan, aren’t just visiting because they’re curious. The lockdown forced the closure of a nearby deer park, a tourist attraction where people could buy bags of rice crackers to feed the sika, some of which had been trained to “bow” on command. No humans, no snacks, so the deer are getting hungry. In some cities in Thailand, India, and Japan, populations of monkeys that had been dependent on the scraps left by — or stolen from — humans are starting to fight over the now scarce resources.
Closer to home, we are seeing more of the animals that rely on our refuse: After the closure of restaurants in New Orleans, for example, residents reported seeing swarms of rats in the streets, hunting for food. Shuttering hotels, public parks, tourist attractions, and other places rats typically find a ready supply of food forces these crafty survivalists toward other places humans inhabit. Like our houses. That could be dangerous, not least for the animals: The resilience and adaptability we admire in some creatures are precisely the qualities we despise in others.
Because we humans think of ourselves as separate from nature, when we find it on our urban doorsteps eating a slice of pizza, we’re by turns delighted, confused, and frightened. “You could probably argue that human habitation is a history of trying to keep nature away from us, trying to keep wild animals away or storms at bay,” said Susan Clayton, a chair of the Environmental Studies program at the College of Wooster in Ohio. And to some extent, then, stories of nature “bouncing back” without us feed the hope that maybe we haven’t screwed things up so completely. “It gives us a silver lining to think about, it lets us off the hook for feeling bad about unsustainable behaviors,” said Clayton.
The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that it carries the implication “that we only have the potential for a harmful relationship with nature, not a positive relationship,” and that the “natural” world would be better off without us, Clayton said. That keeps us from looking for ways to promote better relationships between us and the natural world.
The thing is, nature is everywhere, pushing through the cracks in our concrete and setting up homes in the most “unnatural” of places. Our temporary retreat from the spaces we hold in common will let other creatures spend more time there without being shooed away. And maybe that will dissolve the artificial division between “man” and “nature.” “As animals become less obscure, more obvious,” Gehrt said, “people become aware that there . . . [is] this whole balance of nature occurring right under their noses that they didn’t know was going on.”
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is a freelance writer in London.