When wild animals urbanize
Bobcats don’t like 24-hour talk radio. At least that’s what Prudi Koeninger of the Dallas-Fort Worth Wildlife Coalition told a woman who discovered a mother bobcat and her cubs living in their backyard.
“They are nocturnal, so I told her to flood the area with light and play something loud like 24-hour talk radio or rap music,” Koeninger says. “And sure enough, that mama and those babies were out by the next day.”
Dallas, dubbed “Bobcat City” by D magazine, is one of many cities trying to safely coexist with wildlife. From boars roaming Berlin and gangs of baboons in Cape Town to a mountain lion in the Hollywood Hills and coyotes in Chicago, the swelling ranks of new and eager urban dwellers include many wild animals. As the territorial boundaries between humans and animals begin to overlap in cities, both sides are devising strategies for coexistence. And after decades of thinking about city life as distinct and apart from the natural world, we’re again starting to view the two as intertwined.
“Cities are possibly the most exciting, most surprising, and least understood ecosystems on the planet,” writes Tristan Donovan in his book “Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle.” “They are places where much of what we think we know about the natural world doesn’t apply. Places where our own love-hate relationship with wild animals flings open the door for the unexpected. Places that may even be changing the animals within it, just as the shift from country to city changed us.”
Animals are attracted to cities for familiar reasons, promise and opportunity. For one thing, cities are safer than life in the wild. “You don’t have hunting and trapping for fur in the cities,” says Stanley Gehrt who studies how wildlife adjusts to city life at Ohio State University. “They also benefit from the fact that there are fewer predators. Cities represent a refuge from the traditional forms of mortality.”
That safety leads to animals having more and more offspring that survive to adulthood.
Animals that transition successfully into urban environments vary in species and size, but all share characteristic traits: They’re adaptable, and they’re generalists. Foxes, snakes, birds, chickens, monkeys, cougars, and coyotes have all shown the ability to live in cities.
Successful new urbanites don’t have as many habitat or dietary limitations, and therefore can find both of those things in a variety of landscapes. Cities also provide exponentially more food and waste from humans. So whether an animal is interested in the trash itself, or the rodents that eat it, both exist in greater quantities in cities.
The biggest challenge animals face, Gehrt says, is streets — something they are quickly learning to master. “Raccoon Nation,” a PBS documentary, shows how raccoons use streetlights to teach their young how to cross roads. When Gehrt was studying the ecology of coyotes in Chicago, he observed coyotes using their ears to forage for rodents next to bustling streets. “It is unbelievable, but they are still able to do their work and cancel out the other noise,” Gehrt says.
Raccoons have gained notoriety for how well they conformed to city life. Gehrt says they were easily able to adapt to human food and learn to find it in trashcans. And because there is so much trash in cities, they often stay within smaller geographic areas than they would in a forest. According to Gehrt’s research, once a raccoon finds a trash can, it rarely travels beyond it. The saturation of food also leads raccoons to be less territorial than they would in rural areas.
In New England, a wildlife restoration project brought back turkeys, an animal that was wiped out of the region in the late 1800s. But turkeys tend to lack the subtlety of other city-dwelling animals and often destroy gardens, damage cars, chase pets, and attack people. In the past 12 months, Boston city officials received 108 complaints to the 311 line from residents about turkeys in their neighborhoods.
Experts say the turkey’s extreme territorialism, especially in males, programs them to assert their dominance — whether over another turkey or a human. This result is aggressive behavior, which, in five cases, resulted in the police shooting them.
Coexistence with raccoons and turkeys seems manageable — they are both small and have diets that mainly consist of trash or plants. But what if the animal in your backyard could eat your cat?
As the north Dallas suburbs expand into the grasslands which bobcats used to inhabit, sightings of the felines have become frequent. Last July, a Richardson, Texas, man watched as a bobcat launched itself over his 6-foot fence and snatched his dog Dixie Belle. In October of 2016, a Plano man was driven to the emergency room after saving his dog from a hungry bobcat that was circling his house.
“A bobcat has been aware of you and been watching you for much longer than you have been watching it,” Koeninger says.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Wildlife Coalition published guidelines alerting residents to how to identify and coexist with bobcats and why shooting or relocating the animal isn’t a feasible solution. Neither corrects the imbalance, and killing results in strong or smarter bobcats moving into the area. Residents may think relocation is a more humane solution, but ultimately this doesn’t solve the problem. A bobcat family placed in a new location will have to choose between survival of the adults or the cubs. “How would you like [it],” Koeninger asks, “if someone dropped you and your twins in the middle of the Amazon?”
Allowing an omnivore to roam your suburbs may seem counter to your safety, but as urban areas sprawl, experts and residents are undergoing what Gehrt calls a “revolution of thought.”
“We used to consider cities an inhospitable area for animals,” he says. “Now we see it quite a bit differently, and cities offer their own forms of habitat and refuge for wildlife species.”
Just last year, Koeninger received an email from a Plano, Texas, man saying his garden was being destroyed by rabbits. He was wondering where the bobcats had gone.
Aditi Shrikant is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn.