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Urban Wildlife: Live and Let Live

Published 06/15/05
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 36 Number 2, Summer 2005

Across the United States, humans and other animals seem caught in what is literally a vicious circle: As human population and urban sprawl increases, so do conflicts between people and wildlife.

When we destroy the habitat of wild animals, the animals will work hard to find ways to survive in the altered landscape. This sometimes means that wildlife and human life will come into conflict.

Too often, individuals and communities address such conflicts by killing animals — a practice known as “lethal control.” But not only is lethal control inhumane, causing great suffering for countless animals, it is often ineffective at solving the very problems it is meant to fix.

People often equate the frequency of human-wildlife interactions with abundance of wildlife. Such interactions, however, are not a reliable indicator of wildlife population status; rather, they reflect the variability of environmental conditions, such as the availability of food and shelter for the animal and the proximity of such resources to human dwellings.

This is one reason lethal control fails to solve problems in the long term. When animals are killed, they leave behind a habitat vacancy that new animals eventually fill — especially if access to food and shelter has not been eliminated.

Unfortunately, the desire for a “quick fix” or lack of knowledge about alternatives leads many homeowners and property managers to kill first and ask questions later.

Blood Money

Conflicts between humans and wildlife in urban settings have spawned a lucrative industry in so-called “nuisance wildlife control.” This industry is largely unregulated, with little accountability or even basic humane care and treatment standards.

Persons hired by private residents to deal with wildlife conflicts (commonly referred to as “Wildlife Control Operators” or WCOs) often rely on lethal control methods such as poisons, leg hold traps and snares. While many WCOs use live cage traps to capture animals initially, the animals will almost always be killed later. Methods of killing live-trapped wildlife range from the relatively quick gunshot to the head to the horrific drowning by submersion in a barrel of water or to the injection of paint thinner.

Fortunately, an increasing number of companies are offering humane non-lethal solutions to wildlife-related issues, and many humane solutions can be easily implemented by the homeowners themselves!

Steps to Peaceful Resolution

The first step to resolving wildlife conflicts is to determine if a problem truly exists.

In most cases, it is unlikely that the wildlife in the area is “overpopulated” in terms of its ability to remain in equilibrium with the food supply available in the area.

Animals are commonly viewed as “overpopulated” when the they threaten human life or livelihood, depress the densities of other species favored by humans, or are “too numerous for their own good” (such as when some animals are periodically in poor condition and undergo natural mortality, as through natural selection). None of these situations, however, represent an actual overpopulation of animals in a biological sense. Often there exists no biological overpopulation problem, but rather a human perception problem and land use conflict.

In addition, people often mistakenly assume that the mere presence of wild animals poses a significant public health hazard through the spread of disease or parasites. This is usually not the case, however. Where a health risk does exist, it is typically small and easily avoided with simple precautions, basic hygiene, and common sense — such as not handling or feeding wild animals, or washing hands before eating.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that lethal removal of animals will eliminate disease risks. Indeed, many lethal control efforts, such as the use of toxic poisons or indiscriminate traps, pose a much more significant risk to human health and safety than does wildlife.

Wild animals play critical roles in the ecosystems in which they live, and much of what humans perceive as “damage” caused by wildlife may actually be beneficial to the natural landscapes in an overall sense. For example, while most of the animals discussed in this article do eat plants, they also benefit plants by preying on insects, dispersing plant seeds through their feces and caches, aiding soil aeration and development through digging and burrowing, and cleaning the environment and recycling nutrients through scavenging.

But even the most benevolent homeowner can become irritated when the natural behavior of wildlife results in the destruction of property or in home invasions. Below are some simple ways to share space with wild neighbors.

In the Backyard

Landscape conflicts with wildlife are among the most difficult problem to address largely because much of the damage associated with is directly related to the fact that landscapes, by their very nature, often provide excellent habitat for wildlife thereby attracting the very animals that property managers and homeowners would like to discourage.

Homeowners and communities have many effective options for reducing conflicts with wildlife around the home and in landscape settings.

Habitat Modification: Because wild animals’ interest in an area is based largely the availability of food, landscaping can be altered to reduce the desirability of the area to wildlife and, therefore, to reduce the level of disturbance to plants.

  • Remove access to easy meals by securing garbage cans; fasten lids with rope, bungee cords or chains and tying handle to a stake driven into the ground.
  • Don’t leave dog or cat food outside.
  • Consider what you plant. Native plants are typically more tolerant of browsing by native herbivores. Selecting plants that produce less fruit and/or seeds that are particularly attractive squirrels, skunks, opossums, rats and mice may also aid in reducing food availability, thereby reducing your home and garden’s attractiveness to animals. A list of deer- and rabbit-resistant plants is available on line from the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/az1237.pdf.
  • Milky spore (available at most garden stores) contains a natural bacterium that gets rid of grubs in the yard, which skunks and raccoons are looking for when they dig.

Exclusion: It’s been said that good fences make good neighbors; this is true for living with nonhuman as well as human neighbors. One of the most effective ways to mitigate wildlife damage to landscaping is to exclude animals from the area via physical barriers.

  • Fence off garden areas; fencing should be buried at least six inches under the ground.
  • To exclude rabbits, fence in garden areas with one-inch wire mesh (“chicken wire”). Make sure it is at least three feet high and buried one foot below the ground.
  • Protect trees with commercial tree tape or by surrounding the tree base with wire mesh.

Repellents: Repellents include chemical substances, visual displays, and sonic and ultrasonic deterrent systems.

  • Examples of taste repellents that can be applied directly to plants include those made from denatonium benzoate; putrescent whole eggs, capsaicin, and garlic; castor oil and capsaicin; and Siberian pine needle oil (commercially-made sprays are also available).
  • Another way to deter lawn/garden digging is to spray hot pepper oil or bittering agent onto the lawn or digging area. Pesticide pump sprayers work well to spray inexpensive red pepper oil (found in Asian food markets).
  • The Scarecrow motion-detecting water sprayer operates on a 9-volt battery, attaches to a water hose, and scares away wildlife from your yard by spraying water at them. Available in most gardening stores or online from www.RealGoods.com.

Relocation: Under most circumstances, relocation of wildlife (illegal in many areas) is not recommended. Relocating animals may aid in the spread of disease. In addition, the relocated animals, unfamiliar with their new territory, may be unable to find food, water, and shelter and may make a treacherous attempt to return to their home territory. Relocated animals may inadvertently invade another animal’s territory, leading to displacement of that animal or death to the relocated “intruder.”

Under some circumstances, relocation may be appropriate, but the impacts on the animals themselves and the environment into which they would be released should be rigorously evaluated and proper permits obtained prior to any relocation effort.

Home Invasions

Wild animals are attracted to houses for two reasons: food and shelter. Removing attractants and blocking access are the keys to solving the problem.

Remove attractants:

  • Remove food sources by cleaning up all spilled food and by storing food in glass, metal, or plastic containers. Keep trash in covered containers.
  • Trim vegetation around the house to at least 18 inches from the foundation of the house.

Evict and block access:

  • Block holes and fill cracks in the house.
  • Cap the chimney, block entrances to the attic and repair loose siding to keep squirrels out. Make sure squirrels and/or young are out before blocking.
  • A new product that has showed promise for removing squirrels and other mammals from attics is the Squirrel Evictor, which uses high powered strobe light as a visual deterrent. More information can be found at www.squirrelevictor.com.
  • If raccoons or skunks live under a house, closing a hole in the daytime may trap animals sleeping in the hole. Closing the hole at night, when animals are likely to be out, is better, provided that the young are leaving with their mother. To make sure young raccoons and skunks are leaving the den at night with their mother, put white flour around the hole entrance so you can observe the tracks. If the flour reveals tiny footprints leaving, you can fill the hole while the animals are out. If the babies are not mobile, scent, sound, or strobe light deterrents will encourage a mother to relocate her babies.
  • Humane live traps can be used to trap animals living in or under your house (first make sure the attractants and access have been eliminated). Trapped animals should be immediately released outside away from your home but in the same area so that the animal will be familiar with the territory. Humane traps can be found online at www.tomahawklivetrap.com.

Although use of these time-tested solutions will likely reduce but not eliminate the conflicts between humans and animals, the same is true of lethal control methods, which are far less humane.

API is dedicated to the principle of peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife. For more information about how to mitigate conflicts with wildlife, read API’s series of brochures, Humane Ways to Live with Wildlife. Get your copies by calling us at 1-800-348-7387 or download them from our website.

Remember, the places we call home are also home to wildlife. We have the responsibility to make decisions with the animals’ interest in mind, as well as our own.

"Some city trappers build drowning tanks with dimensions large enough to hold a live trap. They don’t haul the tank around with them. They bring the captured animal to the tank." (American Trapper, March/April 1998)

What’s Wrong with Lethal Control?

When attempting to convince a neighbor, friend, family member, co-worker, or landlord to use humane methods of addressing a conflict with wildlife, it’s good to present them some facts about traditional methods to help persuade them to make the ethical decision.

Traps and Snares

Body-gripping traps and snares are notoriously cruel and indiscriminate. Animals caught in traps and snares can break legs, dislocate limbs, sustain lacerations, tear muscles, and cut their mouth and gums trying to free themselves.

Kill-Type Traps

Collectively known as “Conibear” traps, kill-type traps are supposed to kill animals instantly by snapping the spinal column at the base of the neck; however, research studies have shown that, on average, Conibear traps kill less than 15 percent of trapped animals quickly, and more than 40 percent usually die slow, painful deaths as their abdomens, heads, or other body parts are squeezed between the trap bars.

Rodent Traps

Snap Traps: Spring-loaded rodent snap traps are designed to kill instantaneously; however, some studies show that 7–14 percent of wild rodents caught by snap traps may be injured without being killed immediately. This is most likely to occur when a larger animal is caught in a trap intended for a smaller animal (a rat in a mouse trap, for example).

Glue Traps: These traps consist of a board or stiff cardboard with a highly adhesive glue placed in areas traversed by rodents so that the animal becomes stuck by the feet and fur. A recent study revealed that glue traps have major welfare problems as a means of capturing and killing rats and mice. The review found that the use of glue boards results in “instant and prolonged distress and trauma, followed by dehydration, hunger and sometimes self-mutilation when animals are held trapped for long periods.”

Rodent Poisons

Most rat and mouse poisons sold over-the-counter in hardware and grocery stores contain the anticoagulant poison brodifacoum as the active ingredient. Brodifacoum is highly dangerous and causes extreme suffering prior to death in people and other animals.

Anticoagulants such as brodifacoum act by interfering with Vitamin K-1 metabolism, leading to interruption of blood clotting and blood vessel repair. In other words, the blood vessels eventually explode, causing victims to bleed internally until they succumb to the painful effects of blood loss, followed by cardiac, respiratory, or kidney failure. The product is notoriously non-selective and has the potential to kill domestic dogs and cats, wildlife, children, and even grown adults.

According to records kept by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, between 2001 and 2003 there were nearly 52,000 rodenticide poisoning cases nationwide — more than for any other pesticide. At least 103 of those exposures resulted in serious outcomes, including death. Many of these incidents involve children.

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