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Calls of the wild

Finding more humane ways to resolve wildlife conflicts

“I don’t want that raccoon laying eggs in my gutter,” the caller said. (And no, he wasn’t a transplant from Eastern Australia—where the egg-laying mammal, the platypus, resides.)
 
This isn’t a call I get frequently, but getting it more than once is too frequent. And it’s not the most egregious call regarding the perception or treatment of wildlife I have gotten in the 10 years that I have been in the wildlife conflict resolution business, but it is always one that is jarring and serves to remind me about the serious disconnect and misperceptions people have about wildlife in cities. Urban wildlife biologists (that’s a thing) refer to urbanites as operating in an “intellectual and experiential vacuum” with regard to encounters with wild animals. And while that is one of the main issues that exacerbates conflicts with wildlife, it’s not the only one.
 
The HSUS has been working to make things better for wildlife in urban areas for over three decades. Like so many animal care and shelter professionals on the front line, we see the same scenarios play out year after year, season after season in our cities, towns and communities across the U.S. There are issues with different species at different times, but the conflicts are made up of all the same things—the ingredients, you might say, of this complicated but unsavory dish.
 
I witnessed many of these foul-tasting scenarios while running a wildlife conflict resolution service for The HSUS in the Washington, D.C., metro area for about eight years. We were providing an alternative to the traditional trap-and-kill or trap-and-relocate methods that so many wildlife control businesses rely on. That dominant business model incentivizes trapping and removing animals regardless of whether the animals trapped are the source of the problem or not. And it’s not just commercial businesses—the “trap it” mentality is pervasive in the public’s mind as the way to address a conflict with a wild animal. Aside from being inhumane to the animals involved and not resolving the root cause of the conflict, this method has consequences for the animal care and control community that are often overlooked.
 
Our team saw it all over the years: animals of every species killed or orphaned unnecessarily, or trapped and relocated to die a slow death after they were dumped into a new habitat where they were unfamiliar with the food, water and denning resources. We saw animals who languished and died in cage traps, or were closed up in void spaces, or removed and relocated, leaving dependent young to die. Many of these animals were trapped simply because they were there, not actually causing a conflict, or were trapped because they were attracted to food or garbage left accessible that could have been easily addressed by other means.
 
In my conversations and work with the public, there is a pervasive perception that wild animals don’t really belong in cities or the suburbs, but since development has displaced them, they have nowhere else to go. This is true to a degree, but what is unnoticed is that the resources wild animals need to survive in urban environments are available in abundance; food, denning and nesting sites are provided by the way we use our land, discard our garbage, and build our homes. Many people might be surprised to find that D.C. provides habitat for some 240 species of birds and 29 mammals, not to mention many species of reptiles and amphibians (I certainly was!).
 
And that’s the whole point: Many of these species are thriving in cities and increasingly adapting to the areas that we create. Throw in that our homes and buildings are not built to keep animals out and that there is a lack of regulatory oversight for the way animals are controlled and a scarcity of good comprehensive information and responses to conflicts with wildlife, and you have a problem that repeats itself year after year. We estimate that it leads to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of wild animals being unnecessarily killed every year across the U.S. through ineffective or inhumane techniques under the pretext of conflict resolution.
 
These issues aren’t going anywhere. In fact, human population and urbanization will increase, animals will adapt, people will become less familiar with wild animals, and the toll and impact on wildlife and the community will increase.
 
This is where the animal care and control community can fill a much-needed role, albeit a nontraditional one. Usually the purview of a wildlife agency, this new or expanded role would be to provide resources that effectively resolve conflicts for the long term and help prevent the unnecessary killing of healthy animals. This last part is particularly important because people often bring healthy wildlife to agencies for euthanasia. Agencies may even have trap-loan programs in place for trapping and then picking up animals who are otherwise healthy, but who will then be euthanized or relocated—which is also not a good outcome for the animal and any dependent young. But unless the root cause of the conflict is addressed, the trapping and euthanasia cycle will continue—as will the cost.
 
Offering more resources to humanely and permanently solve conflicts with wildlife makes sense, though; animal care and control agencies are already providing responses to wildlife conflicts and have been doing so for years. When a resident has a problem with an animal—domestic or wild—their first call is usually to their local animal care and control agency. For many shelter and animal control agencies, wildlife-related calls make up more than 50 percent of their total call volume. We know from our work that almost all animal care agencies get wildlife calls, and are asked to respond to conflicts and issues on regular basis regardless of whether they include wildlife as part of their mission or in their policies and field responses.
 
After seeing so much unnecessary suffering in this line of work, I want to see good outcomes for wildlife and resolution for the resident or community with a wildlife problem. However, I know the cycle will continue if it is not addressed locally. The animal care and control community must lead the way on resolving wildlife conflicts humanely and effectively, while also reducing the negative impacts on the agencies themselves that result from bad (or no) policies on wildlife. Some agencies are already doing this. Through The HSUS’s Wild Neighbors program, we are working with a number of animal care and control partners that have incorporated wildlife into their mission of animal protection and are important resources for resolving wildlife conflicts. Our goal is to combine, in a comprehensive toolkit, what we already know with what we are learning from our partners. Importantly, this toolkit for the animal care and control community will include information on which policies work and how to implement them.

Finally, we invite you to sign our Wild Neighbors Pledge and join the growing number of agencies across the U.S. that have committed to making their communities a friendlier place for wildlife. After signing the pledge, you will receive a printed copy our Humane Wildlife Conflict Resolution Guide which will help you humanely respond to the public’s wildlife concerns, access to our wildlife training webinars and an eye-catching sign to place in your shelter’s or agency’s window that announces your signing of the pledge and commitment to protecting wildlife. For more information about the Wild Neighbors program, contact wildneighbors@humanesociety.org.

In the meantime, we would love to know what you do for wildlife in your community and what policies work for you! Please let us know by commenting below.

About the Author

John Griffin is the Director of Urban Wildlife Programs at The Humane Society of the United States and has more than 20 years of field experience working with a variety of animals ranging from raccoons to great apes. He has given numerous presentations and workshops on topics that include humane and effective approaches to resolving wildlife conflicts, wildlife in disasters and reuniting and re-nesting small mammals and birds. John has published on a number of topics in regard to wildlife conflict resolution and has completed a stint as a National Geographic Expedition team member exploring raccoon behavior in urban areas.