Let’s talk about the wildlife in our backyards.
I’m going to get straight to the point. I want to talk about the responsibilities we have to the wildlife with whom we share our immediate surroundings. Yes, I mean the raccoons we hear arguing in our back gardens at night, and the opossums playing dead in our accidentally open trash cans outside, and the ghostly red streak we see shooting in front of our car as we drive home on a dark evening (that we somehow know is a fox), and the coyotes singing us serenades at twilight.
I hear people often express in exasperated voices how they cannot believe they are seeing foxes or “so many” raccoons in their neighborhood. They can’t believe they live in a city and feel these animals should not be there - in the city - as well. They would rather see those wild animals in the woods where they “belong” - as if cities have always been here and these wild animals are encroaching on us, with their trees and forests. There is a disconnect in such statements. I think it comes from just not knowing the facts or from blindly believing untruths that were passed down over the years. I am mostly optimistic and feel that if people are exposed to the facts, they will see the flaws in those statements.
The first truth I want to discuss (as far as the United States is concerned) is this: the four animals mentioned above have actually benefitted from human expansion, and there are reasons they will hang around the edges, in suburbs, in small towns, and in large cities. They are even labeled "edge species", and for good reason. They learned early on that our villages, towns, and large cities provide a lot of food via our trash and the rodents that are drawn to it. That is a fact and not much is going to change that. We’ve inadvertently produced perfect conditions for these edge species to thrive!
Another fact is that removing a wild animal from a suburban or urban area, whether a single raccoon or ten raccoons, or a whole fox family, does not solve anything. What actually happens when a trapper removes an animal? Well, with his trap and animal in hand, he leaves your property and has also left a vacancy for another individual animal to occupy. If the local population of that species is healthy, another individual will fill that vacancy, sometimes overnight but certainly sooner or later. Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll notice another “pesky” critter that will “need” to be removed. Rinse and repeat.
Some people may not care much about where the wild animals they have had removed from their properties end up, but I’m sure most do to some degree. Some people may turn a blind eye and just tell themselves it was released in the woods miles away and that all is ok. After all, ignorance is bliss. But, you need to know that is rarely the case.
For instance, in some states if a coyote is trapped, the trapper has only two legal choices: euthanize it, or, if he has the proper permits, sell it to a coyote pen operation. It’s often the same for red foxes. I hear the going rate is a hundred dollars a head where I live. So, the trapper can euthanize the coyote and get nothing in return or for a hundred bucks, he can sell a coyote to a person who will put it in a penned-in property, where it will be chased and terrorized by competing hunting dogs with no place to hide and no way to escape. These competitions can last days. The coyotes and foxes will be ran to such exhaustion that they will often give up after a few hours, too tired to run anymore. At that point, the hunting dogs are more able to kill the exhausted coyote or fox (although not legally-but can you imagine trying to call off dogs from a target that is helpless in front of them?). In other words, these animals are possibly doomed to a cruel and grisly death, or at the very least a tormented existence.
Shocking, right? I had no idea this even existed legally until this year. But it does. Check out this link to find out more about these operations: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/fox_penning/
Or download this penning fact sheet here: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/hunting/fox_penning_fact_sheet.pdf
Ok, so maybe now you can see that trapping and "relocating" isn’t the best idea, and in some instances - with coyotes especially – we are inadvertently producing more coyotes by culling them. For more information on this “rebound effect” see these articles below:
Maybe now you “get it”, but you still aren’t so keen with the idea of foxes or coyotes in your yard or garden. You may be wondering what one can do humanely to discourage wild canids from visiting their yards and gardens. Heck, you may be on the opposite end of the spectrum and wonder what you can do to encourage nightly visits from our wild friends (I’ll give you a hint: it is NEVER to feed them).
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So, let’s talk about what one can do to encourage or discourage wildlife from one’s property, and do so in ethical and humane ways that won’t upset your neighbors, as some may likely share your same views, but some will also have differing opinions. How can we all coexist with the least amount of conflict?
Why feeding wildlife is not the best idea:
- In the United States there’s a reason we see ‘DO NOT FEED THE WILDLIFE’ signs in city parks, on nature trails, and in national parks. For starters, feeding wildlife causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans. Although this may be fun for you, it is ultimately a selfish act. Is your feeding habit inadvertently putting the animal in danger? Are you causing these animals to cross roads they wouldn’t need to cross otherwise so they can have a tasty treat in your yard?
- How do your neighbors feel about them? There will likely be some neighbors who are not so keen on having wild animals in their yards, or the leftover food cached in their gardens. The same neighbor or, maybe another one, might get frightened by a wild animal that approaches them for a handout, because it will begin to associate humans with food. Often, feeding wildlife ends badly for the animal and can make a naturally elusive animal one that is a brazen nuisance. I’ve heard all too many times the story of the disgruntled neighbor calling animal control to have the “nuisance” animal removed. Some may even leave poison out, which then endangers all animals, not just the target animal. I recently heard a story of a man in a neighborhood, only 20 minutes away from where I live, shooting coyotes out his bathroom window after he lured them to his yard with raw meat.
- If food is overly plentiful due to “supplemental” feedings from humans, animals like foxes and coyotes will not disperse as they normally would in the late summer and early fall in the wild. This can cause a larger population density in a smaller area, which can result in injuries, sometimes even death, as they fight over food and territory. It also increases the likelihood of transmission of disease due to unnatural crowding.
- Diseases, viruses and parasites can easily and quickly spread from animal to animal as they gather to feed in abnormally crowded conditions. If you are feeding a fox, then you are also likely attracting feral cats, raccoons, opossums, rats, etc.
- Feeding wild animals from cars makes them less scared of vehicles, which just increases the chances for them to be hurt or killed in a collision.
- Last, they don’t need us! Enjoy wildlife from a distance. It’s much more rewarding to observe them in their natural behavioral state. Perhaps try your hand at wildlife photography or get some binoculars.
What you can do instead of feeding wildlife to make your yard wildlife friendly:
- Make brush piles! Small animals and birds will benefit from them. They provide cover and shelter for reptiles, birds, and small mammals. The animals attracted to the brush piles will also attract larger mammals into your yard. See more on brush piles here: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/brush_piles.html
- Do not use rodent poison or traps! You can kill or hurt other wildlife or roaming pets in the process.
- Plant native plants. Adapted to local conditions, natives require little care, and the insects and fruit that they produce increase populations of the prey species used by the “edge” species, all of which occasionally themselves eat insects and fruit . Staying native provides seasonal food that these animals eat in the wild. And when it’s not seasonally available, the animals will move on, as they do in the wild, to find food elsewhere. For more info, see: http://www.audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter
- Install a pond or water feature. Water in a yard is a magnet for dozens of species of wildlife. If you put it out there, they will come. See: http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Water/Backyard-Ponds.aspx
What you can do to discourage foxes or coyotes from loitering or denning in your yard:
- Hazing! Hazing includes being loud and large. Yell and wave your arms while approaching the animal. Try using loud horns, whistles, banging pots together., or spraying water from a hose. For more info see: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/coyotes/tips/hazing_guidelines.html
- Keep your trash cans closed. Rinse all cans and food containers going into recycle bins.
- Feed and water your pets inside and do not leave pet food or water outside.
- Keep your compost in closed bins.
- Remove fallen fruit from the ground.
- Repair broken floorboards on porches and close up openings that lead under the house or sheds.
- Keep your pets inside and do not let them roam off leash.
- If you have cats outside, consider keeping them indoors (for more on this, see: https://www.thespruce.com/keep-cats-indoors-555124 ) , provide a screened in porch or catio for enrichment, or consider a cat fence with predator guard: http://www.purrfectfence.com
- Keep chickens/rabbits in good strong enclosures that are predator proof.
I am a firm believer in the possibility of true coexistence with our wild neighbors. It's time now for a paradigm shift in the way we view predators; the recent science tells us so. It's time to look at the world and its inhabitants as a whole, with every action affecting a part of that whole, not as single, isolated, and disconnected features outside of ourselves.
BOOKS AND TEXTS REFERENCED FOR THIS ARTICLE:
- Red Fox: The Catlike Canine by J. David Henry
- Behavior of North American Mammals by Elbroch and Rinehart
- The origin of recently established red fox populations in the United States: translocations or natural range expansions?, Journal of Mammalogy, 93(1):52–65, 2012
- Movement Patterns, Home Range And Den Site Selection Of Urban Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) On Prince Edward Island (Thesis 2016) by Hailey J Lambe
- Range structure in the red fox (Vulpes vulpes L.) in the forest zone of Eastern Europe, Contemporary Problems of Ecology, February 2010, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 119–126
- The influence of habitat patch attributes on coyote group size and interaction in a fragmented landscape by Todd C Atwood, 2008 ( Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2006, 84(1): 80-87)
- Coyote space use in relation to prey abundance by L. Scott Mills and , Frederick F. Knowlton, 1991 ( Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1991, 69(6): 1516-1521)
How You Can Help
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