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Check out my City Creatures Story!

November 26, 2019
opossum_at_night_by_Eric_Kilby.jpeg

“Opossum at Night” by Eric Kilby (CC BY SA 2.0)

Thanks to Kieran Lindsay (of Street Creatures  and Next-Door Nature)  and Gavin Van Horn (of The Center for Humans and Nature and City Creatures) for inviting me to participate in their fall series for City Creatures: “What Lies Beneath.” Really excited for how this turned out! I wrote about a special wildlife corridor on my block where I often see wildlife emerging on late night dog walks. Check out “The Under Story” and let me know what you think.

 

Human-Wildlife Coexistence

November 7, 2019
Bozeman Airport

Urban nature, of sorts? Airport in Bozeman, mountains outside of the city.

 

I recently returned from beautiful Bozeman, Montana, where I was a participant in the first-ever Human-Wildlife Coexistence Summit, organized by Defenders of Wildlife. We were based at a rustic retreat an hour or so outside of Bozeman, settled in a valley between two mountain ranges. I’ve never been, and I have to say I was stunned by how gorgeous the land is. It really swept me off my feet.

But back to urban wildlife…

The summit was created to provide a forum for coexistence practitioners of all sorts from many different angles (government, academic, non-profit, private landowners and ranchers, etc.) to come together and learn from each other. Being out west, most of the participants were focused on more rural issues (wolves and livestock, for example). However, many of the stories and experiences they shared resonated with me, and I think they’re relevant to cities as well.

I’ve talked about language before in a few posts, and language was a theme throughout several of our conversations. For starters, some people pointed out that the very word “coexistence” was problematic for many. It can be seen as being paternalistic, even punitive — some might see calls for coexistence to be a mandate that deprives them of much-needed security, money, and other resources. The language practitioners might use to work with landowners and other stakeholders can veer from simply offering services to telling people what they should and should not do. As we’ve all seen in some aspect of our lives, someone walking in and telling you what you should and should not do is a turn-off, compared to someone walking up to you and offering you assistance. Different language, different approaches, and probably different results.

Let’s take an urban example: bears and bear-proof garbage cans. I once met a woman who moved to Boulder, Colorado, home to many people and many black bears. She enjoyed wildlife and was an environmentalist, but when confronted with a problem related to sharing her city with bears she was unhappy. For example, she hated the bear-proof garbage cans that the city makes her use, because they’re heavy and don’t have much volume because the sides are so thick (needless to say that bear-proof garbage cans are built to be very strong). I was surprised by how vehemently she expressed herself.

As the summit went on, her story came back to me and I wondered if things would be different if she had been approached in another way. Now, I want to be clear: Boulder has a public safety interest in making sure bears steer well-clear of humans, and that means getting people to comply with regulations such as keeping garbage secure. In an area with a lot of people, if only one or two don’t cooperate you can lose a lot of ground. So jurisdictions like Boulder are being responsible when their regulations are strict. But in areas where regulations are not in place, and the use of bear-proof trash cans is voluntary, you might end up with more people signing on if you approach it from a slightly different place: providing resources and tools to help stop and prevent a problem, rather than preaching that we need to coexist with bears. These two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive; frankly, I think the people who are moved by coexistence arguments will get there even if the educational material is fairly utilitarian in nature. But it could gain the cooperation of people who do not consider themselves environmentalists or conservationists. You have a problem. We can provide help to stop the problem. End of story.

 

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Courtesy of Jens Nietschmann , Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Another theme that came up was the need to reach out and work with what might be considered unusual partners. Sometimes we actually do have common ground with people and groups we might usually see as being diametrically opposed to our goals. Rather than concentrate on the differences and conflict, it sometimes pays to see where there is overlapping interest. One I think of often is “the cat people” versus “bird people” conflict. In brief:

  1. Cats are outside either because a) their owners let them outside, or b) they’re feral
  2. Cats kill birds and other small animals
  3. Bird people get upset
  4. Bird people call for cats (especially feral cats) to be killed
  5. Cat people rise up in arms because they don’t want cats to be killed
  6. And so on, ad nauseam

It’s more complicated than that, and certainly there are a lot of people who see themselves as both cat and bird people. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s leave it at that for the moment.

These two groups can really go at it like (sorry) cats and dogs. I mean, claws flashing, blood flying – it can get pretty intense. But the thing is, there’s a whole lot of common ground that they can find. Cat people by and large want cats to have happy homes – they aren’t necessarily thrilled with the idea that there are feral cat colonies out there. Bird people also don’t want there to be feral cat colonies. So the question is, why do we have feral cat colonies in the first place? The answer, of course, is us. By definition feral animals are animals that were domesticated but are no longer under human care, and so behave like wild animals. Pigeons and mustangs are other examples of feral animals. For there to be feral cats, there must first be domesticated cats. Sometimes domestic cats are dumped when it’s no longer convenient to keep them as pets (areas around colleges are notorious for this). Sometimes people don’t neuter their pet cats and allow them to roam free to breed with stray and feral cats. Bottom line: this is a human-caused problem, and so needs a human-solution.

While we can argue over what to do with cats that are currently living out on the streets or in rural areas, it’s just a revolving door problem unless we address the root causes, because there will always be new abandoned cats and new unfixed cats. So, while arguing over the current situation, why don’t the two sides also get together and do something about the underlying cause of the whole thing? In a future post I’ll discuss one example of groups doing exactly that, but for now I’ll leave it as: it can pay off to find non-obvious partners and learn to work together to achieve common goals.

Photo of the Month: Klingle Valley

January 15, 2019

Occasionally I’ll be posting a photo of or relating to urban nature here on Our Urban Jungle, just as a fun way to incorporate photography into the blog again. A couple of years ago I did a year-long series of urban nature as part of a 52 weeks project – a less intense version of a 365 project. The twist this time is that I won’t always be the photographer. To that point, starting us off in January is this wonderful photo taken by David Harris of the Klingle Valley trail, a tributary park of Rock Creek Park here in DC. The photo was taken from the vantage point of the Connecticut Avenue bridge, which is always a busy road. This photo was taken during rush hour while out on a walk with our dog, a great reminder that if you stop and look for it you’ll find natural beauty all around.

klingle valley dah

My hot take on Hot Duck. (Ok, maybe not much of a hot take, but he is a hot duck!).

January 4, 2019

 

mandarin - grahamc57

Mandarin duck, (c) GrahamC57 via Flickr

For the past couple of months, Central Park has been home to a mysterious stranger, known to some as Hot Duck. This Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is likely a domestic animal that was either released or escaped from somewhere, but his exact origins are unknown. He has, however, become a star in NYC – and rightly so, as these ducks are gorgeous. How can you not be instantly smitten with him? He has become a social media star, in large part due to the birding outreach efforts of David Barrett. If you live in NYC and are interested in birds, definitely check him out!

However, he is decidedly not a native New Yorker. Should we be worried that so much attention is given to him, and not the city’s native birds? As an urban ecologist, one of my primary objectives is to get city dwellers to learn more about, appreciate, and be inspired by the wildlife and nature all around them. I try to spread the message that urban wildlife is in no way inferior to the animals we find in Yellowstone National Park or Serengeti National Park. So what’s an urban ecologist to do when so much attention is suddenly placed on a non-native animal of probable domestic origins?

I say embrace it. With maybe a caveat or two.

In 2006 a group of researchers stated that perhaps we should think more kindly about common urban species, even including some that are not native (Dunn, Gavin, Sanchez, and Solomon, 2006). Pigeons, a.k.a. rock doves, are cited as a prime example of this. They’re non-native, even feral, but have a rather benign effect on urban ecosystems, and can even provide ecological value by, for example, becoming prey for some native raptors. And if you’ve ever actually taken a close look at one, you have to admit that they’re kind of beautiful in their own way. Do we want people’s love of wildlife and nature to end with pigeons? Probably not, but it’s not a bad place to start.

The caveat I mentioned earlier relates to potential damage that the presence of a non-native species can have on native wildlife. However, remember that just because a species isn’t native to an area, it doesn’t mean that it’s invasive! That’s an important distinction, and a common mistake. However, when a non-native species arrives, it’s always a good idea to investigate whether or not it is going to cause some upheaval in the local ecosystem.

One way this can happen is through hybridization – if two members of different species can breed, over time there can be a loss of genes. While many people think that the goal of conservation biology is to protect species, in fact we’re also concerned with protecting the evolutionary potential of species and populations – and that comes down to protecting genes. (Take a look back at two posts from 2017 for more on this).

mandarin - mike's birds on flickr

Mandarin duck, (c) Alex Groundwater via Flickr

Having said that, there is a school of thought that hybrids aren’t necessarily a bad thing, if they confer an advantage to a species that’s struggling under changing conditions. If, for example, a species is threatened due to the level of pollution found in its habitat, and if it hybridizes with a species that is much more tolerant of the pollution, then at least some of the threatened species’ genes will be carried on.

This is a complicated and rather controversial issue, and one that might be fun to explore in the future. But for now let’s get back to our Mandarin duck.

There’s a closely related species of native wood duck (Aix sponsa) that also lives in Central Park. Given that these two species are closely related, is hybridization a possibility? I did some web sleuthing, and although there is some confusion about this it appears that the answer is “no.” Although these two species are the only two found in the genus Aix, an article from 1959 discusses possible wood duck-Mandarin duck hybrids (Dilger and Johnsgard). Although they claim that the species can hybridize, they state that it appears this only happens in captivity, and furthermore – importantly – that the offspring are always sterile because of a mismatch in the number of chromosomes. So while Hot Duck might mate with a wood duck, and so prevent that particular bird from successfully breeding, it seems unlikely that this would have much of a negative impact on wood ducks in general especially because they themselves are not threatened. And in any case, the appearance of one duck in one population shouldn’t be much of a threat.

wood duck - frank vassen flickr

Wood duck, (c) Frank Vassen via Flickr

So what do you think? Should we encourage interest in a non-native species, if it gets the attention of people who normally wouldn’t notice or care much about native wildlife?

Side note: It turns out that our Hot Duck is not the only Mandarin duck star in North America. His popularity might be matched in Vancouver with a compatriot!

 

Dilger, W. C. and Johnsgard, P. A. 1959. Comments on Species Recognition with Special Reference to the Wood Duck and the Mandarin Duck. Papers in Ornithology, 11: 46-53.

Dunn, R. R., Gavin, M. C., Sanchez, M. C. and Solomon, J. N. 2006. The Pigeon Paradox: Dependence of global conservation on urban nature. Conservation Biology, 20(6): 1814-1816.

Winter Solstice

December 22, 2018

Winter solstice

© Megan Draheim, 2018. Winter solstice moon somewhere between Chicago and D.C.

Winter solstice has come and gone, and with it the longest night of the year. We’re back on track to gradually have the sun return to us – longer days, less time dancing in the dark.

All over the world people celebrate solstice by lighting the way for the sun to return. This manifests itself in many ways, but the commonality is light – even Christmas, the most-celebrated winter festival in this country. Putting up lights on houses, on lamp poles, on trees – all of that harkens back to pagan rituals co-opted by early Christians to encourage conversion, but the fact that such manifestations of the holiday have had such staying power over the centuries means that they tap into something deeply human. Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (highly recommend you follow her and read her excellent blog, especially if you’re interested in academia and the Ice Age) wrote a great Twitter thread yesterday describing both the cultural and scientific aspects of the solstice.

Growing up in Chicago, a city that knows something about long winters, one of my favorite things was seeing the lights in front of the buildings on Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. They followed different strategies: some buildings wrapped individual branches with lights, while others wrapped the entire tree or bush making them look like spun sugar. The best were the buildings that kept the decorations up well past Christmas, providing some warmth the entire winter.

Lights Michicago

Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Winter can be a time of darkness and of loss. I think it’s important to fight the dark with the light, in whatever way is your tradition. Soon enough we’ll start to see signs of spring in the nature all around us, and until then I wish you a cozy time watching the equally interesting winter world.

Moral Communities and “Pests” (Part IV)

May 22, 2018

Welcome to the last post in our four-part series on “pests”! (You can find parts one, two, and three here).

We’ve so far discussed the mechanisms with which people frame animals as pests, vermin, or nuisances, but why do we bother in the first place? Framing animals as such can serve as a distancing mechanism to make it easier for a person to dismiss the agency of that animal, despise it, and perhaps even kill it (Jerolmack, 2008).

We can use the term “moral exclusion” as short-hand to describe this phenomenon. Moral exclusion is a process where:

…individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply [emphasis original]. Those who are morally excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving; consequently, harming them appears acceptable, appropriate, or just” (Opotow, 1990, p. 1).

On the other hand, moral inclusion: “refers to relationships in which the parties are approximately equal, the potential for reciprocity exists, and both parties are entitled to fair processes and some share of community resources” (Opotow 1990, p. 2).

So while some people include neighborhood wildlife (animals that are often labeled “pests”) in their moral community, others do not, using the “pest” label to distance themselves further from those animals so they can control them however they want (often including lethal control).

While traditionally in Western cultures only humans were included in moral communities (although some individuals would extend this at least a bit further to include pets and some other domestic animals), this assumption has been challenged periodically, especially in recent decades. For example, Peter Singer (1975) was an early proponent of the idea that cognitive awareness was more important than species when assigning membership to a moral community – most animals deserve fair treatment and the ability to live, he argued. Earlier yet, Aldo Leopold (1949) proposed that entire ecosystems – both the biotic and abiotic components – deserved inclusion in our moral communities.

Moral inclusion and exclusion are defined at least in part by culture. Let’s consider whaling. Currently, North Americans are by and large adamantly anti-whaling, and there are many campaigns devoted to decrying Japan’s continued whaling programs. However, whaling was until relatively recently a vital part of the economy in some regions of the United States. But over time culture (and the economy) changed, and today many North Americans include cetaceans in their moral communities (Opotow 1990).

photography of whale tail in body of water

Photo by Daniel Ross on Pexels.com

Opotow (2003) described the importance of moral inclusion when dealing with conservation issues in general. She found that feeling disconnected to nature, seeing it (or wildlife) as a threat, denial of harm, and denial of the rights of others (human and non-human) to resources (think back to our example of fish being “stolen” by seals) results in the moral exclusion of nature and wildlife. Also relevant to conservation issues (and certainly to many discussions of humans and urban wildlife), conflict tends to reinforce group boundaries and decrease concern for those outside the community (Opotow, 1990).

If animals labeled “pests” are typically defined as being outside the moral community, when human-wildlife conflict (both real and perceived) increases, individuals and the neighborhood or city at large will be less likely to consider the fairness of their actions towards these animals. Likewise, perceived similarity can shape moral inclusion and exclusion (Opotow, 1990).

This relates to our coyote example from part three. When human-coyote conflict increased in my study site outside of Denver, some people excluded coyotes from their moral community (or rather continued to exclude them, as it’s likely that coyotes were never part of their moral community to begin with!), and used the distancing mechanism inherent in the “pest” label to justify lethal control. On the other hand, people who did not think lethal control should be used included coyotes in their moral community, in part by embracing perceived similarities (coyotes belong in the area, they possess positive traits such as monogamy and sharing in family responsibilities, they are intelligent and adaptable, just like humans, and so on).

As we’ve seen, the “pest” label is very powerful. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful, and that next time you hear terms such as pest, vermin, and nuisance animals you’ll stop to think about it a bit! If you’ve enjoyed this series, I hope you’ll stay tuned to this blog for more.

Literature Cited

Jerolmack, C. (2008). How pigeons became rats: The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals. Social Problems, 55(1), 72-94.

Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Opotow, S. (1990). Moral exclusion and injustice: An introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), 1-20.

Opotow, S. (2003). What makes people care? Moral inclusion and conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10(2), 166-167.

Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York, NY: Harper.

This series was in part based on my dissertation, Social Conflict and Human-Coyote Interactions in Suburban Denver. You can find my full dissertation (all 232 pages of it!) here.

The Human Side of “Pests” (Part III)

May 15, 2018

 

For the third installment of our “pest” series (see here for parts one and two), I’d like to take an example from my own work to examine how people not only saddle animals with negative human characteristics in order to justify labeling them as pests, but also how people who are involved on different sides in human-wildlife conflict issues also label each other, in part with the same effect. Human-wildlife conflict could in many cases be more descriptively called conflict between humans about wildlife, and we’ll see that playing out in this case study.

I did research in the Denver, Colorado metropolitan area to explore coyote-human interactions, specifically in two adjacent suburbs that had differing takes on what coyote management should look like (one using lethal control more liberally than the other). There’s a lot that’s interesting about this particular case study, but sticking with the theme of this blog series let’s take a look at social constructionism. In the last post, we talked how people construct pests: calling some animals “murderers,” “criminals,” “thieves,” and “killers” when describing animals that, for example, eat fish that fishermen consider to be theirs; linking animals to social problems (or perceptions of problems) to justify killing or otherwise removing them; or accusing the animals of not belonging to the area in question. And this was true at my study sites as well: coyotes were labeled with all sorts of negative handles by those who believed lethal control was the answer, and/or were believed to not belong in an urban/suburban area. Conversely, those who disagreed with using lethal control on coyotes labeled them with positive human traits (they’re monogamous, have strong family ties) and stressed that they are native to the region.

(Throughout I’ll be using the terms anti-lethal control and pro-lethal control. Of course, the situation was more nuanced than that. Some anti-lethal control advocates felt that there were situations that lethal control would be appropriate — for example, when a specific coyote was targeted after displaying aggressive behavior to a person. And some pro-lethal control advocates felt that there were times lethal control was not appropriate – for example, when a coyote pup was present.)

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Cherry Creek State Park and housing developments. This park bordered the study site.

First up, let’s look at how people define their and each other’s actions. Perhaps not so surprisingly given the subject matter at hand, language describing or evoking violence was common.

People who were pro-lethal control tended to use “good war” imagery, portraying their efforts to advocate for lethal control as fighting in an honorable way to protect their land, property, and family from the enemy (in this case, coyotes). People who were anti-lethal control, on the other hand, described the pro-lethal contingent in language evocative of criminality, accusing them of murder, slaughtering innocents, and cruelty – in other words, a dishonorable fight. The difference in descriptive language is analogous to that between a soldier fighting to protect his/her country and a thug mugging someone on the street.

Because some of my other research in these two towns showed a correlation between fear of coyotes and desire for lethal control, it makes sense that people who are pro-lethal control feel that they are protecting their families (human and non-human) when they support lethal control and/or eradication efforts. While we might argue in this country about “good” or justified wars over “bad” or unjustified wars, there is a general understanding that violence in wartime is different from violence in peacetime or violence committed at home. In addition, we tend to separate our dissatisfaction or disagreement over a war from our respect for those who serve in the military. Protecting our homeland—whether that is defined broadly as the United States or more narrowly as our property—is seen an honorable endeavor, and therefore the violence committed over these goals is different than common street violence. Letters to the editor and op-eds about lethal control in the Denver metro area included language like this, saying residents had “declared war” on coyotes, and that government officials had to “take sides” (coyote or human), that it was time Denver metro residents “fought back,” and that coyotes had already “lost the battle for habitat,” and so should move on.

On the other hand, those opposed to lethal control tended to use negative descriptions of violence. Instead of wars, they used criminal and illegal violence descriptions, and portrayed the situation as being out of control and lawless. One LTE called private sharpshooters hired by one of the towns “vigilantes,” and a Denver Post editorial states that the town’s “shoot-to-kill” coyote plan would not, in fact, work, as lethal control programs are not effective in reducing conflict in the long-run, stating: “So much for the bang-bang Wild West theory.” One LTE outright said that “killing coyotes is a cruel and unnecessary crime.”

Language matters. Invoking war-time and street-violence language when discussing human-coyote conflict and the subsequent social conflict helps to frame the discussion in black-and-white arguments. By framing the conflict in this way, stakeholders can more easily dismiss the other side as conventional wisdom would suggest that people who willfully commit illegal and immoral acts of violence should not be negotiated with, and likewise that people who stand in the way of lawful and moral acts of violence committed in order to protect hearth and home should not be respected.

Not only did the different factions in this debate label each other’s actions as good or bad, they also applied labels to each other, dismissing their beliefs and chalking them up to negative characteristics. In this way, anti-lethal advocates said that those advocating for lethal control were cold-blooded, spoiled, entitled, and arrogant, expecting the local government to take care of the coyote “problem.” One person I interviewed said that they “don’t want coyotes mucking up their life. They don’t want anything mucking up their life.” Some anti-lethal control advocates also believed that pro-lethal believers were unethical and lacked moral values and empathy.

On the other hand, some of those who wanted to use lethal control in more situations believed that the anti-lethal control contingent were unfeeling in their own right by not empathizing or understanding their fear of coyotes. One person I interviewed recalled a public meeting where the anti-lethal control speakers expressed little sympathy when a woman described a moment when her two children got off the bus and were reportedly followed by a coyote. The same person said that “my worst nightmare is to have my little dog taken by a coyote,” and argued that the anti-lethal control camp does not understand or acknowledge that concern. One person I interviewed said: “I wonder if any of the people that don’t want lethal control had their child or their animal attacked. Or threatened.” Some referred to anti-lethal control advocates as “tree-huggers” or “coyote-huggers,” and considered them to be extremists who put animals’ lives and well-being above humans.

While there were many people who struck a more moderate tone in this debate, the discussion became very polarized. Some respondents suggested that the people most involved in the conflict on both sides made assumptions about each other, and were hostile and not on speaking terms. These advocates constructed versions of each other and themselves in order to justify this, just as people use the word “pest” to justify their behavior towards animals. Here, applying the “pest” label to a species was hotly contested, which demonstrates both the power of the label (both sides knew what was at stake) and the conflict defining animals as such can cause.

For the last part of this series, we’ll be taking a look at why exactly the use of the “pest” label enables people to dismiss individuals and entire species of animals.

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Cherry Creek State Park

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