City dwellers must co-exist with urban wildlife, experts say


A gopher is shown in this 1988. (CP PHOTO)
A gopher is shown in this 1988. (CP PHOTO)

As cities expand and forests shrink, experts say urban dwellers are just going to have to get used to living alongside wild animals.

Toronto continues to wage war on racoons. Ground squirrels are wreaking havoc in Calgary. B.C. campuses are beset by bunnies.

And those are just the usual suspects. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to come across a lynx outside a nail salon, a black bear in your backyard or a deer in your swimming pool.

“These days, there’s not too many (wild animals) that aren’t somewhat urban, or at least entering the urban environment," Brad Gates, owner of AAA Gates’ Wildlife Control in Toronto, told Yahoo Canada News.

“When I started my business 31 years ago, that wasn’t the case. We would rarely get a call for a coyote or rarely got a call for a fox, but now we take anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen calls a week for those types of animals.”

While it can seem like critters are intruding onto our space, another expert says it’s the other way around.

“We do see the increase in the number of wildlife interactions with humans,” said Michael Howie, spokesman for The Association For the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals in Vancouver.

“But it's not necessarily because there are more animals or because the animals are encroaching on our cities; it’s that we’re increasingly removing wildlife habitats and they are being forced to adapt to that change.”

What do we do about it?

So how do we adjust to our furry new neighbours?

“It frankly comes down to education and the willingness of people to make small changes to their behaviour,” Howie said. “We can’t expect wild animals to change their behaviour simply because we may have a problem with them.”

That means keeping your trash inside until garbage day, for example, or not tossing food on the ground outside. Toronto’s new raccoon-proof organics bins are a step in the right direction, Gates said.

We should also take wildlife into consideration when constructing and renovating our homes, Gates said. Plastic roof-vents, for example, are an invitation for pests.

“Squirrels will simply chew their way through them and raccoons will pull the lid off and climb inside an attic,” Gates said.

Then there’s the bigger picture. Humans and wildlife populations will be driven closer and closer unless governments prioritize conservation, Howie said.

“We need to understand the full ecological picture, and that takes time, it takes funds and it takes patience on behalf of residents,” he said.

Deadly measures

Patience, however, is hard to come by when a surge of ground squirrels, colloquially called gophers, are digging holes all over city parks and destroying community vegetable gardens meant to feed the poor, as is happening in Calgary.

In those cases, the city brings out the Giant Destroyer, a machine that releases a toxic gas into gopher holes and eradicates them. Winnipeg does the same.

But the deadly machine is a last-ditch measure, Lincoln Julie, superintendent of habitat management for the Calgary's parks department, said.

“We always try to co-exist, create environments where they might not want to be," Julie said. “When we do control, it’s only where there’s infrastructure or people’s safety, dog safety, animal safety, stuff like that, at risk.”

He said the city is also working to naturalize previously groomed areas. That means leave them alone and let nature take its course.

“What we want to do is create natural environments where we won’t control gophers. We’ll just let gophers be," he said.

Gates and Howie warn killing invasive species doesn’t work in the long run.

“I’m never an advocate of population reduction. It’s been proven time and time again, if you don’t deal with the underlying causes of that population boom, you’ll simply be killing animals only to have the population rebound back to where it was when you started killing them,” Gates said.

Not to mention, it’s bad PR. People may not want wildlife in their attics and yards, but most folks are generally pretty fond of animals. A recent study out of the University of Lincoln shows urban wildlife has a significant positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

When cops shot and killed bear in Newmarket, Ont., last year, they were met with outrage. A dead raccoon on a Toronto sidewalk last week had the whole city talking. Hundreds of people, including comedian Ricky Gervais, have come to the defence of Bryce Casavant, a B.C. conservation officer who was suspended for refusing to kill two bear cubs.

“This is Canada. This is the land that we celebrate in our tourism commercials, that we celebrate on our currency, in our classrooms," Howie said. "We need to truly respect these individual animals.”