AAs the boundaries between built-up areas and wild areas continue to blur, the frequency and intensity of human-animal interactions is sure to increase. But it won’t just be adorable viral trash pandas and pizza rats whistling on your porch – there will be 30-50 wild boars in your trash and birds of prey eating your precious Pekingese. The next thing you know, your daughter is pregnant and the fine china is missing! But that wasn’t always the case, explains Peter Alagona in his new book. The random ecosystem. He examines how and why America’s cities — once largely devoid of natural features — have exploded in wildlife over the past 150 years, even as populations in their traditional habitats have declined.
In the excerpt below, Alagona explores our long and complicated relationship with the coyote, spanning millennia and ranging from awe to disgust, a narrative now influenced by the hive consciousness of social media.
excerpt from The Accidental Ecosystem: People and Wildlife in American Cities by Peter S. Alagona, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by Peter S. Alagona.
Urban adaptors and exploiters may be prepared for life among humans, but are humans prepared for life among them? In the 1970s and 1980s, as coyotes became more common in dozens of American cities, residents and officials were caught off guard, and many were unwilling to accept animals they viewed as dangerous invaders. As told by a teenager who lost his miniature poodle to a coyote Los Angeles Times 1980: “Coyotes drive me insane. They take care of our rats, which are really disgusting. But I hate coyotes.” That same year, Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology at Yale, found that among US survey respondents, coyotes ranked twelfth from the bottom on a list of the “most popular” animals, above cockroaches, wasps, rattlesnakes and mosquitoes , but among turtles, butterflies, swans and horses. The most popular animal was the dog, which is so closely related to the coyote that the two can mate in the wild and produce fertile offspring.
In his 2010 book Some we love, some we hate, some we eat: why it’s so hard to think directly about animals, Anthropologist Hal Herzog wrote that “the way we think about other species often defies logic”. This is not to say that our ideas about animals are arbitrary, but that the way we think about them is as much shaped by history, culture, and psychology as it is by physics, chemistry, or biology. Without this social context, people’s beliefs and actions toward other animals can seem nonsensical, hypocritical, or downright odd.
Animals are often viewed as innocent or guilty—and therefore treated with respect or contempt—based on the baggage our culture has imposed on them through art, literature, or tradition. The inherent or perceived characteristics of an animal are also important. We tend to decide when in doubt about creatures that are large, that we consider cute, handsome, majestic, or human-like, that seem to embody admirable traits like courage, entrepreneurship, or good parenting, or at least leave us alone. But such perceptions rarely reflect the true behavior or ecology of a species. Many people view rats as disgusting or dangerous, although most rats pose little threat to most people most of the time. Cats, on the other hand, appear friendly and cuddly despite being fierce predators and disease-ridden ecological wrecking balls.
Crowd and social media play a particularly important role in shaping perception. As large and charismatic wildlife species became more common in many American cities in the 1970s and 1980s, around the time of Kelly Keen’s death, newspapers and television shows often took one of two tones: irony or sensationalism. Ironic images and stories emphasized how surprising it was to see wild animals appearing in supposedly civilized areas. Sensational stories emphasized conflicts between humans and wildlife. They often employed military metaphors about wars and battles, or repeated the paranoid, racist, and xenophobic tropes of the time, likening wild animals to undocumented immigrants, gang members, criminals, terrorists, and “super predators.”
These images circulated in the media at a time when the proportion of Americans with first-hand experience of wild places was flattening out or even declining. In the 1970s and 1980s, consumer goods and better infrastructure fueled the growth of outdoor sports, including non-hunting wildlife activities such as bird watching and photography. But the technology that enabled so many people to enjoy the great outdoors also began to fit into those people’s encounters with nature, first mediating and then replacing them. Video screens allowed Americans to spend more time observing virtual creatures and less time interacting with real animals. Animal-themed visual media grew in popularity as zoos and museums struggled to attract visitors. Between 1995 and 2014, even the national park system saw a 4 percent drop in its annual per capita visitors.
It is not surprising, then, that people who encountered wildlife in cities often responded by treating these animals like the cartoons they had read about in the news or seen on TV. To many, creatures like coyotes looked like either cuddly pets or bloodthirsty killers. Neither image was accurate, of course, but both had real-world ramifications.
When people who were suspicious of coyotes saw them in urban areas, the first thing they often did was call the police. Police involvement tended to make a non-problem into a problem or aggravate a bad problem. However, moving away from a law enforcement-based approach has been difficult.
As late as 2015, New York City, which had seen its first coyote twenty years earlier, still often viewed these creatures as outlaws. In April of this year, the New York City Police Department responded to an early morning 911 call reporting a coyote in Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with stun guns, squad cars and helicopters. The ensuing three-hour chase ended when officers failed to corner the fleeing dog. When asked about the costly and time-consuming incident, the NYPD contradicted a statement previously made by the Department of Parks and Recreation that the city would no longer pursue coyotes that did not appear to pose a threat. It turned out that the two departments did not have a written agreement that spelled out this policy. NYPD officers weren’t trained to deal with coyotes, but it was up to them to decide how to respond. The result was predictable: the same excessive force that has plagued modern police in general was mobilized to fight a wild animal that posed little or no risk.
Over time, some towns and their residents have adjusted to their new reality of living with coyotes. Jurisdictions with generous budgets, supportive residents, and helpful institutions like zoos and museums developed research, education, conservation, and citizen science programs. Some parks and police departments began working together to develop new policies and practices, limiting the use of force and trying, with some difficulty, to respond only to genuine emergencies. One of the key messages from wildlife officials was that the decision to initiate a response should be based on an animal’s behavior — whether it appears injured, sick, or behaving aggressively — not its mere presence.
As such messages have leaked out, attitudes have developed. As New Yorkers have become more comfortable living with coyotes, fear has given way to tolerance and even a tenuous sense of acceptance. In some neighborhoods, individual coyotes have become mascots with names, backstories, and social media accounts. Few people actually trust coyotes, and most people don’t want them roaming their backyards, schools, or playgrounds, but many communities are showing a growing willingness to hug their furry neighbors.
Back in 2008, studies from a suburb of New York showed that most residents valued coyotes, enjoyed having them around, and even “considered the likelihood of being injured by a coyote acceptable.” But people’s willingness to live alongside coyotes in their communities quickly plummeted when incidents erupted, suggesting that tolerance towards them remained fragile. However, the longer most people lived with urban wildlife like coyotes, the more they viewed these creatures not as threats but as natural and beneficial members of biodiverse urban communities.
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