Residents in suburban areas are battling wildlife that is encroaching their homes. The residents are afraid of catching animal-borne diseases and being attacked by the animals. Animal rights protests and environmental policies prevent action in some cases, and action disagreement prevents solutions.
It’s been a ‘Wild Kingdom’ summer as deer, coyotes and other country critters invaded American towns. Can man and animals live together in peace?
THE GRASS IS GROWING AGAIN AT Miriam Ungerer’s house, which is something of a miracle. The wild ferns died long ago. So did five of Ungerer’s pink Himalayan rhododendrons. What’s left of the azaleas look like bonsai. The deer got them all. When Ungerer moved to North Haven, N.Y., in 1981 the Long Island village had about 100 deer roaming its woods. But in 1987 local animal lovers persuaded the town fathers to discontinue the brief hunting season. The deer population doubled, then doubled again. Drive down any street in North Haven today and you’ll see them grazing by the road, preening on a lawn like they own the place, which in a way they do. Some residents are so afraid they’ll get Lyme disease from a deer-tick bite, they barely go outside. Ungerer, who’s had the disease twice, just spent $800 to dig up her lawn because it was infested with ticks. She’d like to move, but it won’t be easy. “Who’s going to buy a house when you can only go in your yard dressed like a beekeeper?” she asks.
Americans used to kill for a house with cuddly wild animals gamboling nearby. Now, many suburbanites would like to kill the critters–raccoons, geese, beavers, even coyotes and bears–that are increasingly turning up as uninvited houseguests. It’s not just the nuisance factor. Michael Conover, a professor of wildlife science at Utah State University, estimates there are 1 million deer-vehicle collisions annually, at a cost of $1.1 billion. Then there are the animal-borne diseases, especially Lyme disease and rabies. And some of these creatures are dangerous. Though cougars and bears have only occasionally attacked humans, household pets are frequent prey. Near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., this summer, wildlife investigators puzzled over panther-like claw and fang marks on a Lexus. When they popped the hood, they found the family kitten cowering on the engine–which may explain what happened to the half-dozen neighborhood cats that recently disappeared. Hunters used to keep the critters in check, but now they mostly do battle with stampeding animal-rights zealots. So as acre after acre of woodland is gobbled up for human housing, the tug of war with the animal kingdom gets worse. “In the 1970s we invited wildlife into our backyards,” says Jay McAninch of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Now people are asking, ‘What are we going to do now that the wildlife is here?'”
Gooseburgers: The black bear that broke into a Sussex County, N.J., house and was caught raiding a woman’s underwear drawer naturally got a lot of attention last year. But it’s the smaller critters that do the most damage. In Massachusetts, beaver dams threaten hundreds of septic tanks and wells annually. In Illinois, it’s the garbage,hungry raccoon that’s driving people crazy. A raccoon downstate even scratched through one elderly woman’s attic floor and plopped next to her bed. Nationwide, Canada geese, once a trophy animal for golf courses, have added new meaning to the word “fowl”: their droppings threaten everything from local ball fields to fresh-water supplies. A few months ago Clarkstown, N.Y., slaughtered 251 of its 2,000 geese and ground them up into burgers; it is hoping to send them to a nearby zoo. “We’re not carrying on like this is a buffalo hunt. Our goal is to manage them,” says Clarkstown Supervisor Charles Holbrook.
It’s just that kind of “management” that many people are fighting against. This fall ballots in nine states feature initiatives that would outlaw most hunting and trapping. A $34 million National Wildlife Research Center under construction in Ft. Collins, Colo., will spearhead federal research into animal contraception and nonlethal traps. Mamaroneck, N.Y., has bought a trained border collie to chase the geese from its village greens. But these days, even seemingly benign solutions can draw fire. Part of Seattle’s $150,000 program to reduce its goose population included painting the eggs with nontoxic mineral oil, which suffocates the embryos. It worked so well, some anti-abortion activists protested the egg interference. But the program continues.
The residents of North Haven have bad a tougher time resolving the catfight over their deer. Last year the town paid $6,000 to count the herd (456 deer, compared with 712 people). Some want to shoot the deer with contraceptive-laced darts. Others say that will take years to work; they favor herding a couple of hundred deer into a pen and shipping them to a slaughterhouse. As a stopgap, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a few “nuisance” permits that allowed besieged homeowners to hunt on their own property. But the deer lovers insist they’ll stop the hunt. “My little dog dug up my vegetable garden, but I didn’t shoot it,” says Barbara Wersba, one of several people on both sides who say they’ve received death threats. “The people here are vicious about this.” It’s not such a great place for the deer, either. This year the village installed an industrial-size freezer behind the old 1875 clapboard schoolhouse. That’s where the deer killed by cars–as many as three a week-wait removal.
Yet the critters are here to stay, no matter what humans do. Today’s ideal suburb-lots of open space and fresh waterhas irresistible animal magnetism. In Florida, raccoons love the swimming pools. When they find one they like, they defecate on the top step to mark their territory. ”We were a bit naive not to realize these pretty, romantic habitats were going to be excellent places for other wildlife,” MeAninch says. And as wfld animals spend more time around humans, they adapt in ways Darwin couldn’t have imagined. In Wyoming, hunting guides have seen grizzly bears heading toward the sound of a rifle. They apparently know they won’t be shot (bear hunting is illegal), but they’re certain to find a freshly killed animal–and an easily intimidated human.
Perhaps the ultimate proof of the creatures’ comfort with their human neighbors is the frequency with which they show up in big cities, from Lucy the moose who captivated Boston to the beaver that blocked traffic when it felled a tree on Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive. Even New York City, which is not always conducive to human life, discovered last year it had become home to five coyotes, which prompted “Late Show with David Letterman” to trumpet the phrase “New York: We’ve Got Coyotes!” Who doesn’t? Welcome to the jungle, city slickers.