With the exclusion of pets, we usually imagine animals living in wild, open spaces, far from the busy streets we walk every day and the dull urban noises. We can hardly envisage animals adapting to a city’s environment, but we couldn’t be more wrong. How many animals do we encounter every day, in the streets, in our house, in a park?
We’ve all seen mice or squirrels in cities like London, but even foxes or coyotes are not an uncommon sight within many human settlements around the world.
How do these animals adapt to an urban environment?
Urban wildlife is a term coined exactly to identify wildlife that lives in urban environments. Some simply cohabit with humans, others depend on human activities for their survivals in the cities. Taxonomic requirements often classify urban wildlife as ‘exploiters’, ‘adapters’ or ‘avoiders’, but whether or not it is possible to adopt such sharp categorization, both animal welfare and concern for ecological impact call for new policies to regulate urban wildlife conservation.
Cities are certainly not famous for their green spaces nor is human presence a mark of a natural paradise. Yet many species have gradually adapted to our artificial habitat and some of them are now even synanthropic. Not only do these animals live near human beings, but they also benefit from the habitat that humans have created for themselves.
There are no specific species that, at least in theory, cannot adapt or take advantage of human settlements. Penguins have invaded urban areas scavenging for food, monkeys dig through garbage in tropical areas and baboons are the perfect example of primate commensalism. The adaptable nature of many species has catered to their nutritional needs, but while urban wildlife is now often protected, their coexistence with people has its downsides as well.
Threats to wildlife
Pushing their biological boundaries, these animals have adjusted to city life and they have adapted to its environment. Coyotes cross busy roads, boars stroll in Rome, gulls travel long distances to scavenge through garbage.
But what price are these animals paying to accommodate to urban life?
The deleterious consequences of cohabitation come in different degrees.
The environmental conditions of human-modified habitats are not the only dangers for urban wildlife. Habitat loss and animal-human interactions are proving to be serious challenges to wildlife conservation.
First of all, death caused by human activities is one of the major threats to animal populations, especially when human-wildlife conflicts are exacerbated by public health and safety concerns.
Mice are carriers of bacteria and parasite and the urine or droppings they leave behind can cause diseases as serious as meningitis or encephalitis. Mice extermination techniques are usually gruesome.
Foxes can carry rabies, a viral and potentially deadly disease that affects the nervous system. Although much research has focussed on the issue, urban foxes actually pose a minor threat in the transmission of rabies and mange. Yet fear of foxes is quite widespread and the methods to keep them away range from ultrasonic fox deterrents to live traps.
Additionally, dangerous animals are increasingly comfortable in living in proximity to urban areas and the perceived threat of urban wildlife attack on human beings or domestic pets exposes wildlife population to anthropogenic hazards.
For example, in 2015 a coyote was found on a roof in New York City and downtown Chicago has become famous for its urban coyotes. These episodes have been met by genuine bewilderment, but they have also prompted inappropriate responses to a relatively harmless nuisance. Self-proclaimed urban hunters have killed coyotes with no qualms, although attacks on humans have been virtually nonexistent and there are measures to minimise the chances of encountering a coyote, as for example simply securing garbage bins.
Keeping wildlife safe is no easy job in a remote, natural habitat, and it is even more challenging when animals live in proximity to or within urban areas.
Several organisations can offer advice on how to curb our impact on urban wildlife.
For example, City Wildlife has listed a few simple rules to avoid harmful behavior that might transform even unintentional acts into active killings.
Even though city parks may seem conducive to free and pleasing roaming, our ‘innocent’ wandering may actually cause life-threatening disruptions to the habitat animals have created for themselves. When we walk outside ‘social trails’ and we take short-cuts, we create new routes, causing habitat fragmentation, which in turn opens new paths for predators, parasites or other dangerous animals and plants. Keeping our distance from wildlife is often an easy solution to avoid any interference with wildlife preservation.
Pollution is another major issue for wildlife protection. Litter is particularly harmful to animals. Animals can become entangled in soda plastic rings and soda cans may cut animals who are looking for food or shade. Gum has been proven to kill birds or at the very least it gets irreversibly tangled in their fur. Some animals get stuck in discarded jars when they look for food. Generally speaking, animals can mistake trash for food and even when they do find food, wildlife still does best on natural provisions.
Conflicts between wildlife and domestic animals are an additional bone of contention among wildlife conservationists. A 2013 study has revealed that outdoor domestic cats kill 1.3 to 4.0 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals every year in the United States only. Cat predation is considered one of the human-caused mortality sources and it adds to the several issues we face to maintain the integrity of urban ecosystems.
Urban wildlife: the benefits
A predominantly urban society may not appreciate wildlife and even consider it overwhelmingly dangerous. However, we shouldn’t forget that protecting urban wildlife is not merely a duty dictated by animal rights, but it is also beneficial to us.
Studies have shown that daily contact with nature, even in urban green spaces, results in physical and psychological benefits. The richer the animal population, the more beneficial it is for human wellbeing.
Population growth and urbanisation are chipping away at natural spaces, but it is paramount for our health to encourage biodiversity in urban ecosystems and focus our attention on urban ecology. The greener the city, the better, but this is not enough. Governments’ policies should channel their efforts into the creation of suitable habitats for urban wildlife.
Urbanisation has taken away space to the disadvantage of wildlife and has already altered interactions between species and between animals and nature. Trying to roll back the effects of urban growth, urban planning is already going green. Should it go even further and create embedded natural spaces for wildlife conservation?
To meet habitat needs, policy making must go hand in hand wildlife biologists’ expertise. One may not be particularly wedded to the idea of coyotes roaming on our streets, but there is a growing body of evidence that enhancing biodiversity in urban areas is beneficial both for human health and for animal conservation. A better understanding of what is conducive to wildlife’s presence is a stepping stone to make habitat manipulation advantageous for both animals and human beings.
The lurking danger of a urban environment detached from nature makes the issue of wildlife conservation a compelling matter that has been long overlooked. Species and their habitats are already under threat, but there are still plenty of possibilities to explore to curb the impact of urbanisation on wildlife and to accommodate the needs of the newly welcomed urban wildlife.
While not all urban areas can cater to the needs of the urban animal populations, cities can become a wildlife refuge. Food, water, shelter and suitable habitat are the key factors that attract animals to human settlements. What can we do to ensure that the function of our green spaces goes beyond their recreational and aesthetic value? Carbon sequestration is certainly a priority, but what about the value of urban wildlife?
Urban wildlife significantly contributes to ecosystem services in urban areas, where ecosystem services are usually understood as the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life possible and worth living.
Many urban animals are predators of insect pests and some countries have even installed roosts as alternative means to artificial pest control. Such has been the case in Italy, which since 2010 has witnessed booming sales of bat nesting boxes in the hope that bats can act as natural predators against summer tiger mosquitoes.
The cultural shift required for citizens to consider wildlife not as an intrusive element in a purely human environment is going to take time and effort. But only once we accept that urban wildlife is integral part of the urban landscape we will realise that human-wildlife interaction is a possibility to preserve and encourage, not a threat to eliminate.
Notwithstanding the slow behavioural change that awaits us, urban environments have already proved to be fundamental assets for conservation planning.
Although the controversies about urban beekeeping are casting some doubts over the actual viability of urban biodiversity protection strategies, cities may actually turn out to be a valuable aid to wildlife population. The combination of natural and human-made food provides them with abundant supply of food, enough to eliminate competition in search for provisions. Brownfield sites, meadows and parks can become an oasis for wildlife: animals can also have access to blooming gardens all year round and they can enjoy a less rigid climate.
While the impact of urbanisation does hit those species that were meant to live in a non-urban habitat, protecting urban biodiversity may be a viable strategy to benefit wildlife. When conditions in natural habitats can become truly hostile, urban environments may be a more welcoming place to be. Cities are certainly no reserves, but animals do enjoy a higher survival rate.
What to expect from the future
Places that were once devoid of animal presence are now a vital oasis for wildlife. With the support of sustainable policies, conservationists have been able to provide support to a wide range of plants and animals within urban areas. Each to a different degree, urban species exploit humans and human-made environments notwithstanding the alterations to their native habitat.
The demography of urban wildlife is still a widely unexplored subject, but a better grasp of why the urban-natural fringe has become blurrier for urban wildlife can contribute to the healthy development of both human and animal ecosystems.
Urban wildlife management is certainly possible and it is not naive to envisage ethical, proactive solutions that can provide us with wildlife control guided by the ethos of conservation and care.
Alongside more efficient wildlife laws and sustainable legislation, we have a moral obligation to preserve urban wildlife through bespoke regulations.
Urban growth is increasing the chances of contact between humans and wildlife. While it is true that sometimes human safety depends on the regulation of urban wildlife population, a more comprehensive understanding of the benefits and risks associated with wildlife presence may yield viable solutions to minimise human-wildlife conflicts and to preserve urban ecosystems, which now include wildlife populations.
This is a critical time and we need to safeguard our environment and make species conservation a priority. Why not start from those animals with whom we share our urban settings?
This is a guest post written by Erika Mastrorosa.
Erika is a philosophy graduate with a passion for writing and communication. Born and raised in Rome, she moved to London to continue her studies in philosophy.
In addition to writing on environmental matters, she enjoys researching and writing on mental health and social issues. She is a passionate advocate for equality and education and she is currently working for a mental health foundation as a research/bid writer.