Last week, near Portland, Oregon, authorities shot and killed a bear for taking treats from humans. This was very typical of animal control policy – the set of rules put in place by government to keep us safe from the dangerous wild things and to keep the wild things separated from us. And these rules weren’t just instituted by draconian 20th Century government bureaus; they’ve been long demanded by a suburbia grown accustomed to being safely insulated from wild things.
“What if the raccoon bites my toddler? What if a bear gets in the trash? Heaven forbid the groundhogs move in against our home foundation.” The hyperbolic and hypothetical converge in the kind of perfect angst storm that could only develop in the comfortable, insulated, fair and predictable suburbs we inhabit.
Too often, we fear that which we do not control, those things that just aren’t meant to be here. There are official, designated, approved wildlife areas – parks, refuges and reserves after all, right? This is where the animals are supposed to stay – right?
Whether protecting us from them or them from us, animal control policies were meant to maintain a wall of separation and to placate the most fearful and tame among us.
But what if the young black bear didn’t really have to be killed? What if his killing was, like most other activities carried out by government, a matter of protocol, a matter of following the rules – the most convenient way to bring a situation to a sudden end which may have become inconvenient for local government later. What kind of liability could the local government have brought upon themselves if they hadn’t followed policy, after all?
Sadly, the line of reasoning laid out above seems a reasonable rationale to all too many of us. And it’s sad because this isn’t the way nature thinks at all. Nature has no notion of protocol, liability or rules.
This year has brought more bears into the Pittsburgh area than any other in recorded history, to the best of my knowledge. A few bears show up every year but a half dozen at least have been seen on the news recently. Bobcats are now seen in the surrounding counties from time to time. One doesn’t have to go far to spot mink or otter. Beaver can be found downtown. Coyotes prowl the Pittsburgh nights and I saw more fox last year and this year than ever before within the city limits. Small animals (fox snacks) abound.
It’s not anomalous either – critters a’plenty are moving into cities everywhere in the American east. A common explanation for this is something like “Well, our urban sprawl is intruding so much into their home ranges now that they have nowhere left to go.”
This is a canard. The animals mentioned above were gone from the counties surrounding Pittsburgh by 1900, for the most part. But we’re not farming a lot of land these days and we don’t have to burn trees to heat our homes. The truth is that the forests abutting against the city have re-grown to an incredible extent in recent generations and the habitat that allows large mammals to hide, move and nurture young is back in a big way. This habitat has breached our city borders as well and significant forested tracts are now found within the city limits. So much so, that bears can have hidden dens along with the occasional fisher cat or bobcat. (A bobcat was found this spring on board a local pleasure boat moored downtown). One comes to feel, at times, that speaking of these obvious positive trends in the environment is strangely verboten.
Without a long view of things, we fail to see how the animals are returning and staking new claims to our hedgerows and ditches. Animals extirpated or considered rare in Pennsylvania now live alongside us in Pittsburgh? Is this the way things were pre-Columbus? No, of course not. It’s not the way things were a mere 30 years ago either though. The animal population and human population of places like Pittsburgh are melding. This coincides with the return of interstitial habitat, abundance of prey and prohibition on hunting and trapping in the city.
Mammals, as you may be aware, need to eat. In the mixed woodland, field and urban environment of a place like Allegheny County, some food will come from natural, wild sources, some from organic but human – originated sources (such as crops) and some from people’s leftovers – trash. Add to this the scraps that are simply handed out to the animals.
If feeding the animals is a crime, then I’m among the guilty. I feed birds on my windowsills. I occasionally feed trout with pet food. My former pet groundhog, Rascal Fats, would come around most evenings for a peach or banana. At work I have a small herd of squirrels who apparently like peanuts.
The age of the quasi-pet is upon us. They’re not ready to cuddle up on the couch but they will socialize when you open the peanut tin, and they’ll be back tomorrow.
Fact: if the animals inhabit cities today (as they certainly do) they’re not going to seek out natural food sources, they’re going to seek out the more abundant and delectable man-made food sources. The trees and shrubs around are often not native but the deer, for instance, find better browse in our suburban backyards than they do on the mountaintops of Appalachia. Why would fisher cats pursue fish and sparse amphibians when they could have fat, naïve Norway rats? I think the foxes like nothing better than complacent city opossums. Rascal Fats doesn’t want to go out seeking native cattails, grasses and plantains when he can have a peach at my back porch every night, sitting back on his haunches and socializing with the people a little bit.
A shift is occurring before our very eyes, a melding of the human realm and the wild, a hybrid ecology emerging in little grassy strips between the pavement, the rivers that run between our highways and the air above our urban cores. Today’s animals are more fearless, more friendly and as ingenious as ever at exploiting opportunities. We fail to realize how very excellent the opportunities are that we’ve created in the arbor of our abandoned lots and wooded waterlines.
Perhaps the originators of government policies on such things imagine that all of the people who give handouts can be (and should be) controlled. Maybe they imagine all the urban animals eschewing dumpsters for native vegetation, through re-education, perhaps. Maybe they just imagine that if they can keep producing policy that sounds rational, they can stay employed.
But one thing bureaucracy is notoriously ill suited for is dealing with paradigm shifts. When trying to craft environmental and animal control policy, this creates no small difficulties. Nature is nothing but change – the bureaucracy is nothing but stasis. And to take this lesson on over-reaching government just one step farther, many of us realize that the last resort of frustrated government officers is the muzzle of a gun.