Saturday, September 1, 2012

When Worlds Collide

I've been interested in Urban wildlife for a long time. It is amazing to me that wild animals have adapted so well to living along side of human activity in big cities, neighborhoods and highly industrial settings. Think of the peregrine falcons that roost on the rooftops of buildings in downtown Salt Lake City, the red shouldered hawks of 5th Avenue in New York, the red foxes at the airport in Berlin and the sparrows in the rafters at Home Depot. Animals and nature are resilient and adaptive. And really, what other choice to they have? As human activity reaches further into the formerly wild areas, what choice does the wildlife have but to adapt or perish?

We live in an urban neighborhood and the diversity of life around our house astounds me. We have otters, raccoons, opossums, and squirrels. About 10 years ago, neighbors tell me that a black bear was seen just one street down from us. I haven't seen any alligators in our neighborhood, but I've seen several varieties of snake, as well as numerous lizards, geckos, frogs and toads. Every rock surface in our yard has a brown anole (more on these exotic species another time). Every time it rains, the southern toads make their pilgrimage to our pond to mate. They sing all night and all day and fill the pond with toad spawn. We have eagles, osprey, owls, kites, hawks, ducks, crows, herons, egrets, and just about every type of feeder bird and migratory warbler. We have butterflies, bees and dragonflies, ladybugs, cicadas and spiders. The place is literally crawling with wildlife, and we encourage it as much as possible, planting bird and butterfly attractive vegetation, hanging bird feeders, and leaving bushes and brush for shelter.
Southern Toads Mating in Our Backyard Pond

But then what happens when the wildlife we don't want comes along in the mix? Rats and mice like the bird seed, too. The bird feeders also attract the numerous neighborhood cats, who hunt the birds and then dig and poop in the yard. When I pick weeds in the native plant garden, hundreds of roaches scurry out of the mulch. And when I move brush piles or lift rocks, I'm always aware of the potential for venomous snakes. Coyotes and mountain lions are hunting pets in some suburbs. Gators do show up in swimming pools. Bears roam neighborhoods, eating pet food and trash. Bees nest in the walls of houses. Panthers cross roads in the Everglades. Sometime our relationships can end in tragedy.

I was recently visiting a public place and came across some employees who had just found a baby cottonmouth snake in the bushes. They picked it up and relocated it to a safe, less public location. I got a nice photo op!

Baby Cottonmouth in the Bushes

But later that morning, some other people and I came across another, much larger cottonmouth. We reported it to the staff so they could relocate it. But when the staff arrived, they determined that the snake was just too large and dangerous to allow it to remain, and they killed it. I was shocked and sad because it was such a large and beautiful snake. But I understood their dilemma. This was a public place where many people could encounter the highly venomous snake. There could be children or pets present, too. The liability was just too great. They told me that in the past it had been their practice to remove the venomous snakes and relocate them to distant areas. But with our recent rains, the numbers of snakes were just so high that moving them didn't do much good, and it was too dangerous to let them stay. They had to get rid of the snakes. In another setting, it would have been better to leave the snake alone, and let it do its thing--hunting rodents. Our worlds collided. We created an artificial habitat that was attractive to the animals we wanted to attract, but also attractive to the ones we can't keep around us.

This incident with the cottonmouth really got me thinking about how humans can live in harmony with nature, and the consequences of our doing so. I don't know if there is a good answer. We can build eco-passages to help cut down on fatalities on the road, but there will always be road kill away from the eco-passages. We can designate nature sanctuaries and conservation areas, but plants and animals that live outside of the protected land are not protected. The gopher tortoises that live 2 miles away from the nature park are in danger of having houses built on their habitat. And when venomous snakes live in close proximity of people, most people will worry about the safety of their children and pets. I know that the rats are not welcome in our garden, even though we invite them with birdseed. If they make it into our house, they will be trapped and killed. Is this fair, basically to lure them in and then kill them? Probably not. But I can't share my house with rats.  If we had more snakes, that could help. But a venomous one? I feel like I'm pretty enlightened about this, but I must admit that I would not want a Cottonmouth in my yard.  So what is right, what to do, when our worlds collide?

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