Meanderings and Ponderings…Living With Wildlife

I’m sure you have all heard people say this, or perhaps you’ve said it yourself, “Oh, isn’t it just so cute and cuddly,” usually in reference to a bear or raccoon that shows up in our yard, perhaps with little ones. For some reason the thought that crosses our mind is, “Aw, they must be hungry.” So, inevitably someone feeds the wild animal, and the animal suddenly discovers that it can now get an easy meal from humans. This leads to what can very quickly become a bad experience for humans and wildlife alike.

Now, the situation described above is somewhat cliched, as negative wildlife experiences generally are a culmination of different events that lead to a wild animal losing its natural fear of humans, but the fact remains that problems with wildlife are generally the fault of humans. I think most people would agree that all wildlife experiences should be positive, and the way we make that happen is to re-think our understanding of wildlife behavior.

Wild animals have an innate, natural fear of humans. Wildlife cannot be tamed, no matter what we see on TV, movies and social media. They can lose their fear of humans, but their wild instincts remain, a fact that makes them unpredictable and dangerous. You may know of someone who maybe had a pet raccoon or a pet skunk. Just because we call it a pet, doesn’t mean that the animal has been domesticated. They still retain their wild instincts and most of their submissive behavior is related more to the fact that their basic needs are being met or they have imprinted. Imprinting occurs when an infant has been removed from its mother and it sees the human as its mother. Imprinting doesn’t remove their wild instincts, particularly as the animal reaches adulthood. While they may act tame, they can do things that can still be dangerous, such as bite. It is also important to understand that animals do not have the same range of emotions that humans have. That’s not to say that they don’t have emotions, but the complexity of those emotions is based more on basic instinct rather than from learned behavior. This means we must be careful not to associate our human feelings and emotions with those of wild animals. When we can look at wild animals this way, we can make better decisions concerning their welfare.

One of the big dangers with wild animals, particularly carnivores is their natural proclivity as rabies vectors. Many of these animal species are born with the rabies virus. They carry the virus but don’t show any symptoms. A bite from one of these animals could put a human in grave danger.

Very often, the way most negative wildlife interactions start is due to simply not thinking about our actions. When we finish with dinner, we may take our food scraps and dump them at the edge of the yard or in the woods. This edge area is called an ecotone and serves as an overlap area of habitats for different species. This is where our wildlife neighbors will be. As those wild animals become accustomed to getting scraps, they start to expect them. When they don’t get them, they come ever closer to our house or our neighbor’s house looking for that delicious free meal that didn’t require any effort to obtain. When they don’t find it, they look for another easy meal such as dog or cat food, or our outdoor trash cans. The longer this behavior continues, the more difficult it will be to correct, making the problem worse until someone gets attacked or the animal gets injured.

How can we be better neighbors with the wildlife friends? First, let’s not call them friends, because they don’t understand that concept the way we do. They are neighbors though, and we should treat them as we would treat our human neighbors. How do we do that? Here’s a list of things that will get you started:
• Don’t feed wildlife! Don’t feed them from your table, your garden, or your hand.
• Don’t try to pet wildlife! That’s just asking to be hurt.
• If you find an “abandoned” animal, leave it alone. It is highly likely that mom is not too far away and waiting for you to leave. People make this mistake with deer fawns all the time. They’ll pick up the deer, pet it, or worse, try to take it home. When fawns are born, their mothers will very often leave them so that they can go feed. Birth uses a lot of calories which the mother must replenish. It’s also hard on the fawn as well. The newborn fawn is scentless, making it very safe from predators. Their mother will return shortly to pick up her unscented baby. She will feed it and it will follow her.
• When bears and other wildlife are in the area, bring bird feeders inside. Birds don’t need your food. When bears and racoons are actively feeding, there are plenty of things to eat. Birds have insects, worms, and seeds from our native plants that they can eat. All of those things are better for the birds this time of year than the seed we feed them anyway.
• Don’t put trash cans outside unless you have critter proof containers.
• Keep pets inside at night to protect them from wildlife.
• It is illegal in the state or North Carolina to keep wildlife as pets without permits from the Wildlife Resources Commission.
• It is illegal to live trap carnivores, beavers, and groundhogs on your property and then release them on someone else’s property, even if you have permission. This is due to the risk of spreading rabies.
• Discourage wildlife from eating your garden by planting native species that are desirable to wildlife and better meet their needs.
• Discourage wild animals from hanging around by making lots of noise, throwing sticks and rocks, and doing things that will keep them afraid of people.

Hickory Nut Gorge is special. We are blessed to live and work in a place that has such exquisite biodiversity. It is up to us, as stewards of this beautiful area, to look out for the best interests of all its residents. Keep the wildlife wild. If you are having wildlife issues that you can’t handle on your own, the State of North Carolina certifies Wildlife Damage Control Agents that can assess your problem and offer the best course of action that will best benefit you and your wild neighbor.

Until Next Time!

Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.

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