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Your Home May Be Their Castle, Too : Coexisting With Wildlife Just a Matter of Tolerance

August 23, 1990|DIANE CALKINS

Although the ubiquitous Southern California bulldozers chase many critters away forever, other wild animals stay on, somehow managing to survive, even thrive. In fact, most of the survivors, while retaining their wildness, also learn to take advantage of living close to man.

Skunks often nest in basements, even between walls, and rattlesnakes rest under plants or on rocks in the back yard. Raccoons sneak in through cat doors and snack on feline food, while coyotes make meals of the felines themselves.

Reactions of human co-habitants range from "Oh, how cute, let's feed it" to fright, horror--even lethal action. The reactions depend not only on the sentiments of the people involved, but also the species of wildlife.

Some creatures, such as rattlesnakes, almost always evoke a negative response, while others elicit mixed or sympathetic feelings. Many of the species regarded as nuisances are the very ones that thrive in our midst.

"Coyotes, raccoons, skunks, starlings, sparrows and pigeons are preadapted to man-modified habitats," says Douglas Bolger, a graduate student in biology at UC San Diego. "They have evolved in an environment like that created by man."

Although few people yearn for a world without wild animals, most city folks don't know what to do when confronted with rabbits in the ranunculus or bats in the belfry. Guided by common sense and tolerance, most North County residents can peacefully coexist with the remaining wild creatures.

"For the past four years, the Humane Society of the United States has been conducting seminars on humane solutions to problems with urban wildlife," said John Grandy, the society's vice president for wildlife. "The seminars have become remarkably popular, because everyone has problems."

The Humane Society will publish a book on the subject this fall. In the meantime, Grandy and local experts have both philosophical and practical advice.

"We first try to impart tolerance, since many of the problems are attitudinal," Grandy said. "People, like the king of England, think their home, including their yard, is their castle--where they have the inalienable right to do whatever they want. They want to plant corn in the middle of a family of raccoons and not have the raccoons eat it."

Instead, he recommends that people learn to think like the animal they're trying to control and look for compassionate solutions.

"The first reaction does not have to be lethal," Grandy said. "That should be a last resort."

Project Wildlife, a rescue group, is often called when a wild animal appears at the patio window. Volunteers such as Ray West, the group's education chairman and vice president for communications, will first ask if pet food is left outside overnight.

"That's usually the key," he said. "Almost all these animals are nocturnal and forage for food after dark. If they find an easy source, they come and get it. The answer then is not to leave the pet food out."

The critter in question will quickly realize this source of food has dried up and search elsewhere. People who deliberately feed wild animals cause even more problems, he said.

"The animals become dependent," West said. "This may even cost a young animal, one which is learning its hunting skills, the opportunity to develop."

The feeding usually backfires because the animals hang around and become bolder than normal. A Poway family discovered this phenomenon after watching a coyote give birth. Fascinated by the daily drama as the mother raised her young, they started putting out food. They were less fascinated when the grown litter began showing up on their lawn in broad daylight, looking for food.

The family contacted the city of Poway, which in turn called in an extermination company. The company recommended that the coyotes be captured in leg-hold traps and shot. Project Wildlife rescuers persuaded the city that far better alternatives existed. Their advice: If the family stopped feeding the coyotes, the coyotes would go away. This common-sense, humane solution solved the problem in less than two months.

"Just as we discourage people from feeding wild animals, we also discourage them from taking animals out of the wild and trying to raise them," West said. "For one thing, each species needs a specific diet. Also, if an animal becomes imprinted on people, it can never safely be returned to the wild."

Like all the rescue groups in the county, Project Wildlife rehabilitates sick, young and injured animals with the goal of returning them to the wild. But sometimes that is impossible. How can a barn owl--captured as a baby and fed a steady diet of bologna, bacon and hamburger--be released? Malnutrition permanently deformed its talons and feet and left it unable to hunt, or even perch. What about the bobcat that was neutered and declawed and lived in an apartment? It now exists in a limbo somewhere between tame and wild.

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