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OUT THERE

Homeowners Learn to Live With Wildlife

May 03, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Blaire Van Valkenburgh is a UCLA paleontologist who studies the hunting habits of Pleistocene Era carnivores. She knows a predator when she sees one and won't let her house cat go outside.

Van Valkenburgh lives in the Santa Monica Mountains, and she worries that her tabby will hunt down the seven native species of lizard that crawl through the chaparral around her home.

"And the birds, too," she said. "Although my cat is really a terrible hunter."

She is equally concerned that the cat might be eaten by coyotes.

Van Valkenburgh and her husband, biologist Robert Wayne, take special care to minimize their effects on the wild animals around them. They keep their outside lights dim at night, so as not to disturb nocturnal hunters like owls. Instead of killing the rattlesnakes that slither too close to the back porch, they bag them up and release them farther afield. And they try not to clear more brush around their house than the law requires.

Brush clearance might prevent fires, Van Valkenburgh said. "But you're also destroying habitat."

Such overtures to the animal world are common in the Santa Monica Mountains, where proximity to nature is a big selling point for real estate agents. But as development continues its spread into once-wild territory across Southern California, it also brings conflict.

Responding to a coyote attack on a young schoolgirl, residents of a subdivision near San Clemente this year briefly hired hunters to trap and kill the animals. Last year, the city of Los Angeles experienced a surge of complaints about aggressive coyotes and gave officials greater leeway to trap them. In the recent drought, a number of black bears descended on populated areas of Ventura County in search of food and water.

Over the years, various government agencies and naturalist groups have tried to help people deal with such problems, but the burden fell to no single group. In February, a number of agencies and environmental organizations came together to form On the Edge, with the sole purpose of teaching residents how to coexist with their fellow creatures.

"We'd heard from homeowners' organizations in these areas that a lot of people who are moving in are very citified -- whereas in the past, people who moved into places like the Santa Monica Mountains were a little more used to living in the country," said Garrie Mar, a spokeswoman for the Mountains Restoration Trust, a member of On the Edge.

"We want to let them know there are some choices they can make to keep their pets and children more secure, and in turn make the wildlife more secure," Mar said.

Starting on Wednesday in Malibu, the group will launch a series of free seminars in neighborhoods close to wild areas. Experts will share homemaking tips that are compatible with healthy habitats.

And animal handlers will bring examples of local fauna, describing their quirks, the potential dangers they pose, and what they eat for dinner -- be it your garbage, your dog food or, in some cases, your dog. A Web site is also planned, which will give detailed information on specific species.

The situations that On the Edge calls human-wildlife conflicts are nothing new, of course.

But it is only recently that people have started changing some fundamental attitudes toward wild animals, which require more nuanced responses to the threats they pose.

From 1907 to 1963, state officials encouraged bounty hunters to kill thousands of mountain lions, according to Michelle Cullens, a director of the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation.

But the mood swung toward preservation in the early 1970s, when Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a moratorium on game hunting of lions. A permanent ban was enacted by the voters in 1990 with Proposition 117.

Today, many homeowners who choose to live near open areas would object to shooting wild predators unless they pose a direct threat.

But if those residents are uninformed, they too can unwittingly harm such animals, Cullens said.

Wildlife groups say they often hear the story of the well-meaning animal lover who sets dog food out for the neighborhood coyotes.

That encourages the animals to forage in adjacent backyards in hopes of scoring snacks.

Sometimes, those neighbors grow scared and call authorities -- who decide the animal should be destroyed.

"What we're trying to teach people is that, when you take an action in your yard, you need to think about the effect that action has outside your yard," Cullens said.

Other seemingly benign household activities can also have fatal consequences for wildlife. Filling a dirty bird feeder can spread avian diseases. Using rat poison may end up killing the hawks that hunt rodents.

At a recent On the Edge preview event in the hills of Calabasas, organizers pointed out a few typical items that can attract wildlife to a suburban backyard.

For many animals, a cold, dirty barbecue smells like dinner from miles away.

A kiddie pool looks like a great spot for a drink.

To a wood rat, an open vent on the outside of a house looks like a good place to bed down for the night.

To a mountain lion, a goat on a rope is a Happy Meal.

Much of this information is rooted in common sense, and little of it is very new. But city of Los Angeles wildlife officer Troy Boswell said it bears repeating.

"A lot of Los Angeles residents aren't really familiar with the wildlife in their area," he said. "Just the fact that they're there seems to scare them."

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