Post written by Tim Beatley
I think one important litmus test for a biophilic city might be the extent to which it commits to finding ways to effectively and humanely co-exist with other forms of life.
It is remarkable to think that one could live in a metropolis like San Francisco where it might be possible to catch a glimpse of such a wild and majestic creature as a mountain lion. I write this as an east-coaster, living in a highly altered ecosystem that once was home to mountain lions as well. There are the ghosts of these creatures living amongst us I am convinced, as every so often (not that infrequently) someone will report a sighting, often along the skyline drive.
There are many dimensions to the challenge of co-existence. One is understanding how we must live and behave. For example, not feeding coyotes and working to maintaining a certain respectful fear of humans is essential to co-existence with this species. The Stanley Park Ecology Society, in Vancouver, has developed a successful program of coyote co-existence, and maintains an online map of sightings. A lot of emphasis is on education, including such things as neighborhood coyote walks. And there are even online instructions about how to make a DIY noise maker, a “coyote shaker” as they’re called, for making noises that will scare off a coyote.
I would be excited to live in a city, like San Francisco or Vancouver, or Washington, DC, where these larger mammals might be seen or heard, ideally at a respectful and safe distance. It is part of the wildness we want in cities, and ought to be understood as something that enhances quality of life, and a point of pride for residents.
Which brings me to a second challenge. Equally important to co-existence is to foster and cultivate a sense of how our urban lives are profoundly enriched by the presence, and occasional sightings, of these wild animals. Education is an important part and as the accompanying interviews describe there are already impressive efforts to incorporate education about mountain lions and coyotes into schools [Zara McDonald describes the Cat Aware Program, for instance, that has already reached some 30,000 Bay Area kids; and Camilla Fox, founder of Project Coyote speaks similarly of the importance of reaching kids ].
The adult population of cities may be a harder sell. On a recent lecture in Tallahassee, Florida, one questioner in the audience asked about the difficulties of understanding human habitats as shared habitats. Alexander Gulde, who runs the state’s wildlife assistance program, told me later in an email of a recent meeting in a neighborhood where coyotes were taking family pets. As Gulde wrote, “Our messages on pet safety were not too well received, and one attendee summed up the crowd’s sentiments with the words ‘This is human habitat. There is no room for wildlife here.’”
Hopefully this view will change, and we are making progress, to be sure. The inspiring work of Zara McDonald and Camilla Fox, shows what is possible. And changes in the law and in funding seem to support the goals of co-existence. In 2014, California changes its law through Senate Bill 132, to permit state wildlife officials to consider a range of non-lethal methods for dealing with human-nature conflicts (fueled by outrage over the unnecessary killing of two very young mountain lions). Also in 2014, the state banned the retail sale of rodenticides (anti-coagulants) that have been especially deadly for many animals in the state. These are good signs and positive steps.
The interviews and articles in this e-newsletter suggest that the challenge of co-existence will also require some careful and nuanced regional land planning. Coyotes and Mountain Lions, two species specially profiled here, have different habitat needs and quite different tolerances for the presence of humans. Mountain lions are more likely to stay away from land with a strong human presence, while coyotes seem quite comfortable, perhaps a little too comfortable at times, in the midst of the humans and human neighborhoods. Both would benefit from strategies such as land bridges, overpasses, habitat connections of various kinds, but mountain lions will likely require large blocks of habitat and to some degree room to roam beyond the sights and sounds of humans.
Overcoming the habitat splintering effects of roads and highways, and the very real danger of road kill, will be difficult but must be a higher priority for planners. I recall the visit several years ago to an innovative wildlife crossing project in Brisbane, Australia (one that combined a complex set of crossing structures to accommodate a range of species), where the evidence suggests that it has indeed reduced wildlife mortality. I have watched the expansion over the years in the number of land bridges in Netherlands, providing similar ecological connections, though their high cost is often a point of controversy. Reducing the amount of road space and road-building we do might be preferable, though perhaps unrealistic, but the biology and movement of other lifeforms must be increasing a design consideration.
The differing habitat needs of these species suggest perhaps different ways in which urbanites might enjoy these species–perhaps relishing the knowledge of their not-far-away lives, and the occasional camera trap image that provides a story of their movements and lives. Some areas of the larger metropolis may need to remain remote and off-limits to hikers, for the good mountain lions. But our image of cities, and our visions of, and aspirations for them, can and should evolve to include an ethic of sharing space with the many other life-forms that deserve our attention and that make our own lives so interesting.