Post written by John Hadidian, Senior Scientist for the Humane Society of the United States’s Wildlife Program
Cities are humanity’s preferred habitat, just as rocky intertidal zones are preferred by barnacles and deciduous forests by scarlet tanagers. More than half of all humans now live within urban boundaries, while in some places — Australia for example – as many as nine of ten do. This global rural to urban boundary was crossed only recently, but in the United States we have enjoyed an urban majority for at least a century, estimates suggesting we transited sometime in 1915. Now, eight of every ten Americans live in cities, half of us in cities of a million or more people. This is quite an accomplishment for a cultural institution that only came into being ten to fifteen thousand years ago, and which has changed so dynamically that there is scant resemblance of earlier to contemporary forms.
For the great majority of the time that we have been identifiable as fully modern humans (at least 200,000 years and perhaps longer) we were hunter-gatherers and later pastoralists and agriculturalists. These lifestyles involve, as many have pointed out, much more direct contact with nature than city folk are wont to enjoy. One widely discussed concern about our adopting an urban lifestyle is that we will leave nature behind as we do. Another is that cities will grow to such an extent that insurmountable problems with their physical infrastructure and social disorder will make them untenable. As global indicators suggest the trend to urbanization will only continue to grow, it is no wonder that the Rockefeller Foundation is calling this the “Century of the City,” and ominously drawing attention to there being “no time to lose.”
With a multitude of challenges facing the urban future it seems fortuitous that the biophilic cities movement has come along when it has. As we leave our past behind, the concept of the biophilic city offers hope as a bridge that can meaningfully connect our former and future worlds. For many reasons, it is important that we now reexamine and redefine our relationship with the natural world (nature) and the anthropogenic world (cities). Here, I would like to take up one small part of that relationship: urban wildlife.
Where not long ago the idea of “urban wildlife” would either have been dubbed an oxymoron or dismissed as only relevant to “pest” species, today it has come to involve everything from coyotes in Chicago to rhesus monkeys in Hyderabad. Whether we are ready for it or not, the time when cities were anathema to wildlife seems to be quickly passing. It is no surprise, of course, to see generalists like raccoons and squirrels adapting quickly to the anthropogenic alternatives we provide – uncapped chimneys to take the place of hollow trees and gardens and landscape plantings to take the place of forest foods. The trajectory is upwards as well for cities to support new colonizers – fisher in New England and leopards in India being but two examples. The traditional claim about this is that we have forced wildlife’s increasing presence by pushing urban growth into the “natural” habitat, leaving no option for them but to try to cope with urban spaces. This seems a bit of a slight to the many species, which have obviously sized up cities and found them to be to their liking. The rule is that if there are vacant niches available they will be found and occupied, even if the niche is the half of the day when humans withdraw to their dens and leave the outside world to others.
We should also expect that entirely new species, specifically adapted to urban living, will arise. In fact, this has already happened in plants and is trending in some birds and small mammals. Finally, there are the recent colonizers like the coyote, Canada goose and white-tailed deer who express enough behavioral flexibility to not only do well in urban environments, but quickly become ‘problematic’, creating issues, or perceived issues, for their human neighbors. So, conflicts between people and urban wildlife arise and ‘solutions’ are called for. To date, we have mostly floundered in trying to make traditional management approaches, heavily dependent on killing unwanted animals, work in a social environment where many vehemently reject “kill to solve” concepts.
One important vision for the biophilic city involves establishing a commitment to the humane resolution of human-wildlife conflicts. Every year, many thousands of wild animals living in cities are killed for simply being perceived as “nuisances,” often for no more of an offense than being seen crossing a yard. Additional thousands are left to die when an aggrieved homeowner simply boards up the hole that allowed access to an attic or caps a chimney, entrapping families being raised there. No truly reliable count of the mortality has ever been undertaken, but it is possible from indicators to estimate it as in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Such practices are not consonant with the idea of the biophilic city. Humane alternatives exist, are practical and durable, and simply need to be more fully developed and supported. The humane solutions are readily seen as biophilic principles that try to harmonize the best elements of both the natural and built urban environment. They also remind us that cities are living environments made up of biotic communities that warrant consideration and deserve respect in and of themselves. Biophilia, in this sense, represents an effort to move past anthropocentric thinking and open an entirely new dialogue about our possible urban future, and it seems to be arriving just in the nick of time.
Fox conflict resolved using the humane approach
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John Hadidian is Senior Scientist for The Humane Society of the United States’s wildlife program, which addresses a broad range of issues in advocacy for wildlife and the protection of the habitats that sustain wild animals. His specialization is urban wildlife.
Hadidian serves on the technical advisory committee of the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust as well as the Harmony Institute’s Community Advisory Board. He is past chair of the urban wildlife working group of The Wildlife Society and a member of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club.
He has served on the USDA-Wildlife Services national advisory committee and on U.S. Department of State Man and the Biosphere Program’s Human-Dominated Systems Directorate. He has also served as an associate editor of the Journal of Urban Ecosystems, chair of the Montgomery County, Md. white-tailed deer task force, and as an adjunct professorial lecturer in Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.
Hadidian received a master’s degree in Anthropology in 1975 and a doctorate in Primatology in 1979, both from Pennsylvania State University. He received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, with a minor in psychology, from the University of Arizona in 1969.