How Urban Wild Animals Reacted To COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges and novel situations for humans and animals alike. Governments around the globe imposed lockdowns, which strongly limited human activity and resulted in people staying at home for prolonged periods of time. This resulted in less traffic, pollution, noise, and greenhouse emissions, which some scholars have dubbed an “anthropause.”
The unprecedented anthropause has allowed researchers to observe how a major slow-down in human activities affects wild animals in urban environments. To review the effects of lockdowns on urban wild animal behavior, the authors of this study summarized relevant academic papers published on the topic in 2020 and 2021. They also explored anecdotal evidence from cities around the world.
The main reason why human inactivity impacted animals’ behavior is that fewer people were traveling, which led to reduced traffic and thereby reduced noise and emissions. As a result, in the early days of the pandemic, many social media reports focused on sightings of wild animals on deserted city streets. Animals quickly adapted to the lack of human activity, increasing their territories and surprising their human observers. Wild boars, deer, coyotes, and even a puma were roaming free in empty cities. In the absence of ships and marine noise pollution, whales and dolphins made appearances in city ports and shorelines..
Further examples of radical changes and fast adaptation of animal behavior were the increased breeding rates observed in birds and turtles around the world. Thailand reported a sharp increase in leatherback turtle nesting sites, while Florida reported a rise in leatherback turtles in 2020. Another striking development, the authors reported, was that road mortality rates went down 50% compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
However, the COVID-19 lockdowns presented challenges for some animals. For example, animals depending on tourists or locals for food including dogs, cats, birds, and in some places even monkeys were deprived of their usual food sources. This led animals to explore new territories trying to find other means of securing food. For other animals, the food shortages encouraged competition and aggression.
Lockdowns also had clear environmental effects. Most importantly, thanks to the reduced usage of fossil fuels for transportation and industry, air and water quality improved as emissions went down. However, while it would benefit humans and animals to continue along the trajectory of reducing emissions, recent environmental conferences suggest that these reductions in pollution were short-lived.
The effects of the early pandemic seem to have been transient, and wild animals are predicted to retreat back to smaller territories as COVID restrictions continue to ease. However, people’s awareness of wild animals and their presence in urban areas seems to have increased. This newfound awareness could motivate people to, at least in part, examine their relationships with wild animals and continue investing in more sustainable activities.
The pandemic also showcased how anthropogenic climate change is reversible (at least to an extent). When communicating with the public, advocates may consider reminding them about the side effects of the pandemic lockdowns, and how reducing their environmental footprint as much as they can will benefit humans and animals.
However, the authors’ data was based at least partially on observations. This means that more research would be needed to understand the full effects of the pandemic lockdowns on wild animals. Similarly, additional research is needed to extract actionable advice for advocates who support wild animal protection issues.
Even though the article did not have a clear conclusion, it’s relevant to think about how the anthropause has impacted human-wild animal interactions. One of the most interesting takeaways was that the pandemic might have reignited people’s awareness of the natural world and our place in it. Now it’s up to animal advocates to encourage the public to sustain these promising perceptions.