‘Nuisance Animals’ Thrive Despite Being Discriminated Against
Although we’re seeing more and more animal cognition research focusing on how animals respond to new or changing environments, few shed light on how animals who share our urban living space fare. Despite many species being in decline, some species have found ways to thrive in human-altered habitats by taking advantage of new resources and opportunities. However, these same species are often in conflict with humans and often end up being seen as a “nuisance.”
In this study, a team of researchers reviewed numerous studies to shed light on the cognitive abilities of such animals.
To begin with, the scientists list a range of several qualities and mechanisms that reflect cognition, that help to survive, and that lead to interaction between such animals and humans:
- Neophilia – individuals attracted to novelty such as anthropogenic foods or human-made structures often are able to take advantage of the new resources. Such behavior may facilitate range expansion and persistence in urban areas.
- Boldness – animals of a bolder temperament or a willingness to take risks in novel situations capitalize on new resources easier. However, a willingness to take risks often leads to more conflicts with humans.
- Innovation – discovering superior behaviors increases the ability of an individual to modify or expand their ecological niche, typically leading to the successful invasion of novel environments and adaptation to urbanization. However, after noticing innovation in urban wildlife, people tend to create exclusion structures to prevent unwanted residency and foraging. In turn, such efforts essentially create further challenges for the innovative individuals, stimulating their creativity even further, leading to an ‘arms race’ of sorts, fuelled by innovation and learning on both sides.
- Learning – learning in intelligent species is often relative to the cue: the more salient it or the experience is, the faster it will be learned. Furthermore, repeated exposure to the sights, smells, and sounds of anthropogenic disturbance lead to either habituation or sensitization to humans. While sensitization causes animals to avoid humans, habituation enables them to reside in close proximity to us, increasing the potential for both learning and conflicts. Think “kleptoparasitism” here, a prime example, where animals steal food or other objects directly from humans.
- Memory – remembering undoubtedly plays a vital cognitive role in the ability to adapt to and thrive in urban environments. Various forms of memory affect animals’ success: spatial memory is important in navigating complex human environments, while spatiotemporal memory allows individuals to predict foraging opportunities based on routine human activities.
- Social learning – researchers believe that the fact that many species learn both adaptive and maladaptive behaviors from others is why animal cognition is seen as an important field in modern wildlife conservation and management science.
- Behavioral flexibility – plastic behavioural responses enable animals to cope with change or devise novel solutions to arising problems in their environment. It is seemingly likely that such flexibility is highly advantageous for some species living in areas of anthropogenic disturbance, especially when there is potential to make use of many different types of human resources.
Impressive cognitive abilities of urban animals are wide ranging and well-documented. From grey squirrels, notoriously skilled at getting into bird feeders, crows learning about dangerous humans and subsequently avoiding specific places and humans, to chimpanzees who have learned to look left and right before crossing busy roads – animal adaptation is nothing short of awe-striking. Such problem-solving abilities may at the very least partially explain some species’ success. Naturally, there are good reasons for animals to develop awareness and avoidance behaviors towards us.
In contrast to kleptoparasitism, some animals minimize their contact with humans or avoid us altogether. Strategies to achieve such solitude include increasing nocturnal activity and discriminative learning. Urban species have experienced many different control measures, most of which deliver pain, fear, and death by design. Sensitization is typically quickly developed via the sense of taste, with many species becoming ‘bait or trap shy.’
Indicative of human creativity, a wide range of human-wildlife conflict mitigation strategies, ranging from lethal control to non-lethal deterrents and structural exclusions, have already been employed. The researchers note that lethal methods may be ineffective or cause negative consequences on ecosystems, not to mention that they are increasingly less tolerated by the public. However, current non-lethal strategies are often overcome by animal cognition.
Since the success of non-lethal deterrents cannot be assured, the researchers urge for more studies on the behaviour and cognition of urban-dwelling species to better design and execute humane mitigation strategies. For example, the researchers note that recently, an innovative method of using garbage bins with built-in automated feeders that reward animals for the disposal of litter underwent a pilot program. Such innovative methods promote a more harmonious relationship between humans and other species in urban environments. Although empathy towards animals is often elicited by animals’ anthropogenic qualities, the same cognitive abilities may paradoxically predispose animals to be seen as ‘nuisance’ species by people.
The research group argues for continuous efforts in public education and human behavior modification with respect to wild animals. Meanwhile, making use of citizen science projects is suggested, to aid in resensitizing animals to humans, and helping people to understand and appreciate animal behaviour in urbanized areas. Animal advocates will appreciate that scientists seek to understand how animals adapt to anthropogenic change. Only knowledge can help raise empathy for these highly intelligent species that will likely continue to be treated as a nuisance in our future cities.