Understanding Human-Wild Animal Interactions In Urban Environments
In places where humans and wild animals live in close proximity, it’s common to hear stories about conflicts or positive, amazing experiences. Both types of encounters fall under the category of “human-wild animal interactions” (HWI).
Management of HWIs revolves around the idea of “coexistence.” This doesn’t mean creating situations where there is no conflict between people and animals. Rather, it involves creating a sustainable environment where people accept and tolerate other species.
Research on HWIs in the U.S. normally focuses on rural areas and interactions with large mammals and other carnivores. However, HWIs occur in urban areas, even if these encounters tend not to be as dramatic or exciting. Common experiences can be negative (e.g., attacks on pets, property damage) or positive (e.g., birdwatching or feeling connected to nature). Positive HWIs may encourage people to protect and support urban wild animals.
Coexistence depends on several factors, including people’s previous HWIs and their attitudes toward wild animals. In this study, researchers interviewed people based in Phoenix, Arizona, about their everyday interactions with wild animals. Common wild animals in the area include hummingbirds, coyotes, rabbits, scorpions, and snakes.
Twenty-four participants were asked to reflect on their experiences and physical interactions with wild animals in their neighborhood, as well as any actions they’d taken to protect, avoid, or harm them. Because the authors relied on a small convenience sample, the study provides an interesting glimpse at how some people perceive HWIs — but we cannot assume that the results apply to everyone in Phoenix.
A third of the participants claimed that they didn’t interact much with wild animals in Phoenix. People most often mentioned encountering birds, such as pigeons and hummingbirds. Mammal interactions, including with coyotes and rabbits, were mentioned by about half of the participants.
Only five of the participants reported having had any physical contact with wild animals. Examples included picking up stray cats, stepping on lizards, and hitting a rattlesnake with their car.
People who encountered wild animals often described these cases in positive terms. One participant who reported removing scorpions from their home still claimed to like them as an animal. People also enjoyed hearing birds, coyotes, and mountain lions around their homes.
Generally, participants could be split into groups depending on whether they had negative, indifferent, or positive attitudes towards wild animals. Negative attitudes were most common towards insects and scorpions, who were described as “inconvenient” or “not fun.” The indifferent group commonly talked about birds, especially pigeons. This group generally claimed not to care about wild animals. Those with more positive attitudes reported “loving” or “enjoying” birds, mammals, or wild animals as a whole. For some, their HWIs felt like spiritual experiences.
Nine participants reported having performed some type of stewardship (caring for wild animals). This included minor things like giving animals a friendly greeting, as well as more involved actions like feeding birds or removing small animals from the home rather than killing them.
The results of this study suggest that some well-liked species, such as certain birds and rabbits, may be good targets for conservation campaigns by positioning them as “mascot” species. Slightly less charismatic animals, like scorpions and snakes, may be more challenging to promote in coexistence efforts. For these species, and for people who generally view wild animals in a negative light, advocates should focus on teaching people how to limit negative encounters and reducing their fear and disgust responses. The authors suggest reaching out to the media to raise awareness of these issues.