Living with Wildlife

Many people move to the suburbs and the country to be close to nature, and carnivores such as coyotes and bobcats are part of the natural world (whether we like them or not).  Just like we must learn to coexist with traffic, pollution, potential crime, and other issues, those of us who live in more rural areas ought to (and in most cases must) learn to coexist with other species, including a few species that have some potential -- a small potential, but it does exist -- to cause harm to our property, pets, or ourselves.

Those of us who value intact ecosystems and work to protect wildlife species in the face of human development have a responsibility to educate the public about living with wildlife.  In essence, we would like to convince folks that they have value, by filling important ecosystem roles, and maybe even just because they are "cool".

This effort includes education efforts across a few broad categories:

  • Educating people on the positive aspects of wildlife and carnivores.  This includes both intrinsic or aesthetic (e.g., "I like them", "they have a right to exist", etc.) and instrumental (carnivores can increase ecosystem diversity and stability; carnivores are important scavengers; carnivores can help limit rodent and deer populations, etc.) benefits.
  • Educating people on how they can minimize the negative aspects of human-wildlife proximity.  
  • Lastly, it is also worth pointing out certain cultural mores regarding wildlife, particularly carnivores, that tend to inflate our perceptions of their costs or dangers.  For example, driving over the speed limit, smoking, and owning a gun are far more dangerous to your family than sharing a landscape with coyotes, bears, and other carnivores.
This page is meant to be a source of information for these three educational goals.  We have arranged it as a FAQ list with the most-asked-for information first.  We will continue to expand this section with greater detail on each species.

Are any of these species dangerous?
Each of the species we are studying have their own life histories and ecologies, and the details of their potential effects on your family, pets, and property are specific to each species.  Fishers, bobcats, and foxes represent virtually no danger to people at all, but they may attack small pets.  

Coyotes and bears rarely attack people but do require some wisdom and caution.  Currently, coyotes represent the highest potential for negative interactions because they are the most numerous large carnivore in our area.  Black bears certainly require caution, but are not as dangerous as other species of bear.

It is important to consider the true relative risks of living near wildlife.  Which is more dangerous to your family, driving over the speed limit or a coyote?  What about smoking vs. having a bear living in the forest near your house?  For many cultural and, maybe, instinctual reasons, carnivores set off our psychological radar more than other, much more significant and prevalent risks that we have learned to live with and/or ignore.

Another example is, which do you think is more dangerous to your child, having a wild coyote live in the woods nearby or having a family with a dog live next door to you?

You also might consider that human deaths and injuries because of deer (by far mostly in vehicle accidents) are far higher than attacks by carnivores.  Our local carnivores might actually do something to limit deer numbers (at least perhaps bobcats and coyotes...but again the data is still unclear on that), so they in fact may reduce human-wildlife conflicts to some degree.

There is the old (and verified with data up to 1995) adage that more people are killed by vending machines than shark attacks.  I am not sure if soda machines beat all pet and people attacks by coyotes+bobcats+bears, but it serves a point: wild animal attacks are incredibly rare.

How can I minimize the chance that one of these species will attack me/my children/my pets?
The first and most important rule of living with wildlife is to never habituate the animals to human behavior or human sources of food.  Never feed wild animals.  A common source of food is garbage.  Bobcats are pretty strict carnivores, but bears and coyotes are more than happy to eat almost anything, including vegetable matter and garbage.  Thus, you should also keep your compost piles safe and secure.

This includes leaving food out for other animals.  For numerous reasons, it is a bad idea to feed feral cats, and one big reason is that wild animals such as bears and coyotes can eat the cat food left out for feral cats and thus see the location as a reliable source of food.  They will then begin to view the location as their territory (no matter what your property deed says) and thus you will be the intruder in their eyes and they may choose to defend their food source (despite the fact that you put the cat food, garbage, compost, etc. there in the first place!).  This also applies to your own pets -- do not feed them outside.

Many of our citizen scientists likely have bird feeders.  Bird seed is edible by coyotes and bears.  You thus should pull your bird feeders in at night and clean up any spilled seed.

If you see a coyote on your property, you should never try to lure it closer or offer it food.  You can watch it from your window and it will likely move on with no trouble.  You can if you wish try to negatively reinforce it (hazing) by blowing an air horn or using a water hose.  Some people shoot at them with paint guns.  We would not condone injuring the animal, but anything that keeps it from becoming too comfortable in sight of your house is a good thing.

Lastly, do not leave pets or small children outside on their own.   Do not let you children wander around alone in your neighborhood (this is probably a good rule of thumb for many reasons!).  This includes letting your pet cats outside.  On top of the possibility of getting eaten by a wild animal, hit by a car, or any other of the numerous dangers out there, cats themselves have a tremendous negative impact on wild bird and small mammal populations.

In our area, coyotes are of the most concern to people.  Our friends at the Narragansett Coyote Project put together a very informative web page dealing with the issue of coyote management.

What about rabies?
Unfortunately, most of the species we are studying can get rabies.  The rabies virus can make animals aggressive and attack things, including people, that they would otherwise not attack.

All of the coyote attacks on people in New York were by a coyote later found to be rabid.  On the one hand, this shows that coyotes in our area can get rabies and that this might lead to human attacks.  On the other hand, it indicates that healthy coyotes will not typically not attack people.

Out West the situation is different, where coyotes have been known to attack people and pets.  Presumably after decades of habituation, some coyotes have lost their fear of people.  This is why it is important to never habituate coyotes to lose their natural fear of people.

These rules are a giant pain, why do I have to put up with this?
This is a valid question, and can be tricky to address due to many of our societal perceptions regarding humans and nature.  I can certainly sympathize, as any person would like to do what they wish on their own property.  However, as someone who loves and appreciates wild animals, I think the infinitesimally small danger posed by having species such as coyotes and bobcats share the landscape with me is greatly outweighed by the benefits.  

Ultimately this question stems from a (false) perception that we as humans have 100% control over all facets of our environment.  We modified the landscape to something that we want: scattered forests, not-too-dense residential neighborhoods, yards, gardens, etc.  Certain species adapt and flourish in this same environment just like we have, and thus strategies for coexistence are necessary.  Wholesale slaughter is, to most of us, undesirable and unethical, and in the case of many species would be ineffective anyway (coyotes have had a bounty on them in many states for centuries and they have only expanded their range immensely). 

As a conservationist and an advocate for ecosystem function, I try to communicate the need for responsible behavior towards carnivores, but also promote the benefits of these species.  They serve many important ecological functions, as well as being a source of wonder and enjoyment for many of us.  There is also the ethical argument that wildlife has a right to exist, just as any of us do, and that coexistence should be our society's goal regarding wildlife, rather than domination or eradication.

So what roles do carnivores play in our ecosystem?
The specific roles that predators play depend on many factors, and each species is unique.  However, there are a few general "jobs" that predators do that lead to the stability of the overall food web.

Regulate Prey Populations
Carnivores obviously eat prey, and thus carnivores can regulate prey populations to some extent.  Large predators such as wolves and cougars have a stronger effect in this regard than smaller ones like coyotes and bobcats and omnivorous species such as bears.

Currently, most citizens and biologists would agree that deer densities in our area are too high.  Why do we say "too high"?  As an ecologist, my benchmark is the fact that current deer numbers are so high that forest regeneration has effectively ceased.  This means that the deer are basically eating nearly every young tree, and thus the forest will disappear as older trees eventually die and no young ones take their place.  Others may say we have too many deer based on the effects on their gardens or property, or the seemingly high rate of vehicle collisions, etc.  

Can coyotes, bobcats, and bears limit deer numbers?  Currently, we think there are not enough bobcats or bears in the area to do so.  There may be enough coyotes, however.  The best evidence we have says, generally, coyotes kill and eat fawns and only occasionally kill adult deer.  This is very hard to measure, because even if you find deer hair in coyote poop (a common way to look at the diet of wild animals), you do not know if that deer was killed or scavenged.  If you see a coyote take a deer, this could be an isolated incident, or the novel behavior of a single family group that has learned how to take deer, and may not apply to all eastern coyotes. 

The lack of evidence may change as coyotes become more accustomed to the large numbers of deer in our area and take advantage of it, and the evidence becomes overwhelming across our region.  Other studies in other parts of the country report that coyotes do affect deer numbers.  It is important to note that in the vast majority of studies, coyotes take fawns.  Mortality of the young age-classes generally has the weakest effect on overall population growth, so coyotes can certainly have an effect but it may not be a major one.

At the Mianus Gorge, where we are actively trying to reduce deer numbers, we think that coyotes can add a few percentage points of an effect onto our reduction efforts, but it is still unknown whether this makes a real difference.  They may be an important piece of the puzzle, however.

Most of the carnivores in our study eat rodents.  Foxes, bobcats, and coyotes make a large portion of their calories eating mice, chipmunks, voles, and squirrels.  Many of these species are known vectors for Lyme's disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Other studies (including this one) report that the presence of a large carnivore such as a coyote or bobcat will suppress smaller predators.  Without the big guys, the smaller predators, such as foxes, raccoons, and opossums, drive many bird species to local extinction.  This patterns is known as meso-predator release.  Another recent study similarly concluded that as coyotes enter an area, red foxes are pushed out.  Typically, red foxes eat a lot of rodents, and thus the change from foxes to coyotes results in more rodents.  This effect might be temporary, as coyotes numbers increase in an area they may take more rodents.  We will have to see.

Bobcats focus on the medium-sized small mammals (if that makes any sense) such as squirrels and rabbits.  They do regularly eat mice, and thus they may have an effect on mice vector populations once bobcat numbers increase in our area. 

Maintain Overall Biodiversity
Usually, generalist predators (those that have a wide diet) can increase the biodiversity of an area by preying on a variety of species.  This limits the competition between prey species because if one prey species becomes too numerous, the predator will switch to that prey and reduce its numbers.

Effects of a particular species are often hard to figure out, since food webs are large, interconnected systems.  However, a lot of work has been done to figure out the roles predators play in ecosystems.  Some studies and articles can be found here:

Dingoes in Australia
Raptor presence increases overall biodiversity
What good are wolves?
A discussion on the ecology of suburban coyotes
Some more examples

Some folks might see scavenging -- the act of eating a dead organisms -- as distasteful, but it is a vital ecosystem process.  Every carnivore in our study will scavenge a meal if the opportunity presents itself.

Scavengers are one component in the immense ecological recycling machine, where absolutely 100% of all materials are recycled back into the natural system to be used by new living things once again.  Carnivores that scavenge roadkill or a recently deceased sick or old animal are the first step in this natural recycling system.  Mammalian carnivores, with their strong teeth and jaws and claws are able to rip open the carcasses of dead organisms.  This allows smaller scavengers such as crows, ravens, vultures, and beetles access to the meal.  The later stages where insects and microbes fully recycle the dead tissue are assisted by the initial access provided by the bigger mammals.  Without the mammals, the process would take much longer and many species that make a living on scavenging still need bigger mammals to open the carcass up for them.  In the winter, a raven may not have the time to wait for the carcass to open up via decay.


I hope this section answers some of the questions you might have had about the roles of predators in our local world.  Please contact us with more of your questions and thoughts.

We are familiar with the term "community" in a social sense as all the people and groups of people in an area, and those who study human communities study how all the people in a place interact and get along.

In ecology, "community" refers to all the species in an area: all the animals, all the plants, all the trees, all the bugs, mushrooms, microbes, and critters (humans included) in an area.  Biologists who study ecological communities study how all the species interact and, in other words, get along.

I (and many others - I'm not totally alone here) sincerely believe that human communities will not survive unless they realize they are part of a larger ecological community, and thus the goal of "getting along" is fundamentally relevant to our own well-being.