They were there before you got there, or at least their ancestors were. And, frankly, you’ve probably not done yourself any favors when it comes to dealing with all those critters.
That’s the reality which when it comes to what’s called “urban wildlife,” which is often a challenge for growing cities. The City of Huntsville’s Animal Services Department handles sick and injured wildlife of any species (256-883-3788) but does not handle trapping and removal requests.
“Urban wildlife” is a very broad term. A vast majority would include squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and birds that can be seen most any day, anywhere. There is also a growing number of birds of prey – red-tail hawks and Cooper’s hawks – that prey on smaller animals and other birds.
There are also foxes, coyotes, skunks, opossums — mostly nocturnal animals who add a level of fear to the equation.
“Some of the larger mammals, including coyotes, make people really anxious,” says Dr. Karen Sheppard, Director of Animal Services for the City of Huntsville. “But they’re here. They’re in every urban setting across the United States and they actually thrive … It tends to be an easier life for them because there is so much food.”
They thrive because of us, not in spite of us (roadkill evidence to the contrary). We grow gardens that provide food that entices them into our yards. We are shaded by trees that provide nuts for them to nibble.
A prevalent mistake is leaving dog and cat food outside, particularly the bowls left generously filled for the neighborhood cats. That food attracts mice and rats. Mice and rats attract coyotes and larger predators.
Sheppard addresses several specific challenges:
The only coyote most of us see is well-armed by the Acme Corporation and chasing a cartoon road runner.
However, they’re common in most neighborhoods in Huntsville. They create their dens in wooded areas, thickets, under fallen logs and places where they are likely to go undisturbed.
Sheppard says that coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare; the danger comes from a coyote protecting its den or if injured. There has been only one known death in the U.S. from a coyote attack, compared to 31 fatalities from dog bites in 2016. Some 1,000 people are treated at hospitals each day for dog bites.
Sheppard does caution owners of indoor-outdoor cats and small dogs to keep their pets inside from dusk until dawn to ensure their safety and said pet-owners walking their dogs who come across a coyote should pick up their dogs and move along quickly.
Coyotes are particularly smart and secretive. Traps that are widely successful with stray dogs typically don’t fool coyotes. Recently, though, a coyote stranded on an I-565 wall “was smart enough to let himself get captured,” Sheppard says, and was released safely elsewhere.
On the subject of …
Often, impatient residents will trap pesky visitors. They’ll then take the animal into a rural area and set them free. That leads to an “inhumane death,” Sheppard says. It’s setting free an animal grown used to the availability of food and unaccustomed to other predators.
“Such trapping should be stopped,” Sheppard says.
Fix Things Up
Many animals being trapped are those who have invaded attics and crawl spaces. Companies make a nice living coming in to trap and exterminate the animals.
But unless the homeowner takes the initiative to repair what has enabled the entrance in the first place, say a hole underneath the eaves of a house, other animals are bound to find their way inside.
As Sheppard says, “It’s our responsibility to secure our homes to find another place for them to den.”
Two other key measures are keeping brush area under control and making sure that birdfeeders aren’t accessible to mice and rats. Watch for spillover of seeds onto the ground as you fill the feeders or caused by feeding birds.
Most urban wildlife, like squirrels, mice, chipmunks and rabbits, don’t carry rabies. However, coyotes can be rabid. The four types of urban wildlife of greatest concern for carrying rabies are foxes, skunks, bats and raccoons.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tried to combat the spread of rabies with an oral vaccine placed inside vanilla-scented cookies. They are dropping them by helicopter over areas that might be more heavily infested or tossing them from vehicles. They don’t kill the animals nor are they harmful to household pets.
Bats are the most common animal associated with rabies, so never handle a bat.
“With coyotes, and with a lot of other animals, the main thing is we need to choose to live in harmony with them and respect them,” Sheppard says, “and do the right things to deter them.”