Can Humans and Wild Carnivores Forge a Peaceful Co-existence?


Story at-a-glance -

  • Small wild animals like foxes and raccoons have been a part of the urban landscape for years. More recently, coyotes have begun to populate areas within shouting distance of cities and towns.
  • The presence of larger carnivores setting up camp so close to suburbia leaves experts wondering what’s next. Wolves, perhaps? Mountain lions? Bears?
  • Coyotes are adaptable, opportunistic animals able to live comfortably in urban areas. It remains to be seen whether even bigger carnivores will be as successful … and relatively harmless.

By Dr. Becker

Within a few miles of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport exists the smallest known coyote territory ever discovered. The coyotes have been there at least six years, living in an area covering approximately 200 acres.

Their proximity to civilization and the length of time they’ve lived there indicate the coyotes have easy access to food and water. According to Stan Gehrt, associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University, “They’re finding everything they need right there, in the suburbs of Chicago.”

Intersection between People and Carnivores

Other, smaller wild animals – foxes, raccoons and skunks, for example – have been part of the urban landscape for years. According to Gehrt, the coyote is the most recent and largest animal to take up residence so close to civilization. He wonders if this is a prelude to the appearance of even bigger carnivores like bears, wolves and mountain lions.

Gehrt, who has been tracking coyotes around Chicago for 12 years, estimates there are about 2,000 coyotes living in the Chicago metro area, along with 9 million people. And despite the fact many humans aren’t comfortable with the arrangement, Gehrt’s prediction is everyone on two legs and four will have to get used to it:

"It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores. In the future, and I would say currently, it's cities where we're going to have this intersection between people and carnivores.

"We used to think only little carnivores could live in cities, and even then we thought they couldn't really achieve large numbers. But we're finding that these animals are much more flexible than we gave them credit for and they're adjusting to our cities.

"That's going to put the burden back on us: Are we going to be able to adjust to them living with us or are we not going to be able to coexist?"

As was discovered with coyote eradication efforts back in 2000, the benefits frequently don’t outweigh the cost of these programs. Animals were trapped and killed, and within just a few weeks, new packs arrived and began reproducing. In addition, many residents were upset with government-sponsored elimination efforts.

And encroachment is a two-way street. “We’re expanding cities into their territories and they’re also coming in,” said Gehrt.

Coyotes: Adaptable and Opportunistic

Coyotes fare very well living close to cities and towns:

  • Coyote pups living in or near urban areas have a survival rate five times higher than the rate for rural pups.
  • Coyotes are resilient to the diseases they’re exposed to by eating rodents, rabbits, geese, bugs, and deer fawn.
  • They will chow down on fruit given the chance, and unfortunately, they are also known to eat cats and small dogs.
  • Coyotes change their diet and habitat use as necessary, and become nocturnal while their country cousins are active day and night. According to Gehrt, “Here, they're able to maintain their social structure, territorialism, packs and mating system, even in the face of all these challenges of trying to live among 9 million people."

Under normal circumstances, coyotes don’t attack humans. According to Gehrt, waving your arms and yelling, or throwing a rock in the animal’s direction will most likely scare him off.

As for other, larger carnivores moving closer to urban life, the jury’s still out on how adaptable they are, and how much threat they pose to humans.

"Mountain lions are already living in the outskirts of Los Angeles, Denver, and other western cities," Gehrt told Discovery News. "Black bears are living in a variety of cities in the West and in the East. Wolves have yet to make a regular appearance, but they are getting closer. In Europe, there are urban brown bears that act much like raccoons over here."