Wild in the Suburbs
Living harmoniously with animals in the city.
By Rusty Middleton and Richard Heilbrun
When animals inhabit suburbia, sometimes there’s unrest in the neighborhood. Some folks will say, “The animals were here first!” Others, “Not in my backyard!” Sometimes opinions change depending on the species, not to mention the quantity.
Whether our neighbors are raccoons, opossums, coyotes, alligators, birds or deer, passionate opinions can erupt in peaceful communities. This is especially the case with white-tailed deer.
In Hollywood Park, a small, incorporated community surrounded by San Antonio, town council elections have swung like a pendulum on the issue of urban wildlife. In 2010, the council voted to amend a 2004 ordinance banning the feeding of deer. Deer feeding is now allowed with certain conditions, much to the chagrin of some Hollywood Park residents.
“My supporters tend to be absolutely deer-friendly,” says council member Debbie Trueman. “The deer are an asset to the community.”
Former Hollywood Park deer project manager Will Mangum quit his job because of the change. Mangum, who grew up nearby, has strong opinions about deer overpopulation.
“Some people around here have parties to feed the deer. They turn this place into a petting zoo,” complains Mangum, who disapproves of feeding deer. The ordinance banning deer feeding was preceded by a steady growth in deer numbers beginning a couple of decades ago, caused by urban growth in San Antonio, overfeeding by otherwise well-meaning residents and the natural ability of white-tailed deer to thrive in urbanized areas.
“The animals that live close to people are mostly generalists,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urban wildlife biologist Brett Johnson. “They are the ones that are most adaptable. But the specialists, the animals that occupy a relatively narrow ecological niche, and the large predators — these are the ones that disappear when people move in.”
The two sides disagree over the root of the issue. Some people contend that the overabundant deer are unhealthy, cause significant property damage and upset the ecological balance of a community’s natural areas. Others disagree with the assertion that the deer are too numerous, and they object to any wildlife management programs because they enjoy observing plentiful wildlife, often citing the wildlife as a motivating factor in their choice of residence. The disagreement typifies conflict over wildlife in urban areas. It’s difficult to find solutions when people disagree over whether a problem even exists.
Hollywood Park is not the only community with urban wildlife, not by a long shot. Lakeway, a community just west of Austin, also had a large urban deer population during the 1990s.
“We were finding lots of dead deer every year around town, usually due to collisions with cars,” says former Mayor Charles Edwards, who is now Lakeway’s deer program manager.
When ideas to thin out the herd were proposed several years ago, tempers flared. The arguments were similar to those in Hollywood Park. But while Hollywood Park plowed on, Lakeway took a different tack. The community collectively took a deep breath and began an extensive awareness and education program. TPWD biologists were asked for advice, and leaders listened to them.
Community forums were held, and referendums helped officials gauge public acceptance of various management options. Today, Lakeway traps and removes deer in the fall and prohibits residents from feeding them.
Lakeway is often cited as a good example of proper deer management because of the process it took to involve its residents. Truly effective wildlife management in urban areas is the result of efficient community involvement, strong communication and the ability of neighbors to work with neighbors.
Across the state, many other species are joining the growing human population. Driven almost to extinction in Texas, alligators have made a spectacular comeback after receiving full protection in 1969. (They were removed from the endangered species list in 1985.) In just four East Texas counties where population studies are conducted, there are an estimated 250,000 alligators, says TPWD alligator program leader Amos Cooper.
Although most alligators live in the coastal counties, their range now extends well into Central and South Texas, from the Rio Grande to as far north as the Oklahoma border. Resident alligators are being studied at Lake Worth, near Fort Worth. This range expansion is due at least in part to the “welcome” sign that we put out for them. Stormwater ponds, water hazards on golf courses and community lakes are attractive to wandering alligators. For the most part, alligators are model citizens. But when people start feeding them, alligators quickly learn how to get a free meal, and problems can arise.
“We have them everywhere,” says Houston-area Game Warden Kevin Malonson. “It’s illegal to feed them, but people do. Then the gators start seeking people out. Sometimes they even bump against kayaks and canoes. I try to educate the public that we’re invading their habitat, and we need to learn to live with them. We try to leave them alone if they are in their natural habitat. If you take one out, another one is going to take its place.”
TPWD employs nine urban wildlife biologists to help urban residents and city officials navigate the delicate balance of opinions, emotions and science. They work passionately to manage complex and nuanced issues in sometimes very politically and emotionally charged situations. In fact, much of the urban wildlife program is designed to help constituents rely on science and recognize that emotion, while important in understanding perceptions and motivations, should not be the sole driver in a contentious decision-making process.
Urban wildlife “problems” are less about the wildlife and more about the decisions we make in designing our urban areas, as well as the manner in which communities attempt to define and address the situation. Kelly Conrad Bender, TPWD urban wildlife biologist in Austin, describes the process as much more than merely an intellectual discussion. It’s a discussion of motivations, perceptions, science and emotion.
“Wildlife and people are tied in a way that many things aren’t,” Bender says. “When you’re dealing with emotions, you don’t issue an edict and expect things to work out. Whether politics or wildlife, all those things issue strong emotions. You have to take into consideration that people are bringing more to the table than what’s intellectually right or wrong, whether it’s about deer issues, cat issues or even bird issues.”
Fortunately, most wildlife populations contribute to a more positive urban environment. Innovative trials at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, England, found tangible health benefits in patients exposed to nature, especially the calls of local birds. Patients undergoing painful bone marrow extractions at Johns Hopkins reported less pain during treatment when exposed to the sights and sounds of local wildlife.
According to researchers at Texas Tech University, homes with a higher diversity of songbirds bring a higher price on the market.
“We collected information on a sample of home sales in Lubbock, conducted bird counts in the vicinity of each sale and recorded the numbers and the variety of both ubiquitous and desirable bird species,” write Michael Farmer, Mark Wallace and Michael Shiroya, the authors of the study. They found that homes in bird-friendly areas can bring $32,000 more than a similar home without appropriate habitat. This difference occurred independently of the house’s proximity to public parks and greenspaces, indicating that the landscaping and design choices made by homeowners attracted the urban songbird populations, which benefited their pocketbook.
Research conducted through Texas State University between 2000 and 2002 demonstrated that these landscape choices, when made holistically and purposefully in urban communities, can positively affect bird diversity, an important indicator of ecological health. Bender, one of the authors of that study, says that changing perceptions about wildlife in urban areas can lead to that holistic change.
“When you get that deeper understanding of what is ecologically sound, as demonstrated in your own backyard, you can see the effects of what is happening in your city, your watershed, throughout the ecosystem,” she says.
Many urban backyards thrive with wildlife without disapproval from the neighbors. And sometimes people are motivated to take meaningful action well away from City Hall.
“You see it in Texas Master Naturalists all the time,” says Bender. “You see it in State Park Friends programs; you see it in habitat programs like that of the National Wildlife Federation. It’s a whole army of people who are motivated.”
The Texas Master Naturalist program, a nature-based volunteer organization, capitalizes on the draw of getting involved with wildlife. Many chapters are based in urban areas. Last year, Master Naturalists volunteered on a multitude of projects involving urban wildlife. The list of service projects reads like a Discovery Channel program guide: urban frog pond surveys in El Paso, an urban white-winged dove research project in San Antonio, stream monitoring and raptor rehabilitation in Kerrville, bat surveys in Houston, new parklands in Dallas, wildlife education seminars in Galveston and more. Last year, volunteers donated more than 256,000 hours to benefit local natural areas and wildlife communities.
These Master Naturalists do much more than volunteer their time. They become trusted ambassadors to their communities who can help their urban neighbors adopt a more educated but highly personal connection with wildlife, natural resources and the ecological needs of a growing community.
The interface between people and animals is constantly growing and changing. We have altered the wildlife communities that can thrive in the urban landscape. We create an uneasy balance when we place attractive habitat near our homes and then try to control which wildlife shows up, and in what quantity.
“These urban wildlife issues are getting bigger,” says Johnson, the urban wildlife biologist. “We need to learn how to live with each other.”
For more wildlife articles, visit TP&W magazine's Nature page