by Priscilla Feral

In recent months, wildlife has been in the news in my home state of Connecticut, from bears drawn to bird seed on a porch in the northwestern area of the state and a red-tailed hawk with neurological issues injuring two people in Bridgeport, to coyote and fox sightings in Rowayton.

A few frenzied residents on the Facebook group Nextdoor Rowayton had to be convinced that an animal control officer doesn’t have to be called every time there’s a sighting of indigenous wildlife, nor do school children have to be taken off the playground if a coyote is seen nearby.

You’d think the Nutmeg State was a wild frontier of animals eyeballing children and ready to pounce. Sadly, this type of hysteria is typical of suburbanites because they are so estranged from nature. Instead of relishing the great outdoors, they feel they have to protect their children from it.

Kids spending too much time indoors has become so extreme that the crisis has a name: Nature Deficit Disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute. This shift is largely due to technology: The average American child spends four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and more than seven hours a day in front of a screen.

That’s what’s alarming, not wildlife sightings.

Humans are actually lucky that wildlife still dares to live among us after so much of their habitat has been sacrificed to development. 

Several Rowayton residents were worried about protecting their cats and dogs outdoors. So I told them that dogs should be leashed, and that cats could be brought inside, especially from dusk to dawn when coyotes generally hunt. I also suggested building a coyote-proof fence—a 5-foot woven-wire fence with extenders facing outward at the top of each post that should prevent coyotes from climbing over.

I pointed out that they should never feed coyotes or foxes and that these species are opportunistic eaters and consume lots of rodents, which seemed to resonate.

Inevitably, the standard unfortunate answer to how to mitigate so-called conflict with wildlife seems to always be the same. It’s the Cooper’s hawk or Canada geese who should be removed rather than modify our behavior, which means keeping our distance until late summer when nesting is over. Birds and other wildlife may act more aggressive when they are raising young, but who could blame them.

If you live in bear territory, consider a reinforced door instead of a screen door, and keep bear spray around to scare off foraging bears. Bear-proof garbage cans and education, not hunters, are what’s needed to prevent conflicts. Despite propaganda by hunters and their apologists at state wildlife agencies who covet hunter license fees, black bears are actually shy and want to avoid humans.

By the way, shooting bears in a trophy hunt won’t teach the ones who are not shot not to be opportunistic feeders.

Regrettably, being estranged from nature and wildlife means people are not invested in caring for it. Case in point: Last summer, beachgoers in Alabama arrived by boat to play volleyball on the breeding island of Mobile Bay where colonies of federally protected least tern birds nest. Their activity scared about 700 breeding pairs and more than 100 chicks away.

The players had also taken all the eggs from some of the nests to clear out an area for their court, leaving the unborn chicks to bake in the sun. Out of an estimated 1,400 birds, only approximately 85 fledglings survived. Thankfully, the next day Audubon put up ropes and signs to prevent another massacre.

While the Migratory Bird Treaty Act provides a penalty of $15,000 and jail time for killing migratory birds, new guidance from the Trump administration asserts that killing least terns, or other migratory birds either accidentally or incidentally, is not a crime. This atrocious interpretation of the law absolves anyone who harms a so-called protected bird.

Since we can’t always rely on government policies to spare wildlife, it’s up to every one of us to spread educational messages that will keep wildlife out of harm’s way and prevent animals from being misunderstood.

And while we are at it, we should encourage people of all ages to put down their screens, go outdoors and get to know the natural world. It will be a win-win for them and wildlife.

Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, has presided over the international, non-profit animal advocacy organization since 1987. She also serves as president of the San Antonio-based sanctuary Primarily Primates and is a food activist and author of three vegan cookbooks.