Wild Animals Aren’t Infiltrating Our Cities, They Live There

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A beaver found along Darby Creek in South West Philadelphia. Image credit, Christian Hunold.
Animals take to the streets amid lockdown,” reads an article recently published in the Guardian – however, the numerous claims that wildlife are reclaiming our cities, is a bit out-of-sort. Because fewer people are venturing outside, animals who inhabit cities are becoming visible in new ways – and it’s remarkable.

“Wild animals aren’t ‘infiltrating’ cities, at least not insofar as that implies some kind of migration from outside cities,” explains Christian Hunold, PhD, a professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “An infiltration strikes me as implausible because, presumably, such a process would take a lot more time, and, besides, plenty of wild animals already live in urban settings.”

COVID-19 and shelter-in-place ordnances are offering the human inhabitants of its cities a peek into the lives of their relatively unseen wild animal neighbors. “For example, the coyotes of San Francisco and the jackals of Tel Aviv that citizens report they’ve seen – are simply the resident population,” said Hunold.

Hunold recently published a study “Green Infrastructure and Politics of Sight” which explains that many urban dwellers experience encounters with wild animals on their doorstep as troubling interruptions of daily life, but it is precisely this blurring of human-wildlife boundaries that creates awareness of their collapse and, from time to time, generates calls for their restoration. Hunold studies the politics and culture of urban wildlife, both as means to foster urban wildlife spaces “after nature” and to understand how the blurring of human and nonhuman worlds is generating new forms of environmental political engagement.

He explains below, that the seemingly major increase in wildlife sightings and presence across our cities is, primarily, business as usual.

Why are we seeing more animals?

We know that urban mammals time their activities around human movements, in order to minimize encounters or perhaps to enjoy some quality quiet time. Humans suddenly staying indoors will not have gone unnoticed, and so animals are spending more time out in the open than they would normally do, perhaps because they feel safer or because they have to spend more time foraging now that throngs of people are no longer throwing away food waste wherever they go (that seems to be the case with rats, for example, who are having to make do without restaurant dumpsters and overflowing garbage cans in tourist areas).

Should we be alarmed?

People are staying home and simply seeing the animals in their neighborhood for the first time. You might think that fox taking a stroll in your backyard is a new development, but its probably always done that, and you didn’t notice because you were at work. Seeing an animal in the daytime doesn’t mean it’s sick, and is not a cause for alarm. More generally, observing urban animals (without disturbing them) is a safe and enjoyable activity, particularly these days when our ability to socialize with other people is severely curtailed.

Hunold recently published a study on urban greening and human-wildlife relations, where he investigated how wild animals fit into urban greening professionals’ conceptions of the urban. Through the lens of Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters initiative, he argues that practitioners relate to urban wildlife via three distinctive frames: 1) animal control, 2) public health and 3) biodiversity. In this study, Hunold explores the implications of each frame for peaceful human-wildlife coexistence in ‘greened’ cities.

The full study is published in Environmental Values.

Media interested in speaking to Hunold can contact Emily Storz at els332@drexel.edu or 215-895-2705.