People can learn to coexist with urban wildlife. Lincoln Park Zoo is showing how.

By studying animals in urban habitats, we’re learning not just about them, but also about us, and how our worlds affect one another. The zoo is working with nearly 50 cities across the world to promote coexistence

SHARE People can learn to coexist with urban wildlife. Lincoln Park Zoo is showing how.
A coyote is seen in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston in February 2020. Humans should learn to live with wildlife in urban areas, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo writes.

A coyote is seen in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston in February 2020. Humans should learn to live with wildlife in urban areas, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo writes.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Right here in Chicago, many animal species share our parks, beaches, golf courses, cemeteries, forest preserves and backyards. Our wildlife neighbors include birds, raccoons, bats, foxes, coyotes, deer, insects and yes, rats, and even some unexpected species like flying squirrels. They — and many others — are all part of Chicago’s ecosystem. And the sooner we learn to live with them, the safer both we and they will be.

Over a decade ago, we started the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo to better understand how people and animals can coexist in a world with a growing population and urban centers that expand every day. By studying animals in urban habitats, we’re learning not just about them, but also about us, and how our worlds affect one another.

Just like people, animals react to changes in temperature. When it gets cold, they take shelter. When it gets hot, they find ways to cool off. When threatened, they hide. When hungry, they hunt and eat. When they feel safe, they come out in the open and explore.

They’re curious.

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But perhaps less obviously, humans and animals share another trait: We’re both going to do it our way. Just as humans are naturally inclined to build and enhance our environments, animals are naturally inclined to build, dig, buzz, roam, search, hunt and explore.

The essential philosophy at the heart of the Urban Wildlife Institute is the belief that it’s possible for the planet to accommodate both those biologically hard-wired behaviors, and that “controlling” the animal population usually does not work very well. If you remove a raccoon from a particular location, another one will probably take its place. In the meantime, you’ve displaced an animal that may not know how to survive in its relocated home.

Coexistence, on the other hand, suggests that humans can build wildlife-friendly cities that allow animals to thrive, foster biodiversity in every neighborhood, and support robust ecosystems even in the most urban of jungles.

Animals are neighbors, not threats

One of the biggest hurdles to successful coexistence is, unfortunately, human fear. We don’t encounter animals every day, especially those such as coyotes and bats, and when we do hear about these incredible animals it’s usually in the context of a rare instance of human-wildlife conflict.

Our hope for people — and our invitation to you — is to stop seeing wild animals as threats to be controlled and instead as neighbors who play a role in keeping our cities healthy. In the natural world, animals achieve their own balance. The bats and birds keep down the insect population. The foxes and coyotes control the population of small mammals, including the rats. Canines are territorial and they have their own ways of limiting population.

Today, Lincoln Park Zoo is working with nearly 50 cities across the world to promote coexistence because it’s the right thing to do, and because research shows that people — and our changing planet — benefit from biodiversity. We’re also working in communities right here in Chicago, recruiting volunteers to help collect information, monitor cameras, and report sightings.

You can help, too, at ChicagoWildlifeWatch.org.

For example, we monitor where bats live and find that they make choices based on things like our lighting and noise. So, leaving darker and quieter spaces can help leave room for them and other animal neighbors.

When we built the zoo’s Nature Boardwalk (home to Peoples Gas Pavilion, the famous “turtle shell” that so nicely frames our skyline), part of our intention was to create habitat for urban wildlife. It worked: Hundreds of turtles, fish, beavers, coyotes and endangered black-crowned night herons now live there.

Another project monitors the local population of those dreaded blood-seekers, ticks, and researching the diseases they carry to know what risks are present for other life in the area (including humans). We also have a project underway to help address the rat problem that strikes fear in the hearts of homeowners.

Bottom line? The best way to keep rats away is to reduce the resources they’re after: Keep your alleys clean and the rats will go elsewhere.

Every year, hundreds — up to even the thousands — of plant and animal species go extinct because of habitat destruction and other human activities. It’s on us to reflect on the loss of these species and to take steps to change our behavior and be better neighbors with animals.

Lincoln Park Zoo is proud to lead this work and eager to help future generations realize that wild animals — even in cities like Chicago — have much to teach us if we take time to stop and smell, and sometimes plant, the proverbial roses. We hope you will join us.

Megan Ross, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Lincoln Park Zoo

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