Knowledge provides power to keep yourself safe. We do children a disservice by not teaching them the difference between their own pets, other people’s pets, domesticated animals, and wildlife. In some cases, children get hurt when they don’t know how to act appropriately. In all too many cases, it is the animals who are killed when there is a misstep. The recent cull of coyotes in Vancouver’s Stanley Park is a stark example of human actions resulting in animal deaths. Children need to understand that animals act through instinct.
As a parent, teacher and school vice principal / principal, I accompanied many groups of children on outdoor education daytrips and overnight camps. This is a perfect opportunity to teach children about various habitats and the animals that live in them. However, we also need to prepare children to interact appropriately with animals that they encounter in their neighbourhoods, parks, and play spaces. We see many examples of neighbourhood displacing the habitats of a range on animals that wander into contact with humans.
I live in Kitsilano, close to the beach in Vancouver, B.C.. My neighbour, Audrey, is an English Bulldog who is better dressed than I am. This includes a variety of coats with coordinated footwear. Audrey’s person, aka owner, has started a small business, creating a line of clothing for the well-dressed dog. This is not unusual in Vancouver. Pets are treated like humans. What children need to understand is they are not humans. Pets may have intimate relationships with their owners but may be very territorial or protective of their owners. My trusted and loving lab-beagle friend, Oreo, bit the paper boy’s mother when the front door was left open and she approached and ignored the dog’s barking. Although the dog tolerated everything my children and their friends did to her over the years, she was deemed a vicious animal by the SPCA. I had to go to lengths for her not to be put down. It is crucial that children understand that any contact with pets requires the owner’s knowledge and permission.
When I taught Kindergarten, teaching the unit on farm yard animals was a favourite. It lends itself to great songs, great stories, and great conversations with 5 year olds. It also culminated in the trip to a hobby farm, often Maplewood Farm in Maple Ridge. Domesticated animals are sometimes pets. However, they are generally captured and tamed to live with humans for food and sometimes commerce. Chickens are now allowed in the city of Vancouver and provide a source of eggs and often companionship like pets. Domesticated animals are reliant on people for their food and provide meat, dairy, wool, and down for insulation. Horses traditionally used in agriculture, are often seen in Southlands or in the suburbs being used for recreational purposes. Domesticated animals are rarely aggressive unless provoked. This being said, I was terrified as a child by a turkey who didn’t want the grandchildren in his territory. And a large mammal mother protecting her baby is capable of attacking a human to death.
In many neighbourhoods, wildlife is encountered on a regular basis. Bird watching has taken on a new fascination, particularly during COVID. Most birds are a delight to watch and are not aggressive, except for the odd very territorial biting Canadian goose or the dive bombing crow if you get too close to the nest with young. Common garden snakes with the three long strips down their bodies are seen in woodlands and grassy fields. Although they will bite if threatened, the mild neurotoxic venom will at worse cause a minor swelling or itching in most humans. In Spring by the University of British Columbia, when these snakes come out of hibernation, the eagles swooping down for an easy meal are a sight to behold.
Squirrels and raccoons are frequently active during the day. Both of these animals are cute to watch but they are wild animals. Both of these animals have sharp claws and can pass on diseases to humans. A friend of mine decide to allow the squirrels to run up and down the chimney and ended up with a flea infestation that required an exterminator. Raccoons are not usually aggressive but are quick to bite if annoyed or scared. They will also arch their back, growl, make a loud whoof sound and lunge at a person if protecting her young.
Deer are generally seen out in the suburbs where building has cut into their habitat. These animals are generally fearful of humans. The frozen stare is to determine if you are a threat. The snort is an alarm signal. Deer can be dangerously aggressive, particularly if they feel backed into a corner or if protecting their young. You should not approach them and not try to feed them corn, hay, human food or meat. These foods are difficult for them to process and pass.
Black bears have also increased contact with humans, particularly where construction has cut into their habitat. Although I raised my family in Coquitlam and bears were frequent in Mundy Park, a 435 acre park beside our cul-de-sac, I never saw a bear. Although many family and friends did see bears in the park, there was never a dangerous encounter. The danger comes when bears are fed, perhaps with unsecured garbage, or they are approached and feel cornered or cut off from their young. A person getting between a mother and cub, are at risk or being seriously injured or killed. Harry Coleburn’s creation of Winnie-the Pooh, from the bear named Winnipeg, who lived in the London Zoo from 1915-1934, has lulled children and some adults into the belief in a warm, cuddly bear friend. Personification of the black bear cub rescued from the Capitan Gap Fire in 1950, allowed for The US Forest Service to use this mascot, Smokey the Bear, for fire safety education for generations. It is our job to ensure that bears in the wild have instincts to protect themselves and they are not interested in contact with humans. Feeding bears is a death sentence for that bear. They are smart enough to find their way home when relocated and serve enough of a threat to humans to ensure they will be put to death if they are approaching us.
Coyotes traditionally have been reluctant to be seen or engage in contact with people. They feed predominantly on the very prevalent supply of squirrels, rats, and mice. That is a good thing. The problem has come with coyotes being habituated to close human proximity. We want them to be afraid of us. The Stanley Park Ecology Society recommends putting coins and rocks in a pop can to create a loud noise or a garden hose to scare them away. This will help to restore the fear that coyotes are born with. The population of coyotes in the city is quite large and they are increasingly bold due to their interactions with humans. I was horrified when I saw a grandmother giving her tiny grand-daughter a sandwich to feed a coyote while she stepped away to snap a photo. This is the kind of behaviour that has created the huge problem we have seen this summer in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, a 1001 acres downtown city park. By September 3rd, there were 45 confirmed instances of people being nipped or bitten since December of 2020. The result was the park trails being closed for the first time in my memory and up to 35 coyotes being trapped and killed.
We have had signs posted for many years in areas like Seymour Mountain and Whistler that “A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR.” This can be extended to read “A FED WILD ANIMAL IS A DEAD WILD ANIMAL”. Instinct drives animal behaviour. Animals that are conditioned to revisit a site for food, despite a human presence poses a danger. Human interests will prevail and animals perceived as dangerous to humans will die.
Children need to learn to keep themselves safe and interact with animals in a respectful way. Knowing the difference between their own pets, other people’s pets, domesticated, and wild animals is a good start. The understanding that their actions impact the lives of animals is also essential. Feeding animals in the wild has implications. Bread swells in the bellies of ducks, making them less healthy for their flight down south in winter. It creates a habituation with animals like bears and coyotes that results in their death. Knowledge is power.
Wild About Vancouver Wednesday.