Humans need to change to avoid violent wildlife encounters: expert

Globe and Mail, July 30, 2010
Shannon Moneo

As B.C. experiences a bizarre season of wildlife-human conflicts, with a rare attack by a black bear and deer being demonized for attacking people and pets, a wildlife ecologist says people need to change.“Humans aren’t particularly good at modifying their behaviour to accommodate wild animals,” said Chris Darimont, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and research scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “Humans have concluded we hold dominion over wild animals.”

But increasingly, humans are sharing space with mammals such as deer, who are in effect food migrants, following what Mr. Darimont refers to as “delicious things in gardens and lawns.” Unpleasant incidents occur when humans push the instinctive buttons that animals have for dealing with predators, Mr. Darimont said from his Victoria office.

One example occurred on July 20, when a woman in Victoria went for a walk with her medium-sized mutt and saw a doe with three fawns. She cautiously kept moving, but the doe charged and later stomped on her dog, who wasn’t badly injured. To the doe, the dog was a wolf, and thus a threat to her fawns, so naturally she displayed anti-predator behaviour, Mr. Darimont said.

“We don’t think of deer as aggressors,” he said. “We think of them as big-eyed creatures.” When they attack, it’s completely unexpected, eliciting a raw response that harkens back to human evolutionary memories of being both predator and prey, Mr. Darimont explained.

In Cranbrook, a doe attacked a dog in June, and earlier this month a newspaper carrier was left with a black eye after a deer encounter. The eastern B.C. community, as well as neighbouring Kimberly, are polling their residents to see what should be done, with a cull as one solution. In Victoria and Nanaimo, residents have also been calling for deer culls due to the damage the animals are doing to gardens.

According to Ministry of Environment spokesperson Angie Poss, a cull is only one method. Repellents, landscaping alternatives and fencing are other possibilities. Population reduction strategies such as capture-and-relocate programs and fertility-control strategies are other options.

But eliminating deer from urban settings won’t be easy, Mr. Darimont said. The easily accessible, nutritious food found in yards, along with a loss of predators, are sustaining urbanized deer.

“The only default is to modify our behaviour to avoid encounters,” he said. “Fence our gardens better, don’t let dogs approach deer.”

Other animals are also losing their natural habitats. A 2004 Journal of Bioscience study reported that in North America, grey wolves have lost 42 per cent of their range, cougars have lost 36 per cent, grizzly bears 53 per cent and black bears 39 per cent.

In the case of the recent black-bear attack, a Vancouver Island man had been sleeping outside under a tarpaulin near Port Alberni, even though a bear had been spotted around the campsite three days earlier when food was briefly left out.

“If the camper had knowledge of a bear hanging around in camp, it’s likely not a wise thing to be sleeping outside,” Mr. Darimont said. “If the bear was hanging around camp, that bear had access to food before the event occurred.”

The attack on the sleeping camper, which left the man with head wounds requiring plastic surgery, as well as other wounds, was only the second ever on Vancouver Island by a black bear that resulted in injury. Mr. Darimont suspects the male, 68-kilogram bear may have mistaken the man for a deer.

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