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

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

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 the Chicago ecosystem. And the sooner we learn to live with them, the safer we and they will be.

More than a decade ago, we started the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo to better understand how humans and animals can co-exist in a world where populations are growing and urban centers are getting bigger every day. By studying animals in urban habitats, we not only learn about them, but also about ourselves and how our worlds influence each other.

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

They are curious.

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 improve 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 is possible for the planet to adapt to these two biologically hard-wired behaviors, and that “controlling” the animal population usually doesn’t work very well. If you remove a raccoon from a particular location, another will likely take its place. In the meantime, you have moved an animal that may not know how to survive in its new 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 jungles.

Animals are neighbors, not threats

One of the greatest obstacles to successful coexistence is, unfortunately, human fear. We don’t encounter animals every day, especially ones like coyotes and bats, and when we hear about these incredible animals, it’s usually in the context of a rare case of conflict between the man and wildlife.

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 the health of our cities. In the natural world, animals achieve their own balance. Bats and birds limit the insect population. Foxes and coyotes control the population of small mammals, including rats. Dogs are territorial and they have their own ways of limiting population.

Today, Lincoln Park Zoo works with nearly 50 cities around 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 the biodiversity. We also work in communities right here in Chicago, recruiting volunteers to help gather information, monitor cameras, and report sightings.

You can also help on ChicagoWildlifeWatch.org.

For example, we monitor where bats live and see that they make choices based on factors such as our lighting and noise. So, leaving darker, quieter spaces can help make room for them and other nearby animals.

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

Another project monitors the local population of those dreaded blood seekers, ticks, and researches the diseases they carry to find out what risks are present to other lives in the area (including humans). We also have an ongoing project to help solve the rat problem which is scaring homeowners.

At the end of the line ? The best way to keep rats away is to reduce the resources they seek: keep your walkways clean and the rats will go elsewhere.

Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of plant and animal species become extinct due to habitat destruction and other human activities. It is up to us to reflect on the loss of these species and take action to change our behavior and be better neighbors with the 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 a lot to teach us if we take the time to stop and smell, and sometimes to plant the proverbial roses. We hope you will join us.

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

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