Since the dawn of civilization, wild beasts have been drawn to human communities. Just as in 1450, when a pack of wolves terrorized residents of Paris neighborhoods, wild animals like raccoons, deer and coyotes are a familiar sight today in many American towns and some cities.
The occasional cougar crosses city limits, not only in the West but even sometimes in the urbanized East. In June 2011, for example, a driver struck and killed a cougar near Milford, Connecticut. The 140-pound cougar was found, through DNA testing, to have traveled 1,800 miles, from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Here are our tips on how to coexist peacefully with four types of wild beasts you might see in your own backyard:
Cougars (Puma concolor, also called pumas, mountain lions, panthers, painters and catamounts) were hunted and driven out of most American states, but they are making a comeback.
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club says a few of the big cats live in the Appalachian Mountains, though it’s unclear if they’re descendants of native cougars or were introduced somehow later. In fact, cougars may be more numerous now in the West than before Europeans arrived, according to cougar expert Dr. Maurice Hornocker, in a 2002 interview with The New York Times. Hornocker calls them “highly intelligent and highly adaptive predators.”
Cougars and people increasingly are bumping up against each other because:
- Their numbers are growing, thanks to hunting bans and preservation.
- The growing presence of deer in human communities is a powerful attraction.
- Livestock ranching attracts cougars.
- Human settlements are sprawling farther into wilderness, shrinking space available for the territorial cats whose males may claim a domain of from 50 to 150 square miles.
- The near eradication of wolves and grizzly bears, which are the cougar’s biggest predators.
Cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare. Still, the number is growing, probably because of the increasing proximity of humans and cougars. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that in North America, between 1915 and 2015, roughly 25 fatalities and 95 nonfatal attacks took place.
- The Cougar Network gathers and maps sightings east of the Rocky Mountains.
- See a cougar caught unaware in this video, taken by a trail camera Nov. 24, 2015, on a Tennessee farm in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area.
Cougar safety tips
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife advises people living where cougars have been sighted to remember these precautions:
- Predators are attracted to prey, so don’t feed or otherwise encourage raccoons, squirrels or other small animals, feral cats or dogs or deer (including cultivating garden plants that deer like to eat) on your property.
- Install motion-sensor lighting outdoors.
- Keep a close watch on children and pets. Don’t let them be outdoors unaccompanied and keep them indoors at dawn, dusk and night. If you are in an area where a cougar may be near, keep children and pets close to you.
- If a cougar does appear, don’t try to play dead. If you’re attacked, fight. Don’t try to run. Face the animal directly, make lots of noise, pick up and hold any small children and try to appear as big as possible by waving your arms, jumping up and down and yelling.
Raccoons are clever, cute and potentially dangerous, and they can do more damage than rummaging through your garbage cans. If you doubt it, consider that the University of California Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources cautions:
Females in search of nesting sites may rip off shingles, fascia boards, or rooftop ventilators to get into the attic. Once inside the attic, insulation on walls may be torn up and displaced; and insulation on heating and air conditioning ducts may be ripped off and destroyed. Raccoons may begin using an area of the attic for a latrine, and the ceiling beneath may become stained with urine, accompanied by an objectionable odor. Ectoparasites may infest the attic and migrate to other parts of the house. Uncapped chimneys are often used as den sites, as are spaces beneath porches and decks. Doors covering crawl spaces are sometimes damaged in an effort to den beneath the house.
Raccoon management tips
Where raccoons are common they can be bold, entering homes through pet doors and helping themselves to food, pet kibble, rampaging through homes and viciously attacking dogs. They rampage — not too strong a word — through unsecured trash cans, kill chickens and destroy gardens. They may carry rabies and distemper, and contact with raccoon feces can infect humans, particularly children, with roundworm.
These precautions are advised:
- Don’t feed raccoons, no matter how adorable you think they are.
- Seal off pet doors and access to crawl spaces, garbage cans, garages and sheds.
- Vaccinate pets against rabies and distemper.
- Don’t confront a raccoon. They are mean when cornered.
- Confine pets.
- Deal with serious infestations by hiring a professional trapper or pest control company.
Coyotes are widely distributed across North America, thriving in some surprising locations thanks to their versatile and varied diet. The site Urban Coyote Research estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 coyotes may reside in Cook County, Illinois, home to Chicago. “Thousands of coyotes living within the city limits of Los Angeles have led to severe management problems,” says the National Trappers Association.
As with cougars, coyotes are attracted to the availability of food. Their diet varies a great deal, depending on what’s available. Their taste for Canada goose eggs helps to keep down the numbers of those birds, which can devastate cropland. Coyotes eat deer, where available, and may dine on such varied fare as fish, rodents, insects, birds, reptiles, fruit, vegetables and grasses. You can hear coyote vocalizations at Sound Board.
Coyote pest control
Because coyotes are nocturnal, they are awake and hunt at night, so it’s unusual to see them during the daytime.
Even in a pack they are highly unlikely to pose a threat to humans although they might want to make a snack of your cat, chickens or smaller dog.
“The best way to protect your pets is to let them outside only when you are with them — especially at night — and to keep pet food and water inside,” says the Humane Society of the United States, which has numerous resources (at the bottom of the linked page) for coping with coyotes.
When coyotes become too accustomed to humans, they may become bolder than usual, preying on human pets or even biting a human that tries to rescue a pet.
Deer have become such a familiar sight in some U.S. communities that herds amble down streets and graze lazily in neighborhood gardens. By various estimates, the density of deer in the United States is four to 10 times what it was prior to European settlement of North America.
Deer generally are mild-mannered, but they pose a few problems. Their overgrazing, for instance, threatens forests and native plant populations. Deer even present safety problems: They may harbor ticks carrying Lyme disease, and they often wander into traffic, causing accidents.
And, while deer attacks aren’t common, they aren’t unheard-of. Don’t believe it? This viral video from 2007 shows a whitetail buck rising on its hind legs and attacking a bow hunter. In October, 2015, KARK-TV reported that, in Pulaski County, Arkansas, a buck entered a home’s backyard, attacking several residents and pinning one man to the ground.
Deer safety tips
- Drive cautiously in areas where deer may enter the roadway.
- Vaccinate pets and take precautions (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells how) to protect yourself from ticks carrying Lyme disease.
- Keep pets indoors and leash dogs when outside. I know a woman who opened her door to let the family dog outside only to watch the dog encounter a mother deer browsing near the house. The doe rose on her hind legs and pummeled the dog with her front hooves, apparently to protect her nearby fawn.
Repelling deer from the garden
It’s hard to discourage deer from browsing in your garden. Where deer are common, usually only a tall (10-foot) fence is effective. Choosing ornamental plants that are known to be deer “resistant” is a good idea –lists of deer-resistant plants vary by location, so search the Internet for your region. Even so, as my mom used to say: Deer can’t read, and they may devour even plants they’re expected to avoid.
Several deer-repellant products can be made or purchased. Deer.departed.com has numerous DIY recipes. Ask at your hardware store or garden center which of the many commercial products seem most effective. Or consider buying and broadcasting the pee of predators around your home (Predatorpee.com, for example, sells coyote urine to repel deer and wolf urine to repel coyotes). Still, deer may become accustomed to the smell and learn to ignore it.
For more tips on living with wildlife, order the free Humane Society brochure, Living With Wild Neighbors in Urban and Suburban Communities: A Guide for Local Leaders.
What tricks do you have for encounters with wildlife in your area? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.