This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
For the past few years, Antonia Ferraro Martinelli has been the unofficial block captain of her New York City neighborhood, Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn.
“I sort of became the person that people would be like, ‘So what are we going to do about this? What are you going to do about this?’”
Carroll Gardens looks like many other East Coast city neighborhoods: three-story brownstones; trees dotting the sidewalks; grocery stores; cafes. And, as Martinelli documented on her blog, “The Momtropolis,” it had many everyday city problems too: small business closures; violations of compost bin etiquette.
But at some point in 2015, the problems became a bit hairier.
“I had watched two raccoons on the roof across from me at night, in the winter, walking across the roof and going into one vent and then coming out the other,” Martinelli said.
She started hearing similar stories from her neighbors. There was raccoon poop on her neighbors’ decks. One neighbor got into a “wrestling match” with the raccoons that sneaked into their first floor while it was under construction.
And then there was that one particularly close encounter when a neighbor was trapped in their kitchen.
“[The neighbor] couldn’t go out into her deck because there was a giant raccoon on it,” she said. “I went out to my deck and sprayed her raccoon with my hose. I had my three children in my house, I had her two children in my house, and I had the other neighbor’s daughter in my house. So one of those children videotaped me spraying the hose at the raccoon.”
Meet the neighbors
In all her years living in Brooklyn, Martinelli had never seen anything like this. But just because we don’t always see wild animals in the city does not mean they’re not there.
“Some animals, they eat, sleep and breathe city,” said Christopher Schell, an urban ecologist at the University of Washington Tacoma. “So they were born in the city, [and] they’re going to die in the city. And they don’t go anywhere else.”
Schell is an expert when it comes to raccoons and coyotes in cities. He’s also a bit of a nerd, and offered some enlightening trivia at the intersection of science and nerdom.
“Point of awesome trivia fact is if you’ve ever played Super Mario Bros. 3, where Mario has the, what looks like a raccoon tail, it’s actually not a raccoon,” Schell said. “It’s a raccoon dog, also known as a tanuki. And they look a lot like raccoons, but they’re canids, not procyonids.”
He says part of the reason we don’t often see raccoons and coyotes is because they prefer it that way. They learn how to travel around people.
“They know how to essentially stay in the shadows. One of the nicknames for coyotes, for instance, from indigenous tribes and stories, is they are called ‘the ghosts of the Plains.’ Because it’s like, if you see them once, good luck seeing them again.”
When raccoons and coyotes live in cities with us, they get a little creative in their efforts to avoid us.
Stan Gehrt, a professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University, studied raccoons in Baltimore.
Like Schell, Gehrt uses a mix of GPS and remote camera traps to track raccoons and coyotes for their work.
“It was so funny because this has never happened to me before, and I’ve studied these animals and a wide range of systems. And when they’re using the sewers, you know their signal completely disappears … and so these raccoons would disappear in one area, they would pop up somewhere else, and for a while we had no idea how they were getting around at all.”
Coyotes are pretty wily themselves. When they’re in cities, they learn traffic patterns and how to navigate through the infrastructure. There are even videos of coyotes looking both ways before crossing the street.
“Coyotes will use the rail lines,” Gehrt said. “Either the current railroads or old railroads that go right into the city subways. They’ll use subways as travel lanes, they’ll use our bridges and they’ll use our interstates or major expressways.”
That little strip by the highway with trees and bushes that you don’t really think about? Coyotes often use that to get around.
These are all examples of the ways that species actively change their behaviors when they’re in cities and away from rural areas. City-dwelling animals even become nocturnal. They’re adapting and learning to live with us because there are some benefits.
“They get year-round food. So the food subsidies are just bonkers,” Schell said.
While the natural diet for these creatures is mostly fruit, vegetables, small rodents and rabbits, a lot of times they end up eating human food as well.
When it’s the winter and their natural food resources are scarce, these animals turn to food waste. Some people even feed these animals. Schell advises not to do that, by the way.
“So that means that those organisms can have a smaller home range, can have greater reproductive success, which has been shown in multiple studies, and you can fit more of them in a small space. So it’s like, it’s kind of just like that city effect, same thing with human beings,” Schell said.
And just like with us humans, there are downsides to city living for animals. For starters, human food is really not good for them.
“It’s not great for us, but it’s definitely not good for wildlife,” Schell said. “They’re doing what they can to survive. But can we say that they’re thriving when they eat mostly cheeseburgers? No, no, none of this is OK. None of this is right.”
Not all heroes wear capes
A lot of people think of animals like raccoons and coyotes as nuisances in the city and as the types of animals that we should call animal control to have put down. But behind the scenes, they’re doing important work.
“They’re providing pretty much a free ecosystem service by eating just rats. Generally in the city, they will eat the rodents that we think are pests,” Schell said.
These animals eat vermin that carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, providing a natural form of pest control.
Raccoons, with their more flexible diet, have also been known to eat other types of obnoxious pests.
“There are videos of raccoons, for instance, in Florida taking iguanas that are almost as big as them,” Schell said.
Raccoons also help disperse seeds, from the fruit that they eat, in our urban forests and parks.
When it comes to coyotes, Schell thinks they’re even heroic, in their own way.
“I like to call the coyote, at least in the urban context, the hero that we need, even though for some, it’s not the hero that we want. Just straight up Batman-style.”
That’s because coyotes are apex predators that dare to go in cities, in ways that other predators wouldn’t. They live here among us, in the shadows, eating rodents and protecting us from other types of nuisances.
“We have found that [coyotes] are also an important kind of a bioregulator for other animals like white-tailed deer,” Gehrt said. “Which are difficult to manage and become overabundant, and actually they are more dangerous, in the sense that people hit them with their cars and can become injured. They definitely help to control Canada goose numbers … an animal that also becomes overabundant in urban areas and has no predators except for the coyote. So coyotes kind of help to restore some of the balance that we need in these urban ecosystems.”
The impact of inequitable cities on urban wildlife
Raccoons and coyotes also provide a barometer of a city’s ecological well-being.
“[They] can serve in the same way, in the same function, I should say, as ecosystem sentinels, or as these bioindicators,” Schell said.
Ecosystem sentinels are animals that alert us of any risks in an environment, whether they’re manmade or not. In cities raccoons and coyotes serve as the apex and mesocarnivores in the system.
“Which means that they’re eating and depredating all of the other organisms that may be ingesting toxins, or they themselves are ingesting toxins and they’re navigating certain environments, certain parts of certain neighborhoods in a city.”
Pollution, chemicals in wastewater, abundance of trash, toxins — all types of issues that come up when people talk about inequitable cities, they affect urban wildlife as well.
That’s why Schell’s work mainly looks at these two mesocarnivores. He wants to find out how these animals are affected by things like social inequality and racial oppression.
“If you are, say, for instance, an uptown coyote versus a downtown coyote in Chicago, what you’re experiencing is fundamentally different.” Schell said. “Think about how many studies have been published lately, talking about the inequity of trees and green space for low-income communities and communities of color. Those don’t just affect people, they affect the wildlife too.”
Some cities allocate resources like parks and green spaces inequitably, which can become a problem for us humans, things like heat island effects as well as bad air quality, and a host of other problems.
Nyeema Harris, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, said that we should think about green space as habitat for these species as well. And as necessary habitat that can help us to avoid conflict.
“If we don’t have that quality habitat and wildlife are still there, what resources are they going to exploit then?” Harris asked. “Where are they going to go? Is there a higher potential that not having those green spaces actually means that now they’re in your attic or they’re in your backyard? Or they’re in your basement? Does it create more opportunities for conflict because they are in this space, they are in the city, but then they don’t have lots of great places to go?”
The risks these animals take, to go into more populated areas and areas without natural resources, they take because of us. And from what Harris and Schell say, low-income neighborhoods, ones without much green space and habitat for these species, are more likely to experience more of these bad interactions with wildlife.
Better stewards of nature
Harris said there is still hope for a better relationship between humans and urban wildlife. She’s working on a new pilot program in Detroit called Wildlife Neighbors that aims to educate more people on how to be better stewards of nature.
“It is basically an education program, in part with middle school youth from Detroit, fifth to eighth graders, and exposing them to the wildlife neighbors using remote camera traps that we put throughout the green spaces inside of parks.”
Harris’ project is aimed at kids because some older generations might already have preconceived notions about these animals. But kids are more open-minded.
“You can’t think about necessarily protecting something, or living in harmony, or with some type of coexistence, if you haven’t developed an appreciation and a wonder, if you will, for those critters that are there,” she said.
Another aspect of working with kids is that they’re great teachers themselves, Harris said.
“How often does a young person have to show their parent, or show their grandparent, how to do something on their phone,” Harris said. “They’re constantly teaching their older generation how to do something … And so there’s definitely this argument that targeting youth, it doesn’t just stop with the youth, because they’re having conversations with their family members, with their parents, with their neighbors about their activities. They get to be microphones. They get to be kind of these agents of change.”
Harris hopes to bring this program to other cities. She’s currently looking to see if she can bring it to Philadelphia.
But ultimately, the experts I talked to said that we have to rethink our role in the survival of these species in cities, and how inequity not only affects us but them as well. From how we build roads, to where we put parks, trees, and even buildings.
“These issues require an interdisciplinary approach,” Harris said. “It requires scientists to talk to urban planners, and urban planners to talk to sociologists, and sociologists to talk to parks and recs people. And I think that part of the challenge, and part of the kind of disconnect in how cities … are increasingly more inequitable, is because the right people aren’t at the table.”