Urban Wildlife is Different

by Jeffrey Callen

The sound of rustling papers caught my attention early in the evening, shortly after nightfall. The sound was coming from the back room, a storage space where we also keep the food and food bowls for our cat and dog. When I got to the kitchen I found our cat Roxie lying crossway in the doorway, blocking entry into the back room. Her posture was relaxed but her head was up intently watching a raccoon eat the kibble in her bowl. Her body language was clear: you can have anything in this room but you can’t come any further into the house. When my image appeared behind Roxie, the raccoon—an adolescent male (his hind quarters out of proportion to his front quarters)—momentarily looked up but quickly returned his focus to devouring the rest of the cat food in Roxie’s bowl. I yelled at the raccoon as he nonchalantly finished the kibble then headed toward the door leading to the outdoors. He looked back as I brandished a shoe I had picked up off the floor. He responded to the hostile gesture by moving back toward me and I let the shoe fly—missing him but it was enough to cause him to flee down the back stairs and across the backyard. The last I saw of him in the growing darkness was when he crossed over the back fence into the vacant yard behind our house in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights.

The intruder gone, I surveyed the disarray and found a couple of torn brown paper bags and teeth marks on a Ziploc bag filled with dog kibble. I was a little nonplussed but relieved that our dog had slept through the incident (she doesn’t have Roxie’s diplomatic skills). For Roxie, it was just another day at the office. A number of years ago, an infant raccoon had come in to the house through the then-operational dog door in the middle of the night. After my wife grabbed the dog and retreated to the bathroom, I attempted to shoo the raccoon out of the house with a broom but only succeeded in making him more agitated. I then watched as Roxie calmly walked with the raccoon from room to room until he became less agitated and finally left by the opened front door (my one contribution to defusing the situation).

Urban wildlife is different. It operates according to a different ecology (“the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings”). For raccoons and people (and cats) this ecology prominently deals with questions of turf. For raccoons, anything left outside after dark is fair game.  This has to do primarily with garbage and compost but anything left unguarded is at risk. The photograph shows evidence—muddy paw prints—of an attempt to pry open the trunk of my car and gain access to the bag of cat kibble inside. The attempt was unsuccessful but I admire the effort. Off-limits to raccoons are populated indoor spaces; an edict that is only ignored by immature and not fully socialized individuals.

The raccoon who came into our back room recently violated two prohibitions of the local ecology: he came into a populated residence and he was out too early (it was barely dark). Later that night, a walk around the neighborhood would have shown raccoon couples and family groups surveying the possibilities offered by “garbage night” as they examined the cans left curbside for pick-up early the following morning.

Raccoon Footprints | Jeffrey Callen

San Francisco’s raccoon/human ecology is a stable system with little need for adaptation. However, there are other ecologies that are more problematic and less solidly organized. The last ten years has seen a dramatic increase in the coyote population in the city’s parks and open spaces. The population increase and new physical environment has led to changes in the coyotes’ hunting behavior and social structure. Packs of coyotes in Golden Gate Park and attacks on dogs in a popular dog walking area, including one death, has created a level of unease that far exceeds concern over raccoon or opossum scavenging. The current policy of promoting co-existence of wildlife, people & pets through posting warnings that list appropriate behavior to avoid confrontation assumes an ecology that is fundamentally based on an educated populace. While all ecologies are essentially self-organizing, a “hand on the wheel” is still necessary. The question is how light or heavy the touch.

Jeffrey Callen is a writer and ethnographer based in San Francisco whose work is rooted in the belief that an authentic story opens up a space of connection that creates the basis for understanding, communication and effective action.

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