When Urban Wildlife is Given a Seat at the Table

by Jeffrey Callen, Ph.D. 

“… widening the circle of conversation to include the voices of all living beings” is a core component of Earthfire’s work. It shifts the essential paradigm of the environmental movement from a paternalistic caring for nature to a search to identify shared interests of all parties. The tricky part is determining who speaks for the non-human participants at the table and how to determine their desires and intents. A beautifully-written piece by Los Angeles Times staff writer Thomas Curwen (“In the footsteps of an urban mountain lion” – 2/11/2017) highlights some of the conundrums that arise when urban areas become home to potentially disruptive and dangerous wildlife.

The lion slinks through the chaparral, a blur of movement in the night. Head held lower than his shoulders, he scours the brush in a ravine just south of Travel Town in Griffith Park.

Hind paws land where the forepaws lift. No twig snaps, no crinkling leaf. He’s silent, an ambush predator, always hunting, always looking for opportunity.

The National Wildlife Foundation calls the mountain lion a “nearly perfect predator,” with impressive quickness and strength and prodigious leaping ability. These attributes inevitably place it in conflict with its human neighbors. Although mountain lions have been reported within the city limits of Los Angeles since the 19th century, the public outcry in response to a recent kill order placed by the state on an L.A. mountain lion, held responsible for the killing of a dozen goats, would not have been overwhelmingly in support of the lion in earlier times. In a very real sense, urban wildlife has gained a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect them—or, more accurately, their proxies have. And the Griffith Park Lion, who has claimed an iconic public space (featured in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land) as his home turf, demonstrates the value of a very L.A. phenomenon: celebrity status. His stardom began with a National Geographic cover shortly after he was discovered (and fitted with a GPS collar) by the park service. Six Twitter accounts have been opened in his name, he has been honored by the city with a Day of Recognition and is the subject of a forthcoming documentary. While celebrity status is conferred on “extraordinary” individuals, it can bring attention to everyday situations and causes. More importantly, celebrities, such as the Griffith Park Lion, can inspire a sense of empathetic connection with groups they symbolize or represent (i.e, mountain lions, predators, wildlife). Is there a better starting place for meaningful conversations?

Jeffrey Callen, Ph.D. (member of Earthfire’s Advisory Circle) is an author, based in Palm Springs.

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