Rezori | The trouble with animals? Why, it's us

The recent problem with foxes on Signal Hill underscores how city dwellers have lost sight of what it means to be wild, Azzo Rezori writes.
One of the foxes frequently spotted in the Signal Hill area in recent weeks, before Parks Canada stepped in to remove them. (Photo courtesy Alick Tsui)

It appears the recent action against the foxes that got hooked on being fed by visitors to Signal Hill has been successful. 

Two animals were caught and relocated. Word has it that a third one had already gone missing on its own because it hadn't been seen around for some time.

Problem solved? Not necessarily.

The problem lies not with the animals; it lies with humans losing sight of things as they change the world.

Nobody protested. Everybody knew the rules. Wild animals belonged in the wild. They entered our village at their own peril.

The northern Bavarian village I grew up in was full of animals. But few (besides the usual creepers and crawlers) were wild, and all had their places and functions. 

Horses and oxen drew the village's wheels, ploughs and harrows. Legions of cats kept pests like mice and rats under control. Entire barnyard flocks of chickens laid the eggs that kept the villagers eating. 

The very sound of the place was the sound of its animals. Early hours were shrill with the crowing of roosters, the barking of dogs, the complaining of cows bursting to be milked, the squealing of pigs jostling for their morning slop. 

Sparrows chirped and chattered all day while taking care of the village's scraps. The sunset pandemonium of honking geese being driven home for the night served notice that another day was coming to an end.

Other animals were not as welcome. When a marauding magpie decided to nest inside the walled peacefulness of the village's little castle, the district forester promptly arrived on his bicycle, shot gun slung over his shoulder, and blasted the intruder plus nest out of the tree.

Nobody protested. Everybody knew the rules. Wild animals belonged in the wild. They entered our village at their own peril. 

Deprived of regular contact

But modern-day humans, mostly urban by now, are so deprived of regular contact with animals (other than pets at one extreme and pests at the other) that they forget that there are, indeed, different rules for wild creatures.

A fox is seen on Signal Hill in early May, with downtown St. John's in the distance. (Tonia Pilgrim)
Canada Parks regulations state quite clearly, "No person shall touch or feed wildlife in a park or entice wildlife that is in a park to approach by holding out or setting out decoys or any such devices, foodstuffs or bait of any kind."

Not the most elegant English, but it leaves no doubt. It's illegal to feed wildlife in national parks. 

Parks Canada also explains why. "Although perceived by many as an action of kindness, humans feeding wildlife can lead to increased rates of wildlife mortality."

One of Parks Canada's pamphlets tells the story of a moose which had become so used to browsing camp sites, it ate a table cloth and choked on it. Other contents found in its stomach included pot scrubbers, tape, wire, nylon cord, and plastics.

Animals with human problems

According to all the experts, wild animals being fed by humans risk ending up with very human problems. Loss of common sense, or instinct. Malnutrition. Overpopulation. Aggression. Neurotic behaviour. What's more, what often starts off as cute can turn into a nuisance and from there into a pest.

One of the foxes seen this spring at Signal Hill. (Perry J. Howlett)
Green monkeys and their humanoid antics used to be a popular tourist attraction on the grounds of many Kenyan hotels. But the monkeys are becoming so brazen, they've been reported snatching food from hotel guests, even biting hands that are no longer willing to feed them.

After centuries of livening up the place with their fluttering and cooing, pigeons are no longer welcome on Venice's St. Mark's Square. The city estimates it spends close to $4 million a year cleaning up after them, not to mention the damage they do by picking away at marble statues and buildings for their daily fix of calcium. Feeding them has been declared illegal.

Thousands of Canada geese are killed across North America each year to control the mess they make. Each bird can deposit up to two pounds of droppings a day, much of that in public places like parks.
Trouble indeed. Yet we keep acting is if the conflicts are just a misunderstanding on the part of the animals.

Marginalizing the wild

The misunderstanding is ours. We've marginalized the wild to the point where we no longer understand it. We still love it as something we've lost and want to return to. When we do return to it on weekends or on camping trips, we still respect and fear it as something that could destroy us. But when it arrives in our cities, we forget and receive it as if it's come to be like us.

Just one look into the eerie eyes of wild creatures should warn us that they're strangers to our citified ways and sentimentalities. But we forget that, and treat them as we treat the animals that have learned to live with us — as either pets or pests.

And so, too often, we end up doing what we've traditionally done when we interact with the wild, we destroy it with ill-considered attention.

I started this column with the wrong thought, "the trouble with animals." I should end it with the correct one: the trouble with humans.