Blog post

Fear, disgust and nuisance: the plight of unloved wildlife

October 7, 2021
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By Louis Lazure

Vampire bat Credit: Brock Fenton

Every Halloween, bats enjoy a temporary rise to fame. But after the candy has been handed out and the costumes put away, bats are relegated to a category of wildlife that, often unjustifiably, can cause fear, disgust, and irritation.

Bats are a good example of how the human response to wildlife is most of the time very emotive. Unfortunately, such an emotional response can have adverse effects in term of species survival and animal welfare. In this post, I will tackle different type of negative reactions associated with unloved wildlife species, and why we should be more tolerant and respectful to them.

Fear

Snarling wolf Credit: NPS Photo/Ken Conger

Fear is a strong driver of human-wildlife conflict. Animals such as wolves, bears and sharks generate fear of potential harm. Other species are “scary” for other reasons, such as wasps that sting and skunks that spray for defence. The consequences of an attack can be real and important: loss of domesticated animals, injuries or illness, destruction of properties, etc.

The remedy to such fears is to put things in perspective. The risk of being attacked by a large mammal predator is lower than being struck by lightning! Even if rare, some species can be dangerous to humans so we need to be cautious when planning outdoor activities, and react in a calm and predictable manner when in their presence. If you encounter a wild animal, this means not getting too close. At the regulatory level, we need to protect sufficient natural habitats, in size and quality, so that animals are not driven to urban areas.

Disgust

Black rat snake Credit: Louis Lazure

Spiders, insects and snakes are examples of animals that cause visceral disgust in many people. Disgust has a valid function as an evolved psychological reaction to avoid disease, but simple precautions and hygiene measures are sufficient in most cases to not get sick. That is especially true for people living in Canada, where these species are mostly harmless.

Controlling this emotional reaction necessitates more than education and outreach as disgust can turn into more complex emotional states such as anxiety, phobia and panic. Nevertheless, learning about these animals through books, documentaries, or zoo visits, might alleviate the discomfort people experience when they encounter such species.

Nuisance

Black rat snake Credit: Louis Lazure

Nuisance animals have a more nuanced relationship with humans. Raccoons, pigeons, and squirrels have their share of supporters. People feed them and will go great lengths to rescue them when they are in danger. Some even keep them as pets!

Others can’t tolerate them and get annoyed by their presence and mischievous acts. Nevertheless, an individual animal is considered a nuisance through no fault of its own! These species are intelligent and are taking advantage of the resources at their disposal. Nuisance from wildlife is mainly a consequence of careless human behaviour such as improper waste disposal and feeding in public parks. This can be controlled through regulations, public outreach and education. Don’t forget, urban spaces are built on former natural habitat, pushing wildlife to the periphery, and forcing them to go through populated areas to respond to their needs (foraging, migration, reproduction, etc.).

Education and outreach are long-term efforts aimed at changing attitudes towards unloved species. Myths, traditions and unreliable news perpetuate our negative feelings towards these animals. Parental attitudes can also influence a child’s response to animals. As a parent, you do not have to pretend you absolutely love all wildlife, but a sober reaction in the face of a loathed species will teach them to be calm and confident when exposed to such animals and to respect all forms of life.

The next time you experience a negative feeling in the presence of an animal, take a minute to understand where it comes from. Moreover, remember that every single species has a vital role to play in the web of life. For this reason alone, these animals deserve our respect.


About the author

Photo of Louis Lazure

Louis Lazure is a doctoral candidate in Biology. He received a BSc in problem-based learning Biology (UQÀM, 2005), a master’s in International Ecology (Université de Sherbrooke, 2007) and a MSc in Biology (Western University, 2009).

With his expertise in ecology, zoology and animal behaviour, he worked and conducted wildlife research in many countries and in captive settings. Louis is also the Research Coordinator at Zoo de Granby since 2013. His current research precisely explores raccoon’s cognition within a context of human-wildlife interactions in protected areas


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