7 Reasons to Care About Urban Wildlife

May 1, 2024

Have you ever really considered the animals that live near you in cities? Rabbits, coyotes, foxes, birds, mice—even cats, dogs, and insects (like cicadas!). Animals live and thrive in every ecosystem on the planet, and that includes cities. You only have to look at your backyard to see that’s the case.

When the Urban Wildlife Institute was first being created, the thinking behind its formation was that people tend to think of conservation as a problem to be solved far away from home, in mountains, or deserts, or oceans. But we are surrounded by wild animals who have adapted to having people in their space. As this world becomes increasingly molded by human hands, finding out why animals have been successful is a priority. Understanding how animals move and live in cities can help us shape more positive interactions with them.

Here are some of the principles and ideas that informed the Urban Wildlife Institute’s works:

1. Wildlife in North America doesn’t only consist of bears, mountain lions, and larger animals.

“Lots of animals are wildlife, including insects,” explains UWI Assistant Director Maureen Murray. “In fact, any undomesticated animal living outside, able to live on its own, is wild—and that includes many different kinds of animals. Understanding how they coexist in such a variety of urban environments is extremely important.”

2. Animals belong in cities as much as humans do.

“The nature that people come into contact with day in and day out, at least in North America, it’s not rhinos. It’s not giraffes. It is geese, it is squirrels, it is pigeons,” explains UWI Senior Director Seth Magle, Ph.D. These are animals that have adapted to city living and are able to survive here. A city is an ecosystem that supports humans, but it also supports all kinds of animals. They are here to stay.

close up dragonfly

3. Wild animals aren’t acting with intentionality when they target humans and human-made objects.

“Animals are just doing what they normally do,” Murray explains. “It just happens to be near where we live. They’re just trying to find food, trying to find shelter. One thing to remember is that this is home for the animals, too, and they are trying to bring up offspring and survive in these same spaces. They’re not trying to make human lives harder.”

4. Studying urban wildlife can help us manage conflicts with animals.

From dealing with a raccoon that knocks over your trash cans at night to trying to protect your small dog from a coyote in the neighborhood, encounters with urban wildlife aren’t always good experiences. However, if we learn more about why such things happen, we can try to mitigate the negative encounters while fostering good ones. “Understanding urban wildlife enables us to reduce these conflicts and avoid these situations,” Magle explains.

5. Beyond conflict management, understanding urban wildlife helps us connect with the animals around us.

Lincoln Park Zoo’s mission is to connect people to wildlife, and telling stories about people’s interactions and relationships with wildlife in the context of where they work and play can be an effective way of doing that. “It’s a very powerful message that I think can build an important bridge to conservation for some of those rare, far away species that maybe they don’t come into daily contact with,” Magle explains. “And we can help to generate ecological literacy amongst urban people and remind them that you live in nature. Wherever you live, you live in a form of nature with wildlife.”

woodchuck in forest

6. Cities can help solve our conservation crisis.

“For many years, scientists like me have written off the city. They’ve said, this is not a place that we care to work,” Magle says, noting the story of conservation has previously been pretty simple. “We set nature preserves far away from cities and focus on clustering animals there—and that’s the way to save species”.

Unfortunately, cities continue to spread and the human population increases, and those preserves can’t accomplish everything we want them to do. “We’re not winning the conservation battle that way,” Magle points out. “So, the only solution moving forward is to flip that narrative.” If we can build cities with biodiversity in mind, we create a planet friendly to people and animals—but to do that, we need a lot more information.

7. Urban animals aren’t all common species. Some need protection, too.

In fact, a very broad group of animals live in cities. Migratory animals, for example, often stop in cities on their way to breeding grounds and make use of the area resources while they are there. Look at hummingbirds, monarch butterflies, and the state-endangered black-crowned night herons that nest over the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo each year. “We just need to understand their specific needs when it comes to living with people,” Murray says.

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