Urban Animals and Chicago in Summer

June 29, 2023

Summer in Chicago is always fantastic—there’s so much going on. This year, many headlines have been dedicated to a rather unique event that’s taking place on the weekend of July 1–2: NASCAR Street Race Chicago in Grant Park.

The race remains controversial, even more than other festivals that take place annually downtown, like Lollapalooza and the city’s iconic music festivals. The NASCAR street race has been criticized for disrupting traffic and reducing hours at institutions on Museum Campus.

NASCAR is hosting two big races over the weekend: The Loop 121, featuring rising stars taking on a 55-lap, 121 course, and the Grant Park 220, which features racing stars doing 100 laps through the course.

The track takes over portions of Balbo Drive, Jackson Drive, Roosevelt Road, Michigan Avenue, and DuSable Lake Shore Drive. But along with the actual competitions, the NASCAR event features practices, concerts, and a festival throughout the weekend all over Grant Park. Street closures begin Friday night.

Given recent news about wildlife in the area—like the family of foxes seen recently in Millennium Park—you may be wondering how animals fare when the very events that make Chicago so much fun in the summer for humans enter their space. Fortunately, while the NASCAR race might keep individuals on edge in the short term, populations probably won’t suffer in the long term, data from the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute indicates.

“As a weekend event, the NASCAR race probably won’t have major long-term effects on the wellbeing of urban animals,” Director of the Urban Wildlife Institute Seth Magle, Ph.D., says. “They are resilient, urban residents that are already used to some amount of noise. The race happens during the day, and animals like foxes are more active at dawn, dusk, and overnight. Although it may not have long-term effects, the noise and increase in visitors to the park could, however, increase short-term stress levels for wildlife.”

This is because animals may be spending more time avoiding people and keeping watch over resting places, resources, and young, instead of foraging and finding food. They may even try to shelter from the increase in noise and human activity by finding quieter spots to hunker down. By raising their stress levels, events like this do have some small chance of affecting their health—especially if animals are crossing busy roads and already experiencing hardships as a result of climate conditions, lack of prey, or other issues.

UWI research has demonstrated that stress leads to less defense against disease in wildlife, and concludes that we should consider wildlife needs too when we decide how to use our downtown space. If we plan strategically for urban areas, we can try to do it in a way that causes as little disruption as possible to animals and their habitats.

Cities provide unique challenges for local wildlife, but so do all ecosystems. Fortunately, urban animals are excellent generalists that easily adapt to changing situations. Their learned skills help them maneuver in cities, which—with all their high densities of noise, traffic, and people—are the fastest-growing environments in the world. Cities are habitats we need to pay attention to.

At least here, wildlife management plans like the one UWI drafted with the City of Chicago can help species survive and even thrive alongside humans long into the future. Meanwhile, scientific initiatives like UWI can continue doing research on how cities can better support the wildlife that lives among us.

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