For the past two years, I have been working for McGill University. This job barely puts food on the table, but it’s the “experience” that counts, right? The experience of earning less pay for skilled work than city workers get for cleaning up garbage*. Huh, thanks McGill.
Despite the gripes I have about my pay, the job has allowed me many moments of introspection about urban wildlife and people. I work at the Urban Nature Information Service, a free service that is offered seasonally during the summer months out of the Macdonald Campus to assist callers (and e-mailers, and visitors) with their various urban nature problems, be it a composting question, problems with skunks and raccoons or horticulture.
Ladybug on a cucumber – unwanted guest? (photo Mel Lefebvre)
I’ve been handling the calls about wildlife, which includes mammals, birds and exterior insect “problems”. As a believer in the equality of all life, I have a hard time giving out advice on the phone sometimes. I understand the frustration of having a groundhog devour a backyard vegetable patch; all the hours put into maintaining a small plot in the hopes of harvesting some locally grown, potentially organic, wholesome produce at the end of the season, but seriously. There’s a bigger picture that I’ve found is overlooked by some homeowners.
Some of the calls I get complain about these animal “problems” with such an out-of-touch perspective it’s as if the collective mind has forgotten that humans aren’t the most important species on the planet. I try to advise people in a way that allows for some degree of coexistence with urban wildlife, but it gets tricky sometimes. It is, in fact, a problem associated with urban sprawl, especially when I get calls from regions that are undergoing rapid development. Where do the animals have left to go? Hot spots like beneath sheds and balconies are welcome shelters for animals that have lost their homes.
I am thankful that many callers understand this, but it is frustrating when people aren’t willing to share a bit of “their” space with wildlife and expect someone to come and carry their problems away. New laws in Quebec have been put in place during the last 3-5 years to protect urban wildlife, mostly due to the fact that relocated mammals have extremely low survival rates.
It would be like taking your aunt Emma, plopping her in the middle of rural France and saying “there you go aunt Emma, this place is the same as Montreal, now go and prosper”. Aunt Emma will be standing there without a clue and probably be quite frightened, hungry and alone, especially if her offspring were left behind. Just because the habitat an animal was moved to may be ideal for that species, many people don’t take the following into consideration:
- Wild animals have to deal with competition for food and space from other animals.
- They don’t necessarily know the good spots to forage for food, they don’t know what predators may be around and they will have to find, or build a new nest or burrow. Having just been moved, most animals are just frightened and don’t end up surviving due to these big stressors.
The very best thing to do when you have a wild mammal on your property that you don’t want to cohabit with is to exclude it from the spot where it has taken refuge and let it find its new home by itself, even if it’s in the city.
Generally, callers understand the need to cohabit and it’s great to hear from genuinely concerned people who really do care about the well being of urban wildlife. There is the occasional caller who doesn’t see any other way to deal with wildlife besides obliterating them and this is where patience is a virtue. The worst calls, however, are when people want to remove ants.
Ants inside a home may signal some structural problems with your property and may need some outside help, but when I get calls from people wanting to thin out ant populations outside, I hesitantly give out advice that makes me feel no less valiant than ‘Dubyah’ in his various crusades against human diversity. I give out eco-friendly advice, yes, but internally, I am asking for ant-forgiveness.
Ants, like thousands of other arthropods, have an enormous benefit for ecosystems everywhere. They move nutrients up and down the soil column which increases soil fertility and provides aeration. When they get out of hand, it is due to an imbalance in that system. The unfortunate thing is that many of the calls I receive require long-term solutions and we think in the short-term. Fix the imbalance and a level of coexistence should be restored, although it may not be in a human-centric way. This basically means that we probably won’t get there for a very long time, but each little ant that isn’t squished, boiled or poisoned and each raccoon, skunk or groundhog that gets to continue foraging through our garbage cans will thank us for it.
*I fully appreciate and respect those who do this sort of job, I was merely drawing an imaginary “skill appreciation” comparison, criticizing McGill; a school who touts themselves as the “Harvard of the North”, yet keeps their student workers on a short financial leash barely able to scrape by and causing many of us who pay rent and buy food to perpetuate and increase our debt load.