Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Los Angeles Should Improve its Coexistence With Wildlife

A common Eastern Fox Squirrel peers from atop a utility pole.
| Photo: Eligio Trinidad

There went that noise again.

Typing on my computer one night, a few years ago, I heard that sound, the sound coming from some eight feet above me. It was the scurrying of some sort of critter on my rooftop, the footsteps too light to be from a person, and too heavy to be that of a squirrel or any one of the numerous cats that wander about my neighborhood.

And the next night, I heard that noise again.

And again the night after that.

And again.

Eventually I had gotten well-accustomed to the sound of that random little critter on my rooftop. I paid no mind to it beyond the few seconds I could hear it dash above my ceiling. It could have been a monkey or even an extra-terrestrial visitor for all I knew.

Months went by, and I found myself watering the lawn one evening. And out of nowhere, it came out of the shadows, as if to introduce itself to me.

It was a raccoon.

Of course. It all made sense now. It seemed the right size and mass to be that little critter scrambling atop my roof every night. It kind of stood there, as if it wanted to initiate conversation with me, much like a human neighbor would. So I initiated the conversation:

"Well hello there, Mr. Rac --"

And then it just turned around and left.

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Wildlife encounters are actually not all that uncommon in Southern California, even in the heavily-paved concrete jungle of urban Los Angeles. Some scientists have long considered Southern California to be a "biodiversity hotspot." Though most of us live within the sprawling, yet also dense built environment, it's one that's surrounded by an ocean to the west, large, forested mountain ranges to the north and east, and deserts on the other side of them. And even within the urban landscape, we have chaparral foothills, riparian and coastal wetland environments, and even pockets of native and reconstructed ecosystems in the most unexpected places.

While I live some three miles from the wilderness that is Griffith Park, it, and other natural environments are connected to the city through tree cover, and even built infrastructure such as utility lines, empty lots, backyards, buildings, and streets, offer certain animals not just a pathway to migrate from one place to another, but also shelter.

Animals have long been amongst us here in Southern California, back to our pre-Hispanic Native American era, and, as the fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits have shown us, even in our pre-history. But as humankind has gradually staked its claim on this land, wild animals are greatly seen as a nuisance.

Meatball the Bear became a local celebrity after wandering into numerous Glendale-area backyards in 2012.
| Photo: KTLA-TV

Ursal invasions of neighborhoods, such as that of Meatball the Bear in the Glendale foothills last year, make for sensational television news coverage and viral internet videos. Wild coyotes killing house pets, even in central Los Angeles communities such as Echo Park and Silver Lake, cause frequent community concern. Raccoons, opossums, and squirrels have also wreaked havoc on gardens and trash bins.

But there's a general ignorance of animals from a human perspective, that they're out there to either terrorize us, or at the very least, inconvenience us. Ironically, human development has, over time, pushed its boundaries so much that it's inconvenienced their habitat, as we've seen in suburban and exurban communities.

Whenever there's a group of people in a room, and a spider innocently crawls down the wall, you will invariably have one person exclaim, "Kill it!" Similarly, if a black bear comes strolling down the street, a person's first, though mistaken, instinct is to run for one's life (people should instead scare it away through noise or movements).

But most creatures, when in view of humans, are mostly just concerned with activities related to either eating or breeding (other activities, such as constructing nests or colonies, are usually done out of our sight). They're just doing their thing.

Of course, human beings also wander about in search of food or sex, though we also do highly unusual actvities like work for money, attend school, hold meetings, seek entertainment by watching other humans interact (either actual people, or the visual likenesses of people), or transport ourselves in human-made vehicles to facilitate our movement from one place to another. We can even be just as -- if not more -- hostile to other humans than we are to animals. Such bizarre, unpredictable animals we are.

In some cases, humans are directly to blame for some of the "wildlife." The common Eastern fox squirrel, seen almost daily in the Southland, was introduced to our region in the late-1800s, as pets kept by Civil War soldiers in the old Sawtelle Veterans Home in West Los Angeles. After hospital administration considered the animals as a nuisance due to being fed food intended for the human patients, they were released into the adjacent prairie land, and the rest is history.

Opossums were introduced around the same time by an Arkansas settler who founded a community near Pomona and missed the opossum meat he enjoyed back home, so he had a pair sent to him from Missouri. More recently, people have also released personal pets into the wild, such as the once-elusive Reggie the Alligator, who lived in Harbor City's Lake Machado. Humans have also released red-eared slider turtles into bodies of water such as L.A.'s Echo Park Lake, where they are believed by some to have contributed to the demise of the lake's original lotus bed.

Many of us learn about the graceful, exotic animals that live in far-away habitats by watching public television or Animal Planet. But not many of us will have the opportunity to see lions, wildebeest, and elephants roam free in the African savanna. So it's unfortunate that the only education we get on the animals we encounter in our own backyard come in the form of health and safety warnings broadcasted on the local news: Disease-carrying insects and birds. Backyard-invading bears. Pet-eating coyotes. Beach-ravaging sharks. Mountain lions -- enough said.

What we don't get to learn is how our local animals live, their lifespans, their natural diet, their prey and predators, their breeding season(s), and social structure.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's Nature Lab and Nature Gardens offer a great opportunity to learn about our local wildlife. They even have a Citizen Science program that enables everyday people to observe and learn more about their local wildlife.

Even the city of Glendale hopes to spread awareness on respecting and co-existing with wildlife through their 2014 Rose Parade float, entitled, "Let's Be Neighbors." And what better spokes-animal to represent this than (a floral likeness of) none other than Meatball the Bear?

Municipalities and communities should engage in programs, either formally or informally, to learn more about our animal neighbors. By learning more about our local animals, we can better co-exist with them, or pro-actively reduce encounters (such as keeping trash and food sources out of their reach in hillside areas) in the event they do become a clear and present danger to us and our pets. In the big picture, in most cases, they're not going away.

Whether we're born and raised here, or relocated or immigrated here from somewhere else, we're all here to enjoy the life and opportunities that Southern California has to offer. And likewise, so do our local animals.

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About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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