Encounters with wildlife

Jan 4, 2022 | 0 comments

No matter where we are in the world, we share the planet with wildlife. 

You may only see squirrels or birds when you take the dog out or head to the office, but these creatures are still classed as wildlife. Some listeners will regularly encounter raccoons, coyotes, bears, snakes, monkeys, jackals, possums, and more. 

In this episode of The Animal Guide for Curious Humans, host Maureen Armstrong talks with Meg Toom, principal of Serratus Wildlife Services in British Columbia, Canada.  Meg specializes in human-wildlife conflict mitigation. She works with communities and governments to develop strategies to reduce negative human-wildlife encounters. This can involve education and outreach programs as well as the creation of policies and bylaws that help keep both humans and animals safe. Meg is also an avid outdoors person.

Meg’s passion for this work grew out of tragedy when, in 2004, 27 bears were killed as part of a bear conflict management program in the community in which she lived. Right then, she decided to become part of a volunteer program to build awareness around animal care and wildlife, a step that led her to work full-time in this field.  

Preventing wildlife-human conflict

Education is the key to preventing wildlife-human conflict. Humans attract wildlife into urban areas, but typically, it’s wildlife that pay with their lives. 

“We know better, so we should do better,” says Meg. 

Urban sprawl and our interest in recreating in nature mean encounters with wildlife are on the rise.  How can we make those encounters positive interactions rather than harmful conflicts?  

In this episode we explore certain species of wildlife common in North America, the types of interactions that occur, and how to avoid conflict with them.  Particular emphasis is placed on black and grizzly bears 

Meg explains that over time, bears can become “human-habituated”, meaning they lose their natural wariness and fear of humans.  They even get used to common human noises such as vehicle traffic.   Unfortunately, being human-habituated can have deadly consequences for them.  Being mindful of our behaviours that contribute to habituation can help prevent needless death.   

Meg and Maureen also discuss encounters with cougars and coyotes and strategies that are most effective in reducing conflict with these fascinating and vital wildlife species.  

What about wolves?

In our next episode, Maureen continues the conversation with Meg to explore wolves – a particularly important subject for our listeners in Western Canada and the American Northwest – before moving on to discuss a framework for wildlife conflict prevention that can be applied wherever you live in the world and no matter what species of wildlife you are likely to encounter.  Please join us for it.

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Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Animal Guide for Curious Humans, the podcast that explores the vast world of non-human animals and our relationship to them. I’m your host, Maureen Armstrong. For more information, please visit us at theanimalguide.com.

Maureen Armstrong: 

Hi, everyone, and Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2022 brings some great things to the world, like the end of this pandemic. I’m also starting the year hopeful that we will see great positive change for animals around the globe. Today, we will be talking about interactions with wildlife. No matter where you live in the world, you are sharing the environment with wildlife. Human wildlife interaction is happening really everywhere all the time. There are wild animals in and around your home, they may just be squirrels, but there’s wildlife. If you enjoy getting out into the wilderness for recreation, like hiking or camping, you may find yourself coming across some wild animals home. Encounters are commonplace and many pose no risk to human or animal. Others are a little more challenging and require more thought and care to ensure the safety of all involved. Our guest today is Meg Toom. She’s an urban wildlife conflict prevention specialist in British Columbia, Canada, and has been in that field for over 15 years. She works with communities and local governments to develop strategies to reduce negative human wildlife encounters. This can involve education and outreach programs, as well as creation of policies and bylaws that help keep both humans and animals safe. She’s also an avid outdoors person herself. So let’s talk wildlife conflict prevention with Meg Toom. Thank you so much, Meg, for taking the time to come on the show. I really appreciate it. You have such great knowledge and background in the area of urban wildlife conflict, encounters between people, and certainly certain types of wildlife, so we’re really happy to have you here. Before we get into sort of the topic, specifically though, I’m really curious what attracted you to animal welfare as part of your professional life – where did your love of animals come from? 

Meg Toom:

For sure, thanks so much for the invitation to chat with you today about wildlife. It’s funny, because I actually started off, I’m a registered nurse, and so, I took care of human wellbeing. In 2004, the community I was living in at the time – and I’ve always been a naturalist, my husband and I are great outdoors people, spent a lot of time out in the backcountry. In 2004, 27 bears were killed in a community that I was living in, and so, an organization, a volunteer organization gathered strength, and I became a part of a volunteer program to kind of educate the community about how we can do things better. And from that volunteer position, I was then offered employment through the British Columbia Conservation Foundation with a program called Bear Aware, which has now become WildSafeBC. So I started off as a volunteer, and received training, and basically, took on the role as the wildlife coordinator for the community. Having taken it to 2021, I have now opened my own business and just do consulting work for municipalities and organizations, just helping people reduce conflict where they live with wildlife. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

So as your professional life with it that came out of this tragedy of these 27 bears, what happened, were they hunted or what was the cause of that [inaudible 00:04:12]? 

Meg Toom: 

No. So essentially, the 27 bears were killed because of conflict issues. Many, many communities have this issue where it’s basically revolving door of killing, destroying wildlife, because of human behavior. So this organization of volunteers came together with the local conservation officers service, and they went to council, mayor and council and said, look, this is not sustainable, we can’t keep killing wildlife because they’re getting into garbage or birdfeeders, we’ve got to try and do better. So council and mayor obviously said, yes, let’s do something, and so they started a process that leads then what we have in British Columbia, it’s called the Bear Smart program. And it’s a voluntary program with the Ministry of Environment, and basically, there’s six criteria that a community has to work towards achieving, and then you receive accreditation through the ministry. So by 2010, so in about five years, the District of Squamish, which is the community that I worked for, gained Bear Smart status through the Ministry of Environment, because of all of the efforts they brought in an education program. They initiated a Wildlife Attractant Bylaw, they started looking at their official community plan, their policies, their bylaws. They started replacing those open barrel garbage cans at the soccer fields and trailheads with the bear resistant. So yeah, [inaudible 00:05:47] process. 

Maureen Armstrong:

Yeah, I’m sure. So that would have been done in under the rubric of urban wildlife conflict prevention, then, presumably. 

Meg Toom: 

Absolutely. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right, yeah. So tell us a little bit about that, I mean, I know it exists, certainly, throughout Canada, in many parts of the United States. Is it a global phenomenon, this kind of, that there’s resources being dedicated to reduction of conflict in urban settings with wildlife? 

Meg Toom: 

Yeah, I mean, it’s a long standing kind of program. They are all worldwide, and we’ve taken a lot of what other communities have done and created something that fits our niche where we were living at the time. Urban wildland conflict is basically, a lot of it is education, its education based, it’s social marketing. It’s trying to get people to adopt new behaviors, change of behaviors. It’s to try and connect them to nature in a way that motivates them to want to make a change, to prevent – and it all boils down to whatever you’re dealing with, attracting wildlife into residential urban areas where there’s a potential for conflict. And typically, it’s the wildlife that pay with their lives. So in order to, you know, we know better, so we should do better, so there’s, in Cape Town, South Africa, which is actually where I’m from, there’s a baboon program, human-baboon wildlife conflict education program. And it’s no different than what we’ve done here in BC, is just trying to educate folks on – urban sprawl, we’re spreading out into more and more habitat that is historically wildlife habitat. And so, how are we going to live with these animals that’s safe for us, but it’s also safe for them. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Yeah, it’s true, there are many wildlife who live and have lived for whoever knows how long right in cities, right in very large metropolitan areas. And a lot of them, we don’t even – many people don’t even think about it anymore. Right? Like the squirrels in the neighborhood of whatever large city or something or raccoons is a big one in Toronto. It’s, for the most part, people don’t think about it a lot. But with the ever increasing urbanization and growth of human population, there’s more and more development being done in habitats that are traditionally home to other wildlife. So I think we seem to be seeing an increase in the number of interactions, and we’ll talk a little bit in a bit about the difference between just an interaction and a conflict. But also, as you’ve noted, humans are more and more recreational as well, a lot of people like to go camping and hiking and biking in wilderness areas where there’s an opportunity for encounters with wildlife there as well. So, as I say, a certain number of these interactions are just straightforward, and they don’t really create any concerns one way or the other. There are other instances where there are more significant risks of safety for either the humans or the animals or both. So I found we would start with the context that you and I know well, which is we’re both here in Canada, and in the area that many indigenous people will call Turtle Island, the continent of North America; and so, there are certain types of wildlife that we have frequent human encounters with in urban or suburban settings, or in the wild. And so, there’s a few I’d like to talk about, I want to start with bears, because I have a great love affair of bears and you know a lot about them, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about bears and their habitat, and we’ll go from there in discussing the kind of interactions that humans have with them. 

Meg Toom: 

Right. Well, predominantly, what I’ve been dealing with is grizzly bears and black bears, predominantly black bears. And to better understand where the conflict, and maybe this is a good time to kind of talk about what conflict is versus just an interaction versus conflict. So when humans and wildlife encounter each other, if nothing negative happens to either one of them, then that’s just an interaction. However, when there’s a negative outcome, such as property damage, we often have bears that will rip apart someone’s shed to get whatever is inside. Personal injury – we’ve had people swiped by bears. So whenever there’s a negative encounter, that’s considered conflict, and so, there is sometimes obviously real conflict, whether there is an injury or there is a property damage, or there’s the potential for it. And, at least, in the British Columbia Wildlife Act, they define potentially dangerous wildlife as bears, cougars, coyotes and wolves. So those are the four main species that we typically try to educate about, because they are the higher public safety concern species. So then we get into the whole prospect of well, why are we dealing mainly with bears, amazing creatures that I could talk for hours on, but if we want to delve a little bit deeper into some of their basic biology, I want to first address a couple of the concerns that are related to conflict, and that is human habituation. And your listeners may have heard this term before, but essentially, wildlife are born with a certain natural wariness of humans, they don’t seek us out. It’s a learned behavior. So when an animal starts to experience humans and starts to see those benefits to actually being in a neighborhood, they start to lose that natural awareness, and they become what’s called human habituated, so they get used to people. You’ll see it along highways. You’ll see animals like deer will become habituated to the vehicular traffic. They no longer look up. They just hear the cars going by, because it’s grown so used to it, it’s not triggering a response from them. 

So when you’ve got a human habituated animal, it’s more likely to come closer to where you live, because it sees its benefits. So that goes hand in hand with another term that’s called food conditioned, and typically, what we’re talking about is food that’s generated by humans. So whether it’s a garbage or whether it’s your organics or whether it’s birdfeeder, but essentially, when an animal starts to rely on humans for supplementing their diet through non-natural food, it becomes food conditioned. So it makes this connection between humans and providing food. And when you combine an animal that’s lost its wariness, so it’s human habituated, and an animal that’s starting to find food, so it’s becoming food conditioned, when you combine those two terms, there is a higher risk for public safety concerns. And so, a lot of the animals that we’re dealing with, particularly bears, are either relocated, whether destroyed or killed. Destroyed is the term that’s often used, but essentially they’re euthanized or killed, and they pay the ultimate price. 

So bears are amazing animals, they have an incredible sense of smell, they can smell things from well over a kilometer away, so they are driven by their nose to find food. They are biologically driven to find calories, food, it’s getting fat is where it’s at for bears, that’s their main goal. So from the minute they wake up from hibernation in the spring to the minute they go into hibernation in the fall, their focus is packing on the pounds, and that’s because during hibernation, they don’t eat or drink, depending on where you’re living, they could hibernate upwards of six months; typically around here, it’s about four months. And unfortunately, if there’s non-natural food available, some bears will not hibernate, they will sleep, but they will continue to forage on unnatural food sources. So because bears are omnivores, they’re classified as carnivores, but they are actually omnivores, and about 20% of their diet is meat, the rest is basically vegetation. They have a wide range of foods that they will eat, and if you think about it, a garbage can full of human garbage, it packs a lot of calories, and that’s the enticement. We just really struggle with, a lot of communities struggle with managing their attractants, that’s what’s bringing these animals in these non-natural food sources. The other thing that’s amazing about bears is they have, so they will breed in the spring, May through to early June. But the female, even though she will have fertilized eggs, the eggs actually won’t attach to the uterus, to the uterine wall until November, and only until she’s gained enough weight to sustain that pregnancy over the winter. Cubs are born in January. It’s called delayed implantation. So if she hasn’t gained enough weight, those fertilized eggs would just dissolve and would not result in cubs over the winter. So it’s basically self-preservation. So if you think about it, if we’re allowing them to eat a lot of calories that they normally wouldn’t get in their natural foraging practices, we’re helping sustain a population of bears that normally wouldn’t be there, because they wouldn’t have the caloric intake. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Fascinating, so we are creating a problem for ourselves in the sense of, we are potentially increasing the bear population by giving them access to food that they wouldn’t otherwise have, if there wasn’t the same proximity to us. 

Meg Toom: 

Right. So it’s a bit of a simplistic way of looking at it, but fundamentally, yeah, we start to see, definitely females, if they’re given extra calories, will start to breed sooner. Usually they sexually mature around five, but sometimes the age of two-three, they’re starting to reproduce. And they will also have more clubs, the more calories, the more able to sustain more litter size as well. So there’s this whole imbalance that we’re creating, if we’re allowing them to find these natural extra calories, I should say. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

And so, when they forage just naturally, and they’re not engaged in sort of human food sources, what is in, as you say, they’re omnivores, but typically, what would they feed on, and is environmental damage part of the problem of them now looking for food sources closer to humans? In other words, is the natural food source on the decline? 

Meg Toom: 

Well, certainly it’s impacted with climate change, with wildfires, we’ve had terrible wildfires this summer, obviously, pushing a lot of wildlife out. So typically, in the spring, it’s lots of grasses and sedges. Once you hit more of the summer, you’ll get a lot of like carpenter ants, larvae, termites, things like that. They will feed on carrion, so in the spring, a lot of grizzlies, when they’re coming out of hibernation, will capitalize on some of the ungulates, so the deer, the elk, the moose that might have been killed over the winter. Certainly, the community that I lived in, we had a lot of salmon in the fall, so there’s April able to eat the salmon, summertime berries, high value crop of berries in the summer and in the fall. Clearly, with more and more people recreating, disturbing wildlife foraging areas, plays into it, impacting salmon runs, obviously, that’s going to affect their diet. The forest fires, as I mentioned, there’s many implications, more and more, as you’re talking urban sprawl taking away landscape from them. And then, as you remove their habitat, you’re also plunking down your garbage cans at the end of every driveway. So not only it removes their habitat, but you’re not providing them with these attractants that, yeah, really play into the whole conflict issue. So for sure that, yeah, they have a very, very varied diet. 

Maureen Armstrong: Is there, between the grizzlies and the black bears, is there any major distinction that we should be aware of, between those two species of bears that come into play when we talk about wildlife potential conflict with them? 

Meg Toom: 

Right. Well, black bears definitely are more adaptable, similar to the coyotes, very adaptable to living in an urban area, on the fringe of an urban area. Grizzly bears are less likely to do so. Having said that, we definitely have had grizzly bears in urban areas; just last year, we had two large males within two weeks of each other arriving in one of our highly dense residential areas, both were relocated. But black bears have evolved to live in treed areas, they’re excellent climbers, and to avoid conflict, bears will typically run away or climb up a tree. Whereas grizzly bears have evolved to live in more of a tree less environment, and so, they are more likely to stand their ground and defend versus doing what a black bear does, fastest climb trees. So that’s a major distinction is because these are more likely to – and people call it more aggressive, but it’s essentially, they’re less likely to hightail it, whereas black bears typically do. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah. Well, there are a lot of black bears in and around the area that I live in, in Ontario, and my last encounter, and it was – I’ve only ever had positive encounters with bears, but exactly they were – there was a mother and two cubs up in the trees in the area that I was hiking through, and they very peacefully – I backed away, they very quietly came down from the trees and moved on to another area. It was really quite an easy engagement, so to speak. They obviously didn’t have much interest in being around me, and I wasn’t trying to get any closer to them, so yeah. 

Meg Toom: 

No, and that’s key what you just said, that they really don’t seek humans out. They’re not waiting in the bush, because there’s a lot of fear about these animals as well, and we label them as potentially dangerous wildlife, because they potentially are. But the reality is, they are extremely tolerant, specifically black bears are extremely tolerant of human activity. And unfortunately, that can sometimes be the downfall, because they’re so adaptable and tolerant that they then come into our communities and it becomes issue. But the majority of encounters are just like when you said, you see the animal, it sees you, you both leave, and everything is fine. And so, that’s why it’s important to teach people don’t make an encounter with wildlife negative, you don’t need to make it a negative one, it can be a positive one. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Exactly. I am always amazed a little bit at how many people, when they’re speaking of bears, their immediate instinct is to be expressing great fear of them, and you need to be appropriately cautious, but knowing more about them and realizing, hey, they don’t want to have encounters with us anymore than we want to with them, being too – such that it’s a conflict. I mean, I think that’s the best thing for people to understand, right? 

Meg Toom: 

Right. And everybody’s tolerance level is so very different, and I know you’ll be providing some resources at the end of this podcast, but that’s so essential for people who – and I’ve had people come up to me who have been absolutely terrified before I’ve given presentations. I tried to explain to them the more you understand about why these animals do what they do, the better equipped you are to kind of be responsible for how you react when you see one, but also be responsible for how you can ensure that you’re not attracting one onto your property. So a lot of fear is just based on just not having the knowledge and the right education. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, that makes sense. I should know as well, we’re talking here about grizzlies and black bears. Obviously, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a nod to polar bears. It’s something I’ve heard estimates of somewhere in the neighborhood, two thirds of the world’s polar bears live in the territory that is Canada. I’m planning to do, I’m hoping to do a full episode on polar bears, they’re fascinating creatures in and of themselves, and there are lots of questions and concerns about their plight. So we’re going to do that in a separate episode. I just wanted listeners to know we hadn’t forgotten about the polar bears 

Meg Toom: 

It’s very exciting…

Maureen Armstrong: 

They’re really, really fascinating animals. Okay, so you’re sort of touching upon it, but what are the most common occurrences of people and bears having interaction or really conflict, I guess, because, as you say, there’s all kinds of positive encounters or interactions where we’re just at a distance and enjoying each other’s realities, but some of the challenges are coming in when there’s a conflictual relationship between us and them. 

Meg Toom: 

Right. So what I mainly deal with is helping, you know, we can talk about the camping and the recreating, but the main focus of what I do is just chatting with people about managing attractants within their properties. And it’s this creation of food chains that we don’t necessarily think about when we maybe just go out and hang a birdfeeder in the spring and think, hey, we’re attracting the birds. But something as simple as attracting birds can attract other wildlife and create food chains. A prime example, I have a neighbor up the street who’s put up a birdfeeder, and it’s just in a pole, and it’s hanging about four feet off the ground, so easily accessible for a bear to come by and just grab that birdfeeders, because birdseed has a lot of calories, and they will just demolish the birdfeeder and eat the seed. And there’s no catch tray underneath, so there’s tons of seeds falling on the ground, and what my neighbor has done is, they’ve put a rat trap, right, like just off to the side. So obviously, the birdseed that’s spilling onto the ground is bringing in the rodents. And so, in order to deal with that, they’re killing the rodent. So it’s this food chain that they’ve created, that they’re not making the connection, if they were to just put a catch seed, catch tray underneath the birdfeeder. You wouldn’t have the seeds scattered everywhere, you wouldn’t need to kill the rodents. If you were to hang that birdfeeder upwards of eight plus feet off the ground, then you probably won’t have a bear that’s going to be able to stand on its back legs and grab that birdfeeder down. 

Garbage is by far the most that, like, the number one attractant that is bringing bears into communities, number one. And now that we’re source separating, so we’re separating our garbage from our kitchen organics and are recycling, and many communities have different ways of disposing of residential waste, but the community that I was working with had three different individual garbage cans, each came with a lock, the only one that didn’t have a lock was the recycle towed. So garbage is the number one, and that’s why we also implemented a wildlife attractant bylaw that would oversee, and it basically tells people when they could have their garbage towed out, when it can be locked, when it can be unlocked, where it needs to be stored, that recycling is considered a wildlife attractant and that that must be rinsed and cleaned, it cannot have an odor; it has to be, because again, bears can smell things from a kilometer away, so they’re highly motivated to seek out food. It talks about birdfeeders – some communities will not allow birdfeeders during bear season, so from about March to November, you’re not allowed to hang a birdfeeder. Gosh, backyard chickens – more and more people are bringing in, you know, they want to have food close to home, they want to know where their food comes from, so they’re raising chickens in their backyards, and beehives, fruit trees. These are all domestic related kind of attractants that we’re bringing into our residential neighborhoods. So again, with the community that I worked with, we had a requirement if you’re going to keep bees or if you’re going to keep backyard chickens, there’s a lot of regulations that are around the keeping of chickens and bees, but mainly you have to have an electric fence, and this was to keep out not just bears, but also coyotes, bobcat, rodents as well, so the feed that you can feed had to be in a wildlife resistant container. The electric fence had to be approved through the bylaw department in the building department, so pet food – pets needed to be fed indoors. You can’t leave your pet food all sitting outside, because you have coyotes, you have raccoons, skunks, even young cougars will sometimes eat pet food. Barbecues, there were regulations on, if you’re going to keep your barbecue outside, it should be clean, should be kept covered and out of the winds, the wind current doesn’t take the odor down the neighborhood. Fruit trees had to be managed so that they didn’t attract wildlife, and that’s typically a big issue come fall. We have a lot of apples and pears that stay on the tree till the first frost and, of course, that’s crunch time for bears. They enter a phase called hyperphagia in the fall, which means hyper eating, and they will consume many, many calories, spend upwards of 20 hours a day foraging for food, and they will kind of venture a little bit further out of their areas to find food. So it’s just a very busy time for bears, so it’s time for residents to be extra vigilant with managing attractants. 

Maureen Armstrong: Yeah, so you’ve described a few things in there that lead us to the ideas for reducing the likelihood of a bear coming on to the property for one’s property, as an example. So just, are there other things that you could recommend that people do? I mean, obviously, in the community, you’re working in, they had a lot of regulations in place that assisted people with knowing, ultimately, what were good strategies for reducing the chances of conflict. Are there other suggestions that you would have for people living elsewhere on how to reduce the likelihood of a conflict? 

Meg Toom: 

Certainly, in relation to garbage and organics, it’s – so I have to preface all this but, it’s a lot of work managing attractants. And then part of my job is to motivate people to do the right thing, and to try and educate them that these, you know, a lot of people love bears to death; and then there’s also the other camp where they’re vermin, we need to get rid of them. So it’s trying to find that middle ground, that balance of look, unfortunately, some of these animals will need to be destroyed or euthanized or killed depending on what term you want to use, because it just is too much of a public safety concern. But there’s a lot of these animals that just don’t need to be destroyed, because there’s this steps. So trying to get people to understand why these animals do what they do, try to motivate them to do the right thing, so it does take more effort to do the right thing. Things like your garbage and your compost, anybody who’s a meat eater should be freezing any of their food scraps, wrapping up bits of salmon skin or bone in a paper towel and popping it into your freezer reduces odors, you don’t get the maggots during the summer. Storing your garbage containers away in a shed, in a garage, and if you’re working on the odors, it shouldn’t be an issue, your garage or shed should not smell if you’re working hard to make sure the odors aren’t a factor. If you have nowhere to put your garbage container, we will highly suggest purchasing one that has locks, but again, those aren’t bear proof. Bears, we struggled in the community I was working in, because a lot of the bears over a period of time learned how to break into these totes. So we started – yeah, it’s, I mean, you should see some of the damage, it was pretty incredible – so we started looking at other models that had different kind of locking mechanisms. And a lot of them also rely on humans to remember to lock. So they’re manual locks, so you have to do the locking. So again, like I said, it’s a lot of, it’s a fair amount of work. But tying garbage containers down so they cannot be dragged off, because bears typically won’t eat on site, they’ll grab bags of garbage or the garbage container itself, and take it to your neighbors or down the ravine or across the street. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Go look at the loot somewhere else, take the loot with them. 

Meg Toom: 

Yeah, where it’s safer, and they’re such intelligent animals and highly adaptive, and we really don’t give them enough credence because they’re excellent problem solvers. And we had one bear that – so, the garbage container’s lid has locks on the front, and then the hinges are on the back where the lid attaches to the body, and we had one bear in one particular neighborhood that decided, forget it, I’m not going to go and try and break into the lock, I’m going at the back where the lid comes off, and I’m going to chew the hinges. And I would walk the street, and when all the totes were lined up for collection, and half of them had their hinges chewed, and you could just see the gnaw marks from the teeth. So this bear knew that if he chewed the hinge, the leg would pop off, regardless if the locks are on. So again, such intelligent animals. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. That’s clever, that’s really clever. 

Meg Toom: 

And humans are constantly trying to stay one step ahead. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Fascinating. So let’s talk a little bit about – so you talked a little bit about sort of mitigating, and so much of it obviously has to do with reducing the food source attractants in and around you, whether you’re camping or you’re – it’s on your property. And most of the time, the bears are coming by probably when people aren’t around there, maybe it’s in the night or whatever, because as we’ve talked about earlier in the main, they don’t want to encounter us any more than necessarily we want to encounter them. But what do you do if you are right there, what if a bear comes on your property, in your home and with your pets in your family and such, what kind of suggestions would you give to people, what to do in circumstances like that? 

Meg Toom: 

For sure, and just to talk about what you just mentioned, bears typically coming around when people aren’t there, and in any event, initially, that’s how it starts, like, bears are intelligent animals, they understand if they come out under the cover of darkness, it’s a lot safer for them. But once they start to get those rewards, they’re able to get into garbage containers or birdfeeders or whatever it is, their behavior starts changing, you’ll start to see, and some bears are active day and night, they are not nocturnal animals, but they’re more likely to come out at night because it is safer. And typically, it’s the larger, more dominant male bears that will come out at night, so it’s the younger ones that forage during the day, and it’s typically the young ones, the sub-adults, less than five, they get into trouble because they’re kind of pushing the envelope like teenagers tend to do. But once they start to get that food, then they start to come out – you’ll see them out during the day as well. So certainly, if you’ve got a bear on your property, best to just keep that bear moving through. These bear smart programs that I’ve referred to, the ultimate goal is to keep your community [inaudible 00:36:12] to wildlife to allow wildlife to move through the community, but not just get, to stop, stay and get stuck, because they’re finding non-natural food. So if a bear is moving through your property, fair enough, let it keep moving. If it’s stopping, if it’s finding garbage, or it’s up your fruit tree, it’s very difficult to deter a bear from food once it’s on it. So probably not best for public safety concerns to get out there and try and chase the bear off the garbage or the fruit. Best to wait till it moves on, and then get out there and secure your attractants. Why was the bear on your property to begin with? Is there something that you could maybe improve, do a little bit better with managing? If the bear’s kind of, you know, it’s a bit – it’s kind of being cool to be kind, but the bear’s just hanging out in your backyard, you probably want to encourage it to keep moving on. But the whole premise here is we want to keep these animals wild. We don’t want them getting stuck in our neighborhoods, finding food, water and shelter in our neighborhoods. We want to keep them wild. And by allowing them to just kind of chill out, doesn’t help them in any way. And you may be okay with that, but your neighbor, three or four houses down, may not be okay with the bear walking through the neighborhood. So it’s again trying to strike that balance. If you’re on a trail, and you see a bear, awesome, that’s where we want to see them. But we don’t necessarily want these animals feeling comfortable or finding food on our properties. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

And so, if for whatever reason, it seemed like a situation where you felt like you couldn’t just wait until the bear moved on naturally, what are the safe ways, the healthy ways of encouraging the bear to leave your property? Is it noise, presumably, if you make certain noise? 

Meg Toom: 

For sure, yeah. And each bear has a different tolerance level, they’re very much like humans, they have these different personalities, some more shy or some are more bold. But absolutely open a window band, some pots and pans use an air horn, some people have used their car alarm to scare a bear off the driveway kind of thing. If you can get onto a deck that’s well protected, maybe doesn’t have stairs that take you down, but you can just stand on the deck and make a lot of noise, encourage the bear to move on. Years ago, my husband called me and he said, hey, there’s a bear hanging out in the backyard. He’s just kind of lying there in the yard panting. I said, well, you know what, get him to move on, because the forest is kind of over there, let’s just get him to move on. And a lot of people will say, well, he wasn’t doing anything, it’s not harmful. But the reality is, the more these animals become accustomed to living amongst us, it’s just inevitable that conflict occurs or could occur. And so, there’s that fine line. And, like I said, the main thing here is trying to keep them wild as much as possible. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, this goes back to the human habituation challenge that you were referring to, and people can, out of a desire to try to be kind, end up ultimately not doing any favors to that bear, because the more accustomed it becomes to humans, the greater the likelihood it’s going to encounter a human who the interaction, or doesn’t go well for them, right? 

Meg Toom: 

Exactly, and that has happened. We’ve had that happen in the community, and unfortunately, we want to be connected to nature, we love nature, we love our wildlife. A lot of people love them to the point where it’s harmful. And so, it’s trying to connect people to how their actions, you know, feeding deer in the backyard, just not a good thing, it brings in predators, it brings in cougars, coyotes, bobcat, and it just creates this whole food chain. So a simple act of just feeding birds, like I said, people just need to really connect to their actions, and connect to what kind of possible food chains they might be creating, and just really aren’t doing these animals any favors by loving them to death. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

So you talked a little bit about kind of the backyard scenario or on the property scenario, if you’re out hiking and you encounter a bear, what are the best strategies for addressing that situation? 

Meg Toom: 

So the best strategy is to try and avoid an encounter. So we always encourage people to, if you’re going out recreating, always anticipate that you might encounter wildlife. Have that in your mind. A lot of people will go in backpacking or just trail running or mountain biking, not even thinking that they might encounter wildlife. So being alert and being aware, number one. And as you and I’ve already discussed, being educated a little bit more about what the different wildlife species you might have in the area, knowing a little bit about their behavior and their biology and why they do what they do. So being alert, being aware, which means earbuds out, you need to be listening, you need to be attuned to nature. So having headphones on while you’re listening to music or a podcast is not a great thing, because you’ve cut one of your senses off, you cannot hear what’s going on around you, and wildlife often give you cues through noises they make. Looking for signs, like we said, black bears have evolved to live in environments with trees, trees offer safety for bears. So you’ll see a lot of claw marks on trees, are those fresh claw marks. Scat – a lot of wildlife use the same trails we use. They, instead of pushing through the wilderness, they’ll use the trail that the humans have built. So look for scat – oftentimes, they will leave their scat in the middle of a trail to kind of mark. Coyotes are great for this. They’ll leave the scat right in the middle of the trail to show you that this is my space. Cougars too, they will delineate their territory quite clearly. Bears often roll big boulders over, rocks over because they’ll forage for the bugs and the larvae underneath. So if you see rocks that have been disturbed, often ripped apart logs, same thing, bears are foraging for termite, larva and whatnot. So it’s being attuned to your environment, expecting to see wildlife, being alert, being aware, making noise because, number one thing is you want to avoid surprise encounters because not unlike humans, if we’re surprised by something we typically don’t respond, we react. So making noise that the wildlife know that you’re on the trail, and a lot of people use those little bear bells, but there’s no scientific backing information about whether those things actually work, so we really advise people to use your voice, give a call out. If you’re going around a corner, you can’t see what’s on the other side, like, it’s a blind corner, make a lot of noise. If you’re by berry bushes, where bears might be foraging, absolutely make noise. Same thing with a river – a river’s running nearby, and it’s quite loud, well, your hearing is somewhat impaired, so would be the wildlife, so make a little bit more noise. So that’s actually really, really important is avoiding surprise encounters. You want to give the wildlife the opportunity to move on and move off the trail, climb a tree, get out of the way, if they hear you coming, because as we’ve talked about, they don’t really seek us out. But if we let them know where they are, they’ll avoid us if they can. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Some people, I understand, use bear spray. What is that, and is it helpful or harmful? 

Meg Toom: 

It’s highly recommended, and they say, it’s better than – there’s an article bear spray versus bullets, and just – they advise even hunters take bear spray with them. Bear spray, I carry it with me whenever I go out on the trails, absolutely. You should carry it on your person, which means don’t have it shoved in the back, of your backpack, because when you need it, you need to have it immediately and basically, it’s just – they say it’s not brains in a can, you’ve got to engage your senses, you’ve got to be alert in where are you going to avoid surprise encounters so that you don’t have an encounter. But if you do have one, then it is basically your best way of getting out of a tricky situation, it is a deterrent. And it’s capsaicin, so it’s a pepper, and so, basically it hits the animal’s eyes, the mucous membranes, causes inflammation, and it just buys you a bit of time to kind of leave the area. I’ll be providing you with a link to a video about how to use bear spray. So each can will come with instructions, it has to have an expiry date. And basically, you can use it on any wildlife species, bears, cougar, whatever you need, but it’s kind of your last defense, you’ve done everything right. Yeah, the animal is still approaching, so you’ve got your bear spray in, it’s ready to go in. A special callout to people who run, to people who bike, because when you’re running and biking, you’re going quite quickly, and you’re going quite quietly. So surprise encounters, you run a higher risk of a surprise encounter if you’re running or biking. And then, it’s very important, if you’re biking, that you don’t put your bear spray on the actual bike frame, because if you’re separated from your bike, you need to have your bear spray on you, so it’s readily available. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

That’s smart. That’s smart. Yeah, capsaicin is, I think, the active ingredient in chili peppers, is it not? 

Meg Toom: 

Yes. So yes, and it’s just an oily residue, and it’s quite effective. Obviously, there’s a bit of a technique and art to it to deploy. But, again, I would just highly suggest people do a little bit of research and definitely read the instructions on each can, on how to use, but it’s, yeah, it is – you’ve tried everything and the animal’s still approaching, so it’s your last line of defense, essentially. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah. Good. Thank you. That’s helpful. Anything else we should talk about in terms of bears and avoidance of conflict relationships with bears before we take a look at a few other animals? 

Meg Toom: 

It’s just essentially, like I said, the main thing from an urban perspective is the attractants. If you’re camping, something you should be looking into is if you’re going to provincial park, a lot of the provincial parks in Canada have – and I’m not going to say bear proof containers, because, as we found out with bears [inaudible 00:47:03] ingenuity often means what we thought was bear proof is only bear resistant. But a lot of the provincial parks have recycle and garbage containers that are very resistant. So the infrastructures there, a lot of their websites will let you know if there’s a trail alert, or a trail closure or wildlife alert. So do a little research about where you’re going camping. Certainly, if you’re car camping, you should be making sure that everything again, if it gets down to its odors, we need to manage the odors. So often, if I go car camping, I have things in zip lock, plastic containers, and they go into my little Tupperware bins, and they’re kept in the trunk of a car. You never take anything with an odor into your tents, so no toiletries, no food, no snacks, things like that. Use the grey water grates that the provincial parks provide, don’t throw your cooking fluids into the bush, because that will attract wildlife. Very cute to feed the chipmunks and squirrels, but again, you’re creating a situation that who’s going to feed that wildlife over the winter when the campground’s closed, and you’ve created an animal now that’s relying on humans to feed. So yeah, it’s tricky. And then making sure when you leave your campsite for any amount of time, even it’s just to use the Johnny there, is to make sure all of your food is secured, because these animals are often very opportunistic, they will come in and find the opportunity and raid a campsite. And you would be amazed about how many people are educated when they enter provincial parks, and yet, they still leave food out overnight on their picnic tables, they still – they just, yeah, they don’t think it’ll happen to them. And humans, by nature, are very reactive. We’re not great at being proactive. So oftentimes we’ll change our behavior when something negative happens. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, there you go. Thank you. That was really, really helpful. I’m hoping you’ll talk – you referenced earlier, three other animals that are significant in the urban wildlife conflict prevention program, particularly in British Columbia, but certainly elsewhere as well, are coyotes, cougars and wolves. Can we spend a bit of time on each of those, and find out what some of the key triggers are that are involving or creating conflicts, maybe we start with coyotes? 

Meg Toom: 

Sure. And you may have heard that we’ve had some issues in Stanley Park with coyotes that have been biting, nipping people, and they just adopted – the Parks Board has just adopted a bylaw that you cannot feed wildlife, and it’s a $500 fine now, and that includes not only hand feeding a predator like a coyote, but also putting your hands out with birdfeed and feeding birds and scattering birds eat along the trails. So coyotes are very much like bears, they’re highly adaptable animals to living on the fringe of an urban environment, omnivores. So they will eat pretty much anything we eat, including garbage, compost, fruit from trees, pet food. They typically aren’t too much of a public safety concern, however, as we’ve seen, as of late, when people are feeding these animals, they’ve become human habituated, and food conditioned, and their behavior changes, and now they’ve become a public safety concern. So that’s a whole, like, again, a whole food cycle thing that humans have created that change this behavior. But typically, coyotes are more of a concern for your pets, and small children because of, obviously, their size. So we’ve had quite a few encounters with coyotes taking off leash or on leash dogs, domestic cats – a lot of people will leave their cats to roam neighborhoods 24/7, and unfortunately, they are seen as food sources for coyotes. Small dogs are seen as prey, and sometimes larger dogs, especially during the springtime breeding season, larger dogs are also seen as competition. So we’ve had a few people with dogs having kind of followed by coyotes, because they, you know, same with bears, quite can work well within an urban environment. Some of the safety, certainly the wildlife attractant kind of precautions that we talked about bears, apply to coyotes, managing all those attractants that we talked about, will keep coyotes off your property as well. Certainly, scaring coyotes off the property from a safe area will go a long way in encouraging them to move on. One thing we haven’t touched on, and is something important is to do a little assessment of your property every once in a while, and make sure not just your attractants, but also looking for spots along like under a deck or behind the shed, are little places where you have animals making dens, you don’t want to provide space for these animals, you want to cut the brush back so you can see good sightlines on your property. Motion sensor lights will also help kind of move animals along every once in a while. But they, of course, get habituated to those lights, and they can get habituated to air horns and stuff, because just like humans, we kind of, okay, that’s not a threat, I’m just going to keep on looking for food. So what we do for bears is very similar to what we do for coyotes. They have same range of attractants that they do seek out, but they are certainly more of a public pet safety concern for sure. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. And more to the pets than the humans themselves, right? Coyotes in the Maine are not that large and not – where bears are concerned, of course, there have been many examples through the years of people being killed by bears, but I think less so with coyotes, right? 

Meg Toom: 

Absolutely, yeah, less of a public safety concern. But because, we do have to factor in that children are smaller, and there was a bit of a concern there, but certainly not to the extent – we’ll talk about cougars in a second, but there’s, yeah, a different level of concern for sure. But yeah, it’s more, every spring we have issues with pets and with coyotes. 

Maureen Armstrong:

Yeah, there was quite a bit of news more recently in the Greater Toronto Area of coyote sightings in the sort of the east end of the GTA, and I did see some video footage of a coyote going after an and unleashed dog, it was small poodle or Yorkie or something, and the owner had a hold of it and the coyote was going after it, eventually chased it away and the dog survived, but pretty scary for that family in the neighborhood, because it was right in the middle of an urban neighborhood. 

Meg Toom: 

Yeah, it’s very scary for people, I totally understand that. So that’s why it’s so important not to let them feel comfortable in our residential areas, because they’re opportunistic, if they see something that they think they can possibly benefit from, they’ll go for it. So yeah, extra vigilance, but yeah, typically it’s been pet safety that we’ve been mainly messaging. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Concerned about, yeah, okay. Cougars, what about cougars? 

Meg Toom: 

Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. In the 13 years that I’ve been educating folks, I get this, I saw this kind of shift, and a lot of people are petrified of cougars, and they’ll often say, oh, I’m not worried about the black bears, I’m not worried about bears, I’ve lived with them all my life, I’m not worried about them, and they get quite complacent about black bears. Not saying you have to be afraid of them, but there needs to be a healthy dose of respect for sure. Cougars elicit a lot of fear in people, because they are obligate carnivores, they are not omnivores, they are true predators, they are hunters, and there’s a sense of vulnerability that people have. Certainly, when you’re out hiking and biking, it’s highly likely that you’ve been seen by a cougar, but you’re just not necessarily seeing the cougar itself, very elusive animals, solitary animals, and very secretive, very well camouflaged too. Occasionally, you will get cougars, again, we need to make sure our communities, of course, to wildlife activity, that they can move through. And we’ve had situations where we’ve had cougars moving through the community, calls come in to the conservation officer hotline, and that’s okay, it’s just a sighting, the animal’s moving through. Their main source of food is deer, so anywhere you’ve got high populations of deer, you can anticipate there will be cougars, predators. So we’ve got these cougars moving through the community, that’s okay, it’s a sighting, it’s moving on, we can expect to see them. But then every once in a while we’ve had issues where cougars have stopped and stayed, and they’ve started consuming again, domestic pets. We did have a situation, there was a female and her two young, well, they were about a year, year and a half old. So the three of them were basically finding a lot of cats in a certain neighborhood where we lived, and they were in the area for a few weeks, and it was – their behavior was escalating. They were basically sleeping under people’s trampolines during the day. One of the kittens was found playing with somebody’s shoes that they’d left out on their doorstep. So it was this, again, human habituation situation, because they were finding non-natural foods, although cats a natural food for them, but these are domestic animals. So unfortunately, all three of those, the whole family were destroyed because it became too much of a public safety concern. It was a matter of – not a matter of if, it would be a matter of when there’d be an encounter with a human, because they were just so prevalent in the community. So tolerance level for cougars in neighborhoods is a lot lower than it is for black bears. Like I said, they’re obligate carnivores, they only eat meat. It’s a higher public safety concern when you have a cougar in the neighborhood shore. And so, typically they’re not coming for your garbage, they’re not coming for your food, they’re not going to eat that. What they’re looking for is the pets, so backyard chickens, particularly, are vulnerable to cougar incursions. Young cougars will sometimes eat pet food, so it’s always good to keep your pet food indoors. They’re amazing animals – I’ve seen a few in the wild, which has just been an amazing experience, I’ve always been within my truck, so I felt fine. I mean, they’re not necessarily seeking people out either, but they’re opportunistic as well. So oftentimes, we’ve had issues where cougars have attacked small children and adults. So there’s, like I said, there’s definitely a different level of public safety when you address cougars. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

The deterrent strategies, would they be similar to bears, so, in terms of, first and foremost, make a lot of noise, try to encourage them to move on, are there other strategies that are helpful if you are actually – if you’ve got one on your property or you’re encountering one when you’re out recreating? 

Meg Toom: 

Right. So on your property again, getting it to move on, ensuring you got nothing on your property once it’s moved on, that you think it might have been attracted to loud noises from a very, very safe place, you often have people who will, and this is something we haven’t actually touched on, and it plays into the whole human habituation thing is people taking photos of these animals and posting it on social media versus actually trying to get that animal to move off the property. So even with cougars, you are going to be doing it from behind closed doors, behind a window, you want to be super, super careful, and just get them to keep moving on for sure. In the wild and out recreating, same thing applies, in regard to being alert, being aware. Cougars are very territorial animals, and they will often scrape trees with their claws, and they will also leave scat and urine deposits, basically on the perimeter of their territory, so you’ve got to keep your eyes open for that. They consume meat, so deer, number one prey source, so they will often create what’s called a food cache. So they won’t eat the deer all in one sitting, they will cover it up with debris, so they might kick dirt, twigs, moss, whatever is at hand to kind of cover the carcass, and then they will revisit that carcass over a period of days. So if you’re in the bush, and you’re smelling something that’s, you know, and I smelled this before, and it’s quite pungent, a dead deer or something like that, you want to leave the area immediately. You also have to look are there turkey vultures or ravens circling, because a lot of the other wildlife will help kind of inform you of what’s going on in the forest. So again, you got to be alert, you got to be aware. If you were to come across a cougar cash, you would definitely want to leave the area. You carry bear spray, because bear spray is effective on cougars as well as on bears. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

That’s good to know. 

Meg Toom: 

Yeah, and a lot of this information you can find on WildSafeBC, and there’s multiple other websites, but for safety concerns with cougars, you absolutely, if you encounter one, you’re going to back away slowly and make yourself look large. You never want to make yourself look small, you want to pick up small children and small pets, and basically, cougars are very good at kind of weighing the risk to benefit ratio, and obviously, being that they rely on their hunting skills to find food, they’re not going to try and pursue something that might result in them being injured. So that’s why you’re presenting yourself as a threat, like, and not worth it, yeah, I’m going to injure you if you come near me and let them know that you’re big, mean, and strong. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Thanks to Meg Toom for sharing so much incredible information regarding some of the animals we encounter often here in Canada and in other parts of the world, and for providing us with so many concrete suggestions to avoid negative interaction. But there’s more to come, one animal we haven’t yet covered is wolves. This is a particularly important subject for our listeners in British Columbia and the American Northwest, as you will hear when we continue our conversation with Meg on the next episode. But we will also be talking about approaches to wildlife conflict prevention that can be applied wherever you live in the world, no matter what species of wildlife you are likely to encounter. It could be monkeys or elephants if you’re living in say India or areas of Africa. So please join us again on the next episode to continue this important discussion. In the meantime, all the best to you and the animals in your life. 

This episode was produced by podmotion.co. Our theme song is Umlungu by John Bartmann. Please reach out to us at theanimalguide.com. We can be reached by email at info@theanimalguide.com. 

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