More Than a Feeling

July 1, 2013, Department, by Jonathan Hicks

How and why emotional connections to wildlife contribute to effectively managing parks and open space.Not every park agency actively considers wildlife in its mission statements or management practices (Hicks 2010). Still, wildlife is finding ways to survive in places it never could before, and for perhaps the first time, some people are beginning to welcome the animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that Americans spend $3 billion annually on bird seed, and another $800 million on bird feeders, baths and houses (USFWS 2007).

Meanwhile, a trip to the local feed store reveals squirrel feeders, bat houses and tools to create butterfly gardens. People are buying salt licks for deer and trail cameras to snap photos of backyard raccoons. Researchers have documented this phenomenon across the country, repeatedly finding that, particularly in urban areas, more and more people prefer non-consumptive to consumptive wildlife recreation. Since the 1970s, hunting participation has declined while wildlife viewing has increased (Whitehead and Aiken 2000; USFWS 2007). In other words, people are becoming less likely to shoot animals with a gun and more likely to shoot them with a camera.

Sometimes lost in the shuffle, however, is that even though a majority of people appreciate wildlife, they are often very specific about where they want to see wildlife. Herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge for managers: How do we balance the numerous feelings and attitudes that many people express? For the most part, it is not wildlife to which people are opposed, it is the situations that arise from the presence of wildlife. For instance, most people genuinely enjoy seeing deer at their local forest preserve. However, seeing one through your car’s windshield is far less appealing. Having Canada geese in the river may be quite enjoyable, but having them on your golf course is more problematic.

It is these situational inconsistencies that make dealing with people and wildlife so complex and oftentimes emotional. On one side of your home, you may have a neighbor who wants to shoot deer that eat their vegetable gardens, while your neighbor across the street feeds and tries to pet the same deer. Both are upstanding citizens who pay taxes and value local parks, yet their behaviors and emotional responses are different. Many communities, including some in suburban Chicago, have dealt with these conflicting emotions with regard to coyotes. Some members of the public were concerned for the safety of their pets and young children. However, when officials decided to trap and kill several coyotes, many people were upset.

In reality, the coyotes were probably not a threat. Reports of coyote attacks on humans are rare; coyotes are not pack hunters like wolves, and pets kept indoors, inside fences or on leashes are generally not at risk. Examinations of trapped coyotes have revealed that their stomachs were not filled with human children or pets — they were almost entirely filled with carelessly disposed human food and pet food residents left outside (Gese et al. 2012). In other words, many of the same people who do not want coyotes around are unknowingly contributing to their presence.

Unfortunately, “reality” and “facts” are rarely as important to the public as their feelings. Just because feelings are not objective does not mean they should be ignored. Emotions are important because they influence perceptions. “Researchers who examine environmental decisionmaking have consistently demonstrated that emotions not only play a role in environmental decisions, but also serve as a motivational and guiding principle of environmental perception and actions” (Vining and Merrick 2012:48). This can result from numerous factors like reading Little Red Riding Hood as a child and having animals as pets. Unfortunately, regardless of how people feel, managers often get caught in the middle, and making everyone happy can seem like an impossible task. However, there are many ways to handle these wildlife situations.

Take, for example, the Urbana Park District (UPD) in central Illinois. In Meadowbrook Park, a 130-acre, high-traffic parcel, beavers dammed a creek, leading to upstream flooding. Not unexpectedly, the people with flooded basements responded angrily and passionately. However, the UPD came to realize through respectful dialogue that the public doesn’t hate beavers, they just hate flooding. By reframing the public’s emotions, the park district was able to come to a compromise by which the beavers could stay in the park and the nearby neighborhoods could maintain dry basements. They used a few feet of PVC pipe to alleviate some of the water pressure near the dam. Consequently, the UPD addressed homeowners’ concerns and eliminated flooding. In fact, park visits have increased, as hundreds of people seek the chance to catch a glimpse of the beavers.

Success stories like this are becoming more common. However, with limited time, budget and personnel, it is understandable why managers might be skeptical of this approach. Nevertheless, park managers have the knowledge and experience to ask people their feelings, help them understand policies and thereby minimize occasional conflicts between people and animals. With that in mind, the following strategies and tools are available to help:

1. Manage people first, manage wildlife second
Rather than spending time, energy and resources to combat wildlife, the position supported by recent research is that we should focus on the people who patronize the sites where these animals live (Nelson 2008). Instead of using limited park resources to try to change animal behavior, it is more effective to concentrate our efforts on directing human behavior through positive interaction and education. At the end of the day, until we can teach wildlife to look both ways before crossing the street or not use our porches for nesting sites, our energy is best spent giving people tools to get along peacefully.

2. Be willing to engage the public — even when they are passionate and emotional
Ultimately, having people who are passionate is what you want; it means they care about your parks. However, one mistake managers make is to ignore people’s feelings. Emotions do not necessarily make public opinions irrational or worthy of dismissal. “Emotion has elements of reason and action as well as of feeling. Emotion can no longer be (dis)regarded as a synonym for irrationality” (Ingleton 1999:2). So while it is easy to ignore emotional reactions because they are not “logical,” research suggests those are precisely the reactions we should consider.

3. Use emotion to your advantage
Despite challenges associated with wildlife management, park and recreation agencies are best equipped to teach the public about green spaces and the wildlife that resides there. In addition to teaching them, we might consider how we foster positive interactions with wildlife. Relationships with animals are found to facilitate environmental clarity and epiphanies (Vining and Merrick 2012). Such pro-environmental attitudes and behavior enhances the perceived value of parks and green spaces. Moreover, experiences with animals can increase positive emotions that subsequently increase resiliency among people who have experienced stress, loss or trauma (Walsh 2009). In other words, considering emotional responses to wildlife can be beneficial for both the public and the agency.
Managing human-wildlife interactions is a complex matter. With changes in land use, wildlife is behaving differently and people are reacting differently to the animals’ presence. Thus, the role of managers is changing as well. For public relations reasons, trapping and removing wildlife may not be the best option. Ultimately, though it may seem like more effort, the best responses may involve being as knowledgeable about wildlife as possible and helping stakeholders to be equally well-educated. Emotions are a big part of how people make decisions and develop attitudes toward wildlife, and that is more than a feeling, it is a fact. Through careful planning and policy development, park and recreation managers are in a unique position to help people feel better about wildlife, parks and themselves. That is a mission any agency can feel good about.

Gese, E. M., P. S. Morey and S.D. Gehrt. 2012. Influence of the urban matrix on space use of coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area. Journal of Ethology 30:413-425.
Hicks, J. R. 2010. Wildlife as a priority in park development: A study of Illinois park Professionals. Master’s thesis, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Ingleton, C. 1999. Emotion in learning: A neglected dynamic. Pages 12-15 in HERDSA Annual International Conference, Melbourne.
Nelson, L. 2008. Managing human-wildlife interaction. International Journal of Public Administration 31:287-297.
USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). 2007. 2006 National survey of fishing, hunting, and wildlife associated recreation: National overview. USFWS, Washington, D.C.
Vining, J. and M.S. Merrick. 2012. Pages 485-508 in S. D. Clayton, editor. The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology. OUP, USA.
Walsh, F. 2009. Human‐animal bonds II: The role of pets in family systems and family therapy. Family Process 48:481-499.
Whitehead, J. C. and R. Aiken. 2000. An analysis of trends in net economic values for bass fishing from the national survey of fishing, hunting, and wildlife-associated recreation. East Carolina University, Department of Economics, Greenville, North Carolina.

Jonathan Hicks, a Ph.D. candidate at  the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and works with the Office of Recreation and Park Resources.