Is Nature Taking Back Vancouver?

Rats, bears, deer—they aren’t keeping their distance like they used to.

May 29, 2015

By Frances Bula / Photo: Rob Dobi

Sheila Dong sometimes feels like she’s barely holding on. All around the modest 1933 bungalow her family bought four years ago, invading armies are massed. She noticed the roof rats first. Then the coyote in the alley. A squad of raccoons tore up the lawn, tried to get through the barbecue cover, popped a few soccer balls, and left poop everywhere. A skunk was next, then carpenter ants, followed by termites. Rats ate the wiring of their Honda CR-V out on the street. She finds herself on alert, listening for scratching sounds, scrutinizing black specks for signs of a new invasion, all the time. “You wouldn’t think I was a block from a major street in the middle of a city,” she says from their West End home in New Westminster. Dong, 35, doesn’t remember these kinds of battles when she was growing up in South Burnaby. “My parents never had issues like this,” she says, adding that she gets anxious for herself and her baby and toddler when the house has to be sprayed. But this is a war she’s determined to win.

At her houses in, first, Mount Pleasant and, recently, near Douglas Park, Carol Nest has had to cope with pigeons, squirrels, raccoons, carpenter ants, hornets, mice, and silverfish. Lately, there have been renewed incursions. “We had one corner where squirrels were going in and out, so we closed it up with some chicken wire. But sure enough, the babies were still in there and the mum was freaking, right at our window.” Down came the wire and in came a different solution. With the raccoons, which were living in a tree in the front yard and using the side of the house as their toilet, Nest called a service to have them humanely moved to the North Shore. Until she found out it was going to be $1,000 for the family of five. Instead, she wrapped some metal flashing around her tree, and the raccoons moved on.

It’s a fight that never ends, one that pushes people to the limits of their ethical boundaries as they test how much they’ll spend, and what they’re willing to endure, to get rid of the uninvited. Dong has found herself developing a decidedly non-karmic attitude to some of God’s creatures (“I like finding rats’ bodies—I like them when they’re dead”), but with anything larger she remains philosophical. “After talking to everyone and hearing all the problems they’re having, we’ve realized it is something we just have to live with.” But not everyone lives and lets live. “We’ve had to investigate homeowners because they’re trying to do things like drown animals,” says Sara Dubois, the chief scientific officer for B.C.’s SPCA. Calls to the group’s cruelty hotline are going up, as is the number of wild animals the association is taking to wildlife-rehabilitation services. Her staff has found raccoons walking around with traps on their legs. In one case, they received a call about someone who had “put a raccoon in a garbage bag and hooked it up to the exhaust of their car.”

In Port Coquitlam, where George Leon has lived since 1969 on a quiet street not far from Cedar Creek, people used to see the odd bear. They’d come down out of the forest looking for salmon when the season was right. “But they weren’t parading around the neighbourhood,” says Leon, who runs a window-installation business. It’s a different story now, which seems strange to him since the city has been adding houses and population steadily. “There are more people, and yet it’s becoming wilder.” The deer, coyotes, and rats are still around—more than ever. The bears are especially visible. Everyone has a story. A friend of Leon’s, who lives on a busy arterial street, had a bear come into her garage and start eating from the bags of groceries she couldn’t carry inside in the first round of unloading her car. So many people have complained about bears heaving around garbage cans to get at their contents, the City of Port Coquitlam now requires that every can have a bear lock.

Leon thinks the garbage strewing may have led to the increase in rats in the neighbourhood, which has led to rats eating the soy-coated wiring in his car, as they did with Sheila Dong’s Honda. He also speculates that the bear demographic is the result of all the clear-cutting on nearby Burke Mountain for subdivisions. “We’re the ones that bulldozed their homes,” he concludes. “It’s a sad situation.”

Some scientists disagree. There is some “edge effect”—a bigger boundary for human/animal interface—as cities grow, but broadly, humans aren’t crowding animals out of their habitat; instead, animals are coming to us. “Since the 1970s, there’s been lots of attention to creating green spaces in cities,” says Stan Gehrt, an Ohio State University professor who has studied the coyote and deer populations in Chicago and Cleveland for 15 years. “And then there’s been the maturation of the woody growth. New York City has more canopy growth today than 50 years ago. There is just more green habitat.” We’ve made cities so attractive to creatures, they’re naturally following what the United Nations has been announcing as a trend for the last decade: the move to cities. Everything millennials like, it turns out that bedbugs, raccoons, pigeons, coyotes, bears, geese, silverfish, clothes moths, crows, mice, and rats like too. They appreciate all the great resting places (aka buildings), rich food sources (garbage), abundant plant life (gardens, parks, landscaping around apartment blocks), and intensive networking, dating, and reproduction possibilities that are essential functions of urban centres everywhere.

It’s the same story the world over. There are deer in various B.C. towns, elk in Banff, hawks in Chicago, stone martens in Berlin, baboons in Cape Town, and leopards in Mumbai. And right here at the region’s landfill in Delta? A rich food source for eagles—so rich that it draws them from kilometres away. (At least until everyone really does start recycling food scraps.) “Cities are literally acting like vacuum cleaners and sucking animals in,” says Gehrt. In places as disparate as Alaska and Romania, hunters are having less luck finding brown bears within a certain radius just outside cities, because any bears near cities migrate right in. “They’re just acting like great big raccoons.”

Besides all their other attractions, cities also create warm climates especially useful for certain species. “Most cities produce an urban heat-island effect. They are these intense areas where they can breed more and survive more successfully,” says Tristan Donovan. He wrote his just-published book, Feral Cities, after his interest was sparked by a public uproar a few years ago over the apparent takeover of hometown London, England, by foxes. They’ve lived in cities since at least the 1930s, but in recent years their populations have increased and their behaviour now points to a complacency in sharing their spaces with humans. “They’ve lost their fear of people.”

Once urban-minded critters get established, their populations can grow quickly. Without predators, deer, geese, and fur-bearing animals that would get culled elsewhere find a kind of witness-protection paradise in cities. (And, in fact, they help keep down populations of other animals; coyotes dine on rats and have largely chased silver foxes out of American Midwestern cities.) Insects seem to be doing well just because of the greenery and the warmth, plus the increased global travel of their human hosts, who help them spread widely. Bedbugs have been on the rise in cities around the world. In Vancouver, the city has created a task force just to deal with their effects in some of the meanest hotels and rooming houses, but they’re not restricted to poor neighbourhoods. On the San Francisco-based Bed Bug Registry’s map of Vancouver, 1,944 citations blanket the metro region without regard to price per square foot.

Just as there are no hunters in the city to shoot mammals, there are no humans with powerful pesticides in cities to wipe out insects. Substances like DDT are banned, and other chemicals have strict limits. So people like John Menzetti, who runs a popcorn concession in Stanley Park, find themselves dealing with the fallout. Twice in the last eight years he’s had to go through a purge because of bedbug infestations. The first time, he threw out everything except a glass coffee table. The second, in a different West End apartment building, he couldn’t afford to, so he just settled for the landlord’s pest-control efforts and a lot of dry-cleaning. He put his clothes into bags and kept them there for six months on his dining-room table. When he found what looked like yet another bedbug last fall, Menzetti immediately cancelled his own birthday party and instructed everyone to stay home. It turned out to be a carpet beetle. He’s since become an expert in telling the difference. (It’s their backs.)

Without powerful poisons, rats and mice pose similar threats. “We’ve been using the same stuff for an awfully long time, and there’s a bit of resistance developing. More products need to be released,” says Chris Ashby at Local Pest Control, who’s been in the business for a couple of decades. They’re also adapting to high-rises. Most strata councils have a relationship with a pest-control company. “In one high-rise we have, we just cannot control them. They’re getting in somehow through the foundations and going up the walls. We’re at the point where we’re just trying to block everything off with wire mesh. It’s definitely getting to be more of a struggle.”

More like a defensive war. In Vancouver, animal-control services pick up over 1,000 dead (mostly wild) animals a year, including the occasional seal and otter, along with squirrels, owls, and skunks. Downtown buildings frequently install spikes along windowsills and roof edges to keep the pigeons away. On the more proactive side, the city has recently developed a strategy that mandates new building design ideas that are less lethal to birds: more markers on glass windows to make them aware that they’re solid, less reflective glass, less landscaping close to glass structures. That last measure has the benefit of adding greenery throughout the city, to encourage the kinds of birds that have seen their populations go down as sparrows, starlings, and pigeons have taken over.

Back in Britain, Donovan says most cities are doing nothing, turning a blind eye to the problems or going after the easiest fixes, like bear locks. That may be because no one knows quite what to do. The science of urban mammals is in its infancy. There has been very little research done, and people are only beginning to understand how these new urban animals are using the city.

On the ground, the only end to the arms race may be a shift in how people view wild animals. Not as pests, perhaps, but as neighbours. Such a transformation may take a while, especially given the fortress mentality so prevalent. “We think the city is completely ours,” says Donovan. “We can’t believe things are moving in. We still have this idea that wildlife is outside the city. So people say, ‘Oh, there’s this fox. It must be lost, I want animal control to remove it.’ And they say, ‘Where to? This is its home.’ ”

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