A bobcat walks into a bar in Arizona; a bear saunters down the street in Oxnard; a coyote wanders into a sandwich shop in Chicago; a mountain lion runs from police in North Berkeley; a deer strides down Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. What's going on with the animals these days, we wonder. Why are they leaving their wild habitats for our urban neighborhoods?
In May, police outraged residents when they gunned down a seemingly harmless deer in a residential neighborhood in East Oakland. Around the same time, a graduate student was attacked by a deer in North Berkeley as she tried to protect her dogs from the animal, adding fuel to the debate about the proliferation of urban wildlife in the East Bay. Stories of bold or aggressive deer abound in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, leaving residents and lawmakers wondering what, if anything, can be done about it.
"I've heard stories where deer will chase a dog up to the front porch and kill it in front of its owners," said Craig Stowers, a deer biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. "People tend to think they're these cute little animals, and they're not. They're strong and they need to be respected."
Berkeley deer are notoriously combative with dogs, especially in the spring and summer when fawn are close by and a dog appears to be a threat, Stowers said. But that's not the only problem associated with urban deer. They wander on to streets and highways where they cause serious traffic accidents, they can spread diseases when living too close together, and they can decimate a rose garden. The graceful mammals are responsible for about 130 fatal traffic accidents per year, according to Steve Bobzien, ecological services coordinator for the East Bay Regional Park District. More people are hurt by aggressive deer than by bears and mountain lions combined.
"Deer are probably the number one problem causers in this state, but lions and bears get all the attention," Stowers said.
According to a fifteen-year-old study by researchers at UC Berkeley, there are three to four times more deer living in the urban-rural interface of the Bay Area than out in wild open spaces like Tilden Park. Even as deer populations have steadily declined statewide since the 1970s, they continue to grow in urban and suburban areas where hunting is prohibited, according to Stowers. And that's largely because of edible landscaping, a lack of predators, and the presence of water.
As deer move into urban areas, their habits change slightly and they lose their fear of people, much like the bears of Lake Tahoe. "They'll approach people who have food for them — not because they want to be pet — but because they'll associate people with food," Stowers said. "And when people don't have food for them, that's when the altercations happen."
Although deer-on-human attacks are statistically rare, they do happen — and much more often than cougar attacks. As Michael Land, the development director of Felidae Conservation Fund, likes to point out, "There have only been sixteen deaths by puma since 1896. You're one-thousand times more likely to drown in your own bathtub." (Pumas, mountain lions, and cougars are all names for the same animal).
Last month, a mountain lion was discovered wandering residential and commercial streets in North Berkeley. Police responded and chased it from backyard to backyard until it was deemed a threat to human safety. At that point, police shot and killed the animal, much to the dismay of some residents who then constructed a shrine to the puma on the corner of Shattuck and Cedar. Flowers, feathers, and hand-written poetry adorn the site near where the cat was taken down. A copy of the police report is plastered to the wall above a spirited debate about the overpopulation of deer and the need for natural predators like pumas.
Many believe the mountain lion arrived in the Gourmet Ghetto in the first place after it chased a deer out into the open and then became disoriented. It must have been a shocking sight — a hundred-pound lion sauntering down Shattuck Avenue. But we are probably closer to mountain lions than we think. They are stealth hunters who try to remain shrouded, rather than out in the open, according to Marc Kenyon, the Department of Fish and Game's statewide coordinator for mountain lions, bears, and wild pigs. Thanks to GPS collars, biologists can chart the movements of cats.
"They'll be sleeping in a tree in someone's backyard during the day," Kenyon said. "They'll be there for about four hours, and then before anyone comes home, they'll pack up and go up into the hills."
Though reports of mountain lion sightings seem to be on the rise, it's unlikely the population is actually increasing, in part because the animals have such a wide home range. Males will not share a geographic area with other males, and although females will share some amount of space, they still don't overlap too much, which naturally limits the species. In 2008, the Department of Fish and Game reported 381 run-ins with mountain lions (though some of those reports are almost certainly a case of misidentification on the part of the caller), and of those, only three cats were deemed a danger to human safety and consequently shot down.
So while there may be the perception that wild animals are taking over our urban areas, Stowers lays most of the blame on development.
"We're moving up on to their land," he said. "We're chewing up their habitat. If you move into the country, you better be prepared to live among animals, and if you aren't you have no business being there."
Berkeley, in particular, has residential neighborhoods that snake up into wild lands, increasing the comingling of humans and wild animals. Still, many residents do not like the idea of sharing their yards with beautiful angry deer or hundred-pound sleeping mountain lions. The offices of councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Susan Wengraf regularly field calls from residents concerning deer and other wild animals. So much so that the elected officials have organized an informational meeting with representatives from the Department of Fish and Game and UC Berkeley to determine the scope of the problem and possible strategies for dealing with it.
In the meantime, the Department of Fish and Game recommends building fences at least eight-feet tall (deer can easily leap over anything shorter), installing motion-sensor lights in the backyard, planting flowers and herbs deer find repulsive (like lavender and spearmint), and, most importantly, not feeding the wild animals.