We share living spaces with foxes, crows, mice, deer and, of late: with wolves. Yet our interests may diverge from theirs. Different social groups hold colliding views about how to deal with our animal neighbors. Making human-wildlife coexistence work is a unique opportunity to exercise on the small scale the skill set we need on the large scale for sustainably resetting human existence.
The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of SCNAT.
Wolves are paradigmatic examples of wild animals who challenge Mid-Europeans to mitigate conflicts and enable coexistence. Likewise do beavers altering a river’s course; rooks seeking refuge from structural changes in agricultural lands and coming to nest in urban green spaces; wild boars finding front yards livable; or Nosferatu spiders dispersing northwards, including human flats as suitable habitats.
in wildlife concurs with and further scholars’ findings and suggests that those animals are not just pests and competitors to some people and icons of natural resilience to others. In a deeper sense, our responses to wildlife are epitomes of our relations to more-than-human nature. Pointedly put: The challenges in human-wildlife interactions and societal debates about them refer to the major pending questions that need answering if our species is to survive on earth.
Wild animals embody the momentum of natural systems
Wildlife numbers and wildlife behavior can hardly be controlled unless continuous force is applied. This often results in collateral damage which, in turn, affects not only the animals but humans, too. For example, the single effective means for repelling rookeries from urban sites is radically trimming their nesting trees. Such measures disrupt the aesthetic value of alleys or parks as well as their providing people with ecosystem services. What’s more, trimming must be sustained, since regrowing crotches present even better bases for nests. Also, repelling rookeries often causes flocks to split and the fractions to resettle in multiple new locations. Interventions intended to solve human-rook conflicts thus tend to exacerbate the issue. In general, attempting to subdue challenging wildlife is investing in a game of chance whose rules we ignore.
Exercises in adapting
Making room for coexistence with challenging wildlife provides an opportunity: We may practice exactly those pertinent adaptations that have been scientifically proven over and over again to be necessary for coping with the interlocking crises of biodiversity loss, zoonoses, and climate change:
Acknowledging non-human agency: Taking into account the fact that every animal – just like every human – is an , enhances the effectiveness of management measures. Interventions geared at bold wolf individuals, for example, ought to differ from interventions customized to rather shy wolves.
Restricting our impact: Respecting animals as being agents implies renouncing our presumed privilege on natural resources and significantly limiting their exploitation. Doing so may challenge economic growth – failing to do so challenges our survival. The protection of nature and of humankind go hand in hand: For example, floodplains restored by beavers reduce the risk of a deluge in adjacent areas, and healthy habitats minimize the spreading of pathogens within and across species.
Taking responsibility: A single spider in the corner of one’s room ostensibly blurs the line between civilization and nature, between the human sovereign and the animal inferior. These conceptual distinctions, ecologically speaking, are null and void. We, as humans, are endowed with particular skills – yet we are not prescinded from nature. We are biological beings bearing a unique responsibility.
We are the ones to benefit the most
Coexisting with wildlife, I propose, constitutes a trial run for (re-)defining our role, as humans, within the ecological network of this planet. On the practical level, that reassessment needs to manifest as revised rationales of land use planning, agricultural practices, and as updated legal frameworks. We cannot sneak out of the need for change by attempting to get rid of those who remind us of its urgency. We are not omnipotent. Accommodating encounters with wild animals who challenge us, is a chance for understanding this. It is our species that benefits the most if we take it.
Uta Maria Jürgens completed her doctoral thesis at ETH Zürich scrutinizing human-wildlife relations. She is now affiliated as a guest researcher to the Federal Research Institute WSL. She writes on people and nature, and devises creative interventions furthering the coexistence of humans and corvids.