When you think of a cougar, do you picture it in a vista like this?
We think of them in natural landscapes, far away from our cities. They’re in the “great wilderness” (read that like the movie trailer voice), and for those that want to catch a glimpse, you either need to hike out to the remote wilderness or head to a nearby zoo.
Predators play an important ecological role, even helping to structure wildlife communities. An example is the role that sea otters play in maintaining kelp forests. When the sea otter isn’t present, urchins become dominant and create urchin barrens—where nothing but urchins can grow. But the sea otter love eating urchins as much as I love eating chocolate. So when the sea otters eat urchins, kelp has the opportunity to grow into kelp forests, which in turn attracts many other species. Sadly, my consumption of chocolate doesn’t. But predators can also affect prey species without necessarily eating them directly—prey can also change their behaviour to avoid the risk of running into predators. As an example, elk grazing in Yellowstone Park appear reluctant to venture into open meadows to forage since the reintroduction of wolves back into the park. Thankfully, chocolate doesn’t know how to hide from me.
“That’s all well and good, and though it’s interesting, what does this stuff about predators have to do with me?” you’re asking yourself. Well, our cities don’t crop up in a vacuum, they are erected within the natural habitat of many species.
As we build our houses in their habitat, that either displaces the wildlife community—predators included—or they stay and continue to live within urban environments.
But humans, though we might tolerate squirrels within our city limits, don’t like to live with predators on our doorstep. So predators found within the city are either relocated elsewhere into the wild, or killed on sight. But when you get rid of the predators, it creates a refuge for their usual prey. So deer and rabbit populations can grow without the cougar to keep their numbers down. And so our back yard flower beds and veggie patches can suffer.
But predators can have a positive effect, even in an urban environment. Coyotes in Calgary were found to play a significant role in rodent control, and in Mumbai tigers are helping to control the stray dog population and ultimately are protecting people from rabies. I’m not suggesting that we endanger lives by doing nothing when a predator is spotted within city limits, however, maybe we could be more tolerant of their presence temporarily1. Wild Safe BC offers great resources on minimizing attractants for bears and cougars (as well as other wildlife, including Bigfoot)—so they will continue on their way rather than becoming a permanent resident. But when a cougar does show up in town, we can ensure safety with neighbourhood alerts, including reminders to keep your pets and children inside when not supervised. Let the cougar have its venison and then move on. It would save cities both the monetary and political costs of wildlife management—quite costly in both respects.
What do you think? Can there be any kind of co-existence with predators?
 The risk of being bitten or struck by a mammal is 1 in 49,531, whereas the risk of being killed in some form of traffic collision is 1 in 95. My point is that we do accept much riskier things in our everyday life (like driving), but perceive a disproportionate risk to others (like animal attack).