In your backyard

Mountain lions usually don’t come near populated areas but can

Mountain lions and rattlesnakes and bobcats, oh my.
As homes encroach on previously wild areas or resources in the
outlying lands shrink, humans and untamed animals often meet in the
dangerous middle ground of outer suburbia.
Mountain lions and rattlesnakes and bobcats, oh my.

As homes encroach on previously wild areas or resources in the outlying lands shrink, humans and untamed animals often meet in the dangerous middle ground of outer suburbia.

Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister all have their share of critters – raccoons, opossums, deer and coyotes – that are native to the area. Most of these animals are glimpsed rarely, if at all, since Mother Nature has built an instinctual fear of humankind into them.

But when that instinct fails through interaction or the sheer drive for the necessities of food, water and shelter, a standoff occurs.

“They’re looking for food and water, and the more easily available, the better,” said Kriss Costa, a community education specialist for Santa Clara County Vector Control. “Wildlife is very, very adept at using the urban environment, but it’s not always good for them or us.”

Case in point: Coyotes in the San Jose area have been seen stalking small children, according to Costa. The problem usually begins with the arrival of a much, much tinier package, though.

Pet food and the homeowners who leave it within access are the chief offenders in beginning this cycle of interaction. The problem generally starts with mice and other rodents nibbling on outdoor or poorly stored cat and dog foods.

The rodents, in turn, attract their predator species, such as raccoons, skunks, opossums and snakes, said Sue Howell, executive director of the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill.

“If you have cats or dogs and you’re feeding them outside, it’s very convenient to you, but it’s usually not the larger animals that come and feed on that stuff,” said Howell. “It’s going to be the prey species, and behind them will of course come the mountain lions and such because that’s their normal feeding source.”

And animals don’t forget their home turf just because a clan of strange looking two-legged creatures shows up, either. They’ll still be inclined to cross the area on their old routes, even it those paths directly cross private property. (It’s not as if they can read the signs.)

“I’ve seen a lot over the last 32 years I’ve been down here,” said Howell. “I think when people move into the area (from more densely populated areas), they’re really not prepared. So many times they just lump all wildlife into one category. Instead of taking a little time to find out who their wild neighbors are, they immediately start trapping and poisoning.

“Prior to (becoming involved with WERC), I was ignorant and very fearful of wildlife, too. It all goes back to learning and expanding our horizons. I still have a lot of fears of animals, and they’ll always be there. I really don’t care for skunks or rattle snakes, but these are just normal animals. I just try to understand their behavior and how they’re trying to survive.”

Carrion eaters, while invariably ugly, are nature’s cleaning system, for example.

They suppress the spread of disease by eating dead animals, and while they may not be attractive, their function is extremely helpful to the animal and human populations.

To keep visitors from entering uninvited, make sure to keep a vigilant eye. Pick up the food bowl after dogs or cats have eaten – or, better yet, feed them inside – and store all pet food and trash in firmly sealed trashcans or plastic containers, said Costa.

Make sure all entrances to the underside of a home or shed are blocked as they make enticing dens. Finally, if there are reports of coyotes or other predators in the area keep cats and dogs inside at night. Raccoons also have even been known to make meals of small, furry friends, according to Costa.

If a wild animal is spotted regularly in an area, the friendliest thing a homeowner can do is to get mean to train the animal to be afraid of humans again.

“Be more aggressive than they are,” said Costa. “Make life miserable for them – yell at them, throw things at them, hit them. You’ll be doing them a favor as well as yourself.”

In rural outlying areas, it is important to recognize that wildlife will be constant parts of the landscape, no matter how many fences are put in place or how careful a homeowner may be with food and water supplies, said Howell.

Where there is prey, there are predators, so protection is key. Keep a close eye on children playing outside, wear jeans and leather boots when walking in tall grass during the warm months, and follow the preventative measures for regular homeowners.

For more information on WERC and its programs, visit www.werc-ca.org. Additional information on Vector Control in Santa Clara County, including home prevention consultations, advice and trapping information, can be obtained by calling (408) 792-5010. In San Benito County, call (831) 637-5344.

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