By SARA HARELSON
Arizona Sonora News Service
The roadrunner was strolling through in the grass, looking around and soaking up the afternoon sun, as docile as a kitten. But in a flash, the roadrunner sprang up and snatched a lizard sunbathing on a wall, then bashed the poor critter violently to the ground, knocking it into a stupor. Then the roadrunner swallowed the lizard — whole — and walked off, fat and happy.
Well, that was a lesson learned in living with wildlife and having one’s assumptions roughly challenged, as we often do here in the Sonoran Desert. Roadrunners look cute, their image as lovable scamps bolstered by the cartoon Roadrunner who comically dodged Wile E. Coyote in those famous cartoons.
But people who live desert can forget that the wildlife that cohabitate with them are – well, they are very much wild.
“We think we’re getting familiar with the animals around us and they know us, but this simply is not true,” says a docent at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, Jim Miller,
Recently around the United States there have been well-publicized issues when people are getting too close to wildlife. In July, an alligator snatched and killed a two-year-old boy in a pond at Disney World in Florida only a few feet from his father, and another young boy attacked by a mountain lion in his back yard in Colorado. There have been violent confrontations between residents of Arizona and some larger wildlife, mainly involving javelinas, mountain lions, bears, rattlesnakes, and bobcats.
How residents can live in harmony with the wildlife around them? How do we interact with the wildlife living in and around our homes? Do we feed the wildlife, sometimes in the belief that we have established a personal relationship? Do we capture, relocate, or poison them? Do we treat them like pets?
The answer to all those questions? No. With the wide variety of wildlife we get here in Tucson, the experts say, it is important for residents to get on board and decide how to coexist and establish a smart way to live with wildlife that doesn’t involve encroaching on their personal space, even if we sometimes need to ensure they don;t encroach on ours.
There are some general guidelines the experts suggest: Don’t try to feed wildlife. Leaving out birdseed for the diverse group of birds we get in Tucson is okay, but be aware. Wildlife Biologist Melissa Amarello says the issue with this is that, “most people welcome birds and some mammals with food, shelter, and water, then panic when other animals, also attracted to these resources show up.” So a general rule to follow is if you don’t want every kind of wildlife in your backyard, don’t create a welcome habitat.
Don’t try to pick up, pet, or capture wild critters. Stay on trails when you hike outside. Always bring a flashlight with you when you’re in the desert at night.
Obviously, in the desert, venomous reptiles are another major issue, although a docent at the Desert Museum, Jim Ewing, said “most rattlesnake bites are on drunk males who are messing with the snake, trying to prove how macho they are.”
There is a negative image that comes with certain desert species such as snakes, mountain lions, and javelinas, especially when people have acted foolishly in trying to interact with them. Bad experiences can give some species a bad reputation. The truth is, violent wildlife attacks in Tucson are rare. The experts say that we have to combat these myths about wildlife and the only way to do this is through education.
There are numerous organizations in Tucson that focus on teaching people how to respect and live peacefully with all different kinds of animals. The Advocates for Snake Preservation work out of Tucson and hold seminars and talks to help expel the myths and fears about rattlesnakes.
One of their leaders, Melissa Amarillo, gave this advice: “Fear is an emotional response, which is hard to fight with facts. We make an emotional appeal for snakes, focusing on behaviors people like to encourage empathy with and foster appreciation for snakes. While I don’t know for sure that this is the best approach, in my experience we change more hearts and minds with this messaging than sticking to facts about how snakes benefit humans.”
The more we know, the less afraid we are. “Unfortunately myth, and media, focus on dangerous aspects of animals like snakes, so that is how most people see them. In our education and outreach work we focus on everything snakes do that isn’t killing and biting — in other words, most of their lives.”
In the words of Wild Outdoor World of Arizona‘s Christopher Vincent, as he listens to birds sing and fly around the nonprofit conservation sanctuary, “This is how it can be; this is how it should be.”
Sara Harelson is a wildlife conservation and management major at the University of Arizona, hoping to become a wildlife biologist or environmental journalist. She grew up in Carlsbad, California, and loves the beach, reading, working out, and the outdoors