The fatal price of a human among wildlife
After letting his dog run off-leash in a Tim Hortons parking lot, Will Gibb was both commended and criticized for punching a cougar to save his dog from its grip. Though both the cougar and Gibb left the brawl unscathed, the confrontation ended fatally for one party, as wildlife officers euthanized the cougar soon after.
Human-wildlife confrontation has subject to debate in previous years – particularly in Canada, where encounters with bears and cougars are increasingly ending fatally for the wildlife involved due to euthanization.
But determining whether it’s ethical to kill an animal that attacks a human is no simple feat, even for the most partisan. This is why Gibb’s story re-surfaced the budding debate about handling wildlife encounters.
“[C]onservation officers have to weigh the risk to humans as well as the welfare of the animal, and that’s a really tough call,” Frank Ritcey, provincial coordinator at WildsafeBC, told The Weather Network. “[W]e never try to second guess why a decision was made but ultimately it comes down to human safety.”
Alternative methods of dealing with a confrontational animal – such as relocation or hazing the animal away from the area – are sometimes viable options, Ritcey says. But more often than not, the stakes are quite high when it comes to preventing a repeated attack on a human.
”[C]ertainly my instinctive reaction is that it was absolutely an overreaction to kill this cougar,” says Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre. “My understanding is it was a fairly remote area, a heavily forested area, it was also an area where cougars were known to frequent -- and I think that that then falls back on us as humans … In this case the dogs were let off-leash, to run, and I think that that may have been, in this case, a very serious mistake.”
Recent research has shown that, across North America and Europe, the number of attacks on humans by large carnivores has significantly increased in recent decades.
Figure 1: Temporal trends in large carnivore attacks on humans in developed countries. Image courtesy of Vincenzo Penteriani et al. via Scientific Reports – Nature
A team of ecologists and biologists recently bridged a connection between human behavior and animal attacks in the wild by examining records of large carnivore attacks on humans in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. In its abstract, the study notes that although large carnivore populations are on the rise in industrialized countries, the increase in numbers is not the main cause of a spike in wildlife attacks – rather, it’s human behavior.
Frank Ritcey, provincial coordinator of WildsafeBC, agrees that in instances like Gibb’s brawl with the cougar, the onus is on the human party to take all necessary precautions in avoiding a confrontation situation with wildlife.
“Well the biggest thing, especially with dogs, is to keep the dog on leash -- or better yet, not to take the dog into an area where you know there are lots of bears or cougars,” Ritcey says. He references a recent study, which finds that over the last 10 years, more than 50 per cent of black bear attacks on humans have been instigated by dogs.
”So if you have your dog with you, you’re at a higher risk of being attacked by a bear. And it seldom works out well for you, for the dog, or the bear. So sometimes if you know you’re going to be in bear country, it’s best to leave the dog at home.”
When explaining human accountability in the wild to other people, Karvonen usually resorts to a stock analogy.
”[I]f you had a pet hamster, and you took him out and let him go into a forested area and a hawk came down and grabbed him, whose fault would that be exactly?” Karvonen says. “I think that when we have pets, it is our responsibility to keep them close at all times, especially in wildlife areas.”
It’s a great irony of the debate – human behavior provoking wildlife, wildlife in turn confronting humans, and then humans later euthanizing wildlife for presenting a threat to fellow humans.
And while human responsibility is vital to the survival of wildlife, determining whether to kill an animal that attacks a human is not at the crux of the decision to do so. The bottom line in euthanization cases, as Ritcey said, is always human safety.
While there are cases of animals behaving, as Ritcey noted, “abnormally,” too often the incidents involve hikers straying off designated paths; dogs running off-leash in the outback; and animals with their vulnerable cubs, acting defensively.
The take-away is the impact of human activity in natural settings, Karvonen says. “I think it’s important to understand that urban areas are inhabited by wild animals, certainly, all around the entire world. And we want to live in urban areas that have green spaces, and have trees, and have ravines, and natural areas, and in fact it’s important to us a species to have those things for clean air, for clean water, for balanced ecosystems, and for the Earth to be healthy."
Ultimately, the outcome is nested within human behaviour and accountability, Karvonen adds. "I think that the onus then does fall back on us again to figure out how we’re going to live with natural spaces, which include the wild animals that live in them. We can’t opt to create or protect forested areas or other natural spaces and decide which wild animals live there. If it is a habitat that’s suitable for coyotes, or cougars, then we should figure out what we need to do to live with those animals.”