Wednesday, February 26th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
The Wild?
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

When we look at a map we can see clearly defined sections of land that are neatly separated and labeled. We see national and state borders, park borders, county lines, city limits, property lines and a thousand other divisions and sub-divisions. As useful as they can be, maps tend to give us an unrealistic view of the world. The labels on a map clearly tell us what each particular area is for and this influences our idea not only of what we expect to find in each area, but also what we think belongs in each area. On a subconscious level we see the lines on a map as true barriers that exist in the real world. We sometimes reinforce this illusion by erecting fences or placing signs along these imaginary borders. All of this spatial organization serves its purpose for our culture, but it is neither understood nor even recognized by the wildlife that surrounds us. If you give a squirrel a map, she is more likely to see it as something she can shred and use as nesting material than she is to see it as a useful tool for choosing an appropriate nest site.


These nesting Pied-billed Grebes were photographed at Greenlake in Seattle. Are they in the Wild?

Wild animals don't choose where to live by following lines on a map. Contrary to what you may see in a "Far Side" cartoon, you won't find a flock of ducks standing next to I-5 perusing a map to find the shortest distance to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. You may, however find a flock of ducks feeding in one of the many storm-water retention ponds that are found near I-5 off ramps. Ducks are not using these ponds because they are lost due to their inability to use a map; they are using the ponds because they provide suitable habitat.

Wildlife will live anywhere that provides suitable habitat. It makes no difference to an animal whether humans have designated the area as a national park or a town square. A cavity in an attic and a cavity in a fir tree are both the same to a raccoon seeking shelter. The attic cavity may even be more desirable since it will be heated from below and will no doubt be located near a readily available food supply (garbage, pet food, etc.). You could hand the raccoon a map that highlights a route to the nearest "wild area", but she would probably simply arch her back and snarl at you. What use could she possibly have for a map when her senses, experience, and instinct provide her with all the information she needs to choose a home? She's not looking for park or wildlife refuge signs to guide her in her decision-making; she's looking for food, water, shelter, safety and a variety of other factors.

We often say that wild animals live in "the Wild". But where is that? If we try to point out the Wild on a map we usually point to the many dark green areas that indicate national parks, wilderness, wildlife refuges and other undeveloped areas. It's true that these areas tend to have much greater species diversity than developed areas. But your backyard is no less important to the raccoon that lives there than the National Forest is to the bear that calls it home.


These two robins were feeding in the Wild…behind an apartment complex on Greenwood in Seattle.

So why do we call one of these places the Wild and not the other? Much like the lines on a map this is purely human definition…and an illusion. Wild animals suffer from no such illusion. They climb, fly over, or dig under the fences and pass the "No Trespassing" signs without hesitation. They take advantage of the readily available food sources and abundant shelter without concern for who or what has created it. They seek what they have always sought, suitable habitat, and they provide constant evidence that our definition of the Wild needs to be rethought.

Redefining the Wild requires little more than accepting the reality that we do not live in a bubble. This means accepting that map lines are only meaningful to the humans that create them and have no importance to wild animals. By doing this we take away the expectation that many people seem to have regarding where wild animals should and should not live. Wild animals are no longer regarded as troublemakers with a flagrant disregard for personal property laws. They are simply seen as animals taking advantage of suitable habitat in the Wild.

Following from this new perspective is an awareness that all habitat is important and interconnected. The habitat on a quarter acre piece of property should be treated with the same respect and care as that on a fifty thousand acre piece of national wilderness. The Wild is not just "out there", it is right here in our yards and neighborhoods. Wild animals have been trying to tell us this for years. I look forward to the day when we can finally hear them.

Wildlife Release tally: Fenruary 5 to February 11, 2003

2 Rock Doves
1 Band-tailed Pigeon
1 American Robin
1 Northern Pygmy Owl
1 Horned Grebe
1 Winter Wren

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
29 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society