Category Archives: Living Humanely with Wildlife

Gardening for Deer

Yes, you read that headline right. Deer eat my plants, and I let them. But I also barely notice the nibbling. Here’s why (and how) I favor coexistence over resistance when it comes to these misunderstood animals.

The baby left in May as quietly as she’d arrived, disappearing while we slept. For two days, she’d nestled in fallen leaves, resting and grooming and standing up on wobbly legs to stretch.

Her departure was a relief, a sign that her mother was still caring for her. To avoid attention, does forage without their fawns, leaving them in dense vegetation and summoning newborns only when it’s time to nurse.

Image of fawn by patioStill, I worried. As my husband and I peeked through the basement door just a few feet away from where the fawn lay, I wondered what would happen if she wandered so close to other members of our kind. For all the camouflage offered by our lush patio garden, her resting spot was surprisingly exposed to us humans, historically the most harmful predator of white-tailed deer.

In the furthest corner of the patio, behind the loveseat and under a sweetshrub, the newborn fawn felt safe enough to take cover. But we could see her clearly through our basement door.

It’s hard to imagine now, but white-tailed deer were once nearly extinct in dozens of states due to hunting and habitat loss. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had vanished from Vermont, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It wasn’t the first time deer populations went scarce. Shooting the animals out of existence was a national pastime for hundreds of years after European settlement. In the 20th century, efforts to transport them across regions so they could be “restocked” and hunted all over again were so successful that these animals now face different threats. High on the list is the wrath of gardeners calling for their heads.

My rejection of this attitude makes me an object of curiosity (and sometimes ridicule) in the gardening world, where I can count on rants against deer in almost every conversation. “I’ve been through my Bambi phase,” one woman told me, characterizing kindness toward animals—and my questioning of cultural narratives about them—as infantile. “I got over it.”

People ask me whether I’ve taken into account the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer. I like to pose a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we challenge the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life?

I prefer to “get over” our uniquely human arrogance and take a broader view. I don’t know everything about the ecology of deer in forests, where they’re blamed for degrading wildlife habitat. But neither does anyone else. Yes, deer eat plants, but that’s not new. What is more recent are accelerated human-driven changes to plant and animal diversity: the imported earthworms that degrade soils in northern forests, the introduced Japanese stiltgrass and European garlic mustard that suppress the growth of native plants, the fragmented landscapes exacerbated by an insatiable desire for large lawns, and the decline of large predators caused by hunting and habitat destruction.

Occasionally people ask me whether I ever factor the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer and other species into my thinking. Reversing this concept, I like to ask a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we question the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life? The carrying capacity of my land for deer is likely greater than that of my neighbor’s land down the street, even though his is twice the size. Why? Because mine is filled with plants that deer can eat; his is filled with lawn.

I don’t blame deer for being deer in the same way I don’t blame cats for being cats or earthworms for being earthworms. Rather than casting aspersions on other animals, I examine instead the contributions of our own species to degraded habitat—and the ways we can learn from those mistakes and mitigate or even reverse the damage. I garden not just for wildlife but with them, giving weight to their survival needs more than to my own cosmetic preferences. Just because I can’t rejuvenate all the forests around me doesn’t mean I have to keep mowing down my own property. Deer visit our backyard daily to eat, but the following experimental methods have been so successful that we barely notice the nibbling in our prolific gardens.

Nurture nature’s deer food.
Image of jewelweed with bee
Relegated most often to roadside ditches, jewelweed is not only valuable to bees and hummingbirds but also to deer.

When creating habitat for wildlife, it’s important to remember your goals are different from those of conventional landscaping. To meet their mission of making the world safe for lawns (and profitable lawn products), pesticide pushers and turfgrass totalitarians urge us to remove Canada goldenrod, jewelweed, wild grape, and countless other plants that would otherwise nourish deer.

There’s no better way to learn about this special brand of cynicism than to come across a new mystery plant and turn to the Internet for help with identification. Online searches related to one of my recent finds gleaned reviews negative enough to make a grown plant cry: “A grass imposter” that causes “infestations,” pronounced a book on mid-Atlantic gardening. A “Weed of the Month” with an “unsightly” brown appearance in winter pastures, offered a horse magazine. “Often troublesome in pastures, lawns, orchards, nurseries and gardens,” warned university extension specialists.

Image of nimblewill and stiltgrass
A tale of two grasses: The nimblewill on the left feeds grazing animals and outcompetes Japanese stiltgrass (right), which has few other natural controls and crowds out native plants that provide important habitat for wildlife. Lawn care companies, pesticide manufacturers and agricultural institutions cast both these plants as villains, even though nimblewill’s only crime is turning brown in the winter.

It was a lot of bad press for a plant that does so much good. Muhlenbergia schreberi, or nimblewill (as it’s known more commonly by the few people who even know it at all), is a pretty native grass. It can outcompete Japanese stiltgrass, which is difficult to eliminate by other means. And perhaps most interesting of all, deer sometimes graze on nimblewill. Yet consumer need for unnatural green is so strong that Syngenta developed a selective herbicide to kill it, while other companies shamelessly encourage homeowners to spray even more broadly. “Don’t be fooled by its cute name,” advises Monsanto on its Roundup website. “This aggressive grass sets seeds in the fall and hides until spring.” (Never mind that Monsanto helped create a monster in the form of a genetically engineered grass now threatening to wreak havoc on sensitive wildlife habitats in Oregon—and later abdicated responsibility for righting the wrong.)

Let woody plants spread.
Staghorn sumacs, a favorite browse plant of deer, draws many other species to our yard, including this scarlet tanager. It grows so prolifically that I consider nibbling by deer to be free pruning assistance (a service that also creates sites for twig-nesting bees who can’t excavate on their own). Sometimes the sumacs spread in shady spots where I know they won’t survive long, but I leave them there anyway as extra deer food.

“Trees could solve the problem if people trying to improve things would only allow them to take over,” writes German forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. He’s referring to the benefits of dense canopies along rivers and streams, where trees could naturally shade out giant hogweed and other invasive species.

But the sentiment hits close to home—and my own backyard—for another reason. Trees and shrubs have been integral to our peaceful coexistence with deer, who count among their favorite treats the staghorn sumacs and sassafras that have suckered into our former lawn. Though we didn’t know it when we began ceding turfgrass to nature, a later reading of the literature confirmed these two species as favorite browse plants for deer in our region. (And contrary to popular belief, staghorn sumacs are not the same plants as poison sumacs; they are not even in the same genus.) Other vigorous spreaders like elderberries, blackberries, and dogwoods are high on the deer menu, too.

Image of sassafras grove
An area beyond our patio was nothing but turfgrass until one summer we noticed these sassafras sprouting. The patch is one of three areas where the trees have begun to take hold, spreading densely even as they continue to feed deer.

Left to their own devices, these plants provide an endless supply of food because of their rippling growth habits. As Wohlleben writes of the trees nibbled by deer in his homeland, “Usually, the deer don’t destroy all the little trees in one small group, so there are always a couple that escape damage and battle on upward.”

The deer don’t destroy all the budding trees and shrubs on my land either; they prune some while leaving dozens of others alone. Most of the time in my community, it’s the humans doing the destroying, usually without even knowing it. “These shrubs can be important for wildlife,” notes a University of Missouri article about deer habitat, “but they are often mowed before they can provide any benefits.”

Let lawn go to meadow.
Image of poodle in meadow
Early successional plant communities following disturbance – in this case, decades of mowing – include a diversity of grasses and wildflowers. Deer eat young plants in the meadow and also sleep among the tall grasses. (The poodle we’re petsitting is decidedly more domesticated but provides a bit of photographic perspective and some gratuitous cuteness.)

Deer are attracted to open foraging areas adjacent to woods, or “edge” zones that provides both food and cover. Landscaping standards of modern suburbia mimic the basic framework of this habitat—with open lawns and tree-lined borders—but the food offerings are scant by comparison. In the more natural setting of a sunlit clearing in an intact forest, a diversity of grasses and wildflowers sprout, followed by shrubs and tree saplings.

By contrast, deer looking for nutrition in acres of manicured turfgrass have much less to choose from: typically a couple of hostas, a few daylilies, maybe some tasty rosebuds. In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.

In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.

As we’ve let the trees and shrubs sucker along our woods’ edges, we’ve also let the back acre of formerly mowed grass come into its own—and discovered a diversity of plants that had just been waiting for the right moment to sprout. Some, like broomsedge and purpletop grass, were probably already in the seedbank. Others, like late boneset, may have spread from elsewhere on the property. Goldenrods have popped up for the first time this year. Though deer wander around the edges of the meadow each evening, the only lasting evidence of their presence are depressions in the grasses where they curl up to sleep.

Let plants choose their destinies—and their allies.
Image of Joe Pye and protector plants
In good company: As the volunteer offspring of a large stand of Joe Pye weed at the edge of a wildflower planting, this baby had diverse neighbors where it planted itself this spring on the other side of the garden: blue mist flower, boneset, golden ragwort, and swamp sunflower. It is one of the only Joe Pyes that has remained untouched throughout the season.

A proliferation of spreading shrubs, trees, and meadow plants not only ensures there’s enough food to share; it also mixes things up enough to keep deer guessing. “I have noticed over the years that plants in a meadow rarely suffer from significant browsing by white-tailed deer,” writes landscape designer Larry Weaner in Garden Revolution. “Even the plants that deer favor seem to escape this form of attention when intermingled with plants that the deer don’t eat.”

Incorporating these observations into his gardening techniques, Weaner adds less tasty plants such as ladyferns to the same spot where he’s planting known deer snacks like white wood aster, ensuring that “the deer can’t get to the plant they like without also encountering the one that they don’t.”

Image of Joe Pye in mistflower2
Can you spot the Joe Pye now? Neither can the deer. It’s growing tall to the right of the swamp sunflower in the center, obscured by blue mistflower and golden ragwort.

While I’ve never actively employed this practice beyond the vegetable garden, I’ve noticed nature doing it for me. Where Joe Pye weed grows in a large stand I planted, the deer find it not long after its first tender leaves appear. But where Joe Pye reseeds itself among other species—swamp sunflower, boneset, and blue mistflower—the deer leave it alone. Similar strategies have kept our asters from being munched on en masse.

Incorporate harmless sensory deterrents.

butterfly on soap stakeThough my main strategy for peacefully coexisting with deer is to plant for them rather than resisting their need to eat, their attraction to tender growth of new plantings occasionally calls for gentle repellents.

Sometimes those repellents come in the form of more plants, even dead or invasive ones. Over the past two years, I’ve created natural caging out of trimmings of invasive multiflora roses growing at our woods’ edge, placing them around the nibbled Joe Pyes. Allowing the surrounding lawn (or whatever is left of it) to grow taller at the edges of the garden where the plants reside also provides a visual and tactile deterrent.

Image of rosebush trimmings
Not the prettiest picture–at least not yet. But after surrounding the tender Joe Pyes (above, center) with these cut branches of invasive multiflora rose, I am happy to report that a couple of months later the Joe Pyes stand tall and dense (below), obscuring the dead rose trimmings and readying their abundant blooms for this season’s butterflies.

Image of large stand of Joe Pye

For isolated young trees or shrubs, caging is simplest, but such exclosures may be impractical in larger areas. In those cases, I hang bars of soap or ask my husband to defend the borders by relieving himself around the perimeters of new plantings (a locally sourced, humane and free range alternative to inhumanely produced “predator urine”). I’ve even been known to add a stake and place an upside down plastic pot on top—a lazy woman’s version of a scarecrow. None of these methods requires much time, but because deer quickly adapt, rotating gentle repellents helps keep them on their hooves long enough to ensure we have an ever-growing supply of food for them and all the other fauna, both macro and micro, who share our land.

Image of deer by ash tree
I couldn’t have imagined this scene in my backyard when I was a young girl and deer were much less common.

I’m old enough to remember when deer sightings were rare events; as a little girl, I longed to see one on our camping trips to Virginia—and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of spotting a herd in our suburban backyard. But I’m also young enough to have missed the chance to see other animals who were common only a few decades ago and have now vanished from these parts. The northern bobwhites my next-door neighbor admired in the 1970s are all but gone from our community, having long ago vanished along with the hedgerows and grasslands they relied on for cover and food.

Rapid declines of such species are now the norm; witness the passenger pigeons, who went extinct when the last one died in a zoo in 1914, just decades after millions of them still filled the skies across much of North America. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we should take no animals for granted, even the common ones—and we should stop blaming other species for their mere presence in the environment and start examining what we can do to help them. It’s not that hard. My small suburban plot of land is living, vibrant proof.

Image of Eastern tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed
The Joe Pye weed are on track to grow taller than I am and bloom just in time for the next generation of Eastern tiger swallowtails and other butterflies and bees. This stand was initially eaten by deer last year, too, but my rotating system of gentle repellents – combined with the dense vegetation throughout the property – ensured there was enough for all the animals.


Gardening for All Species

My new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, published in April by Princeton Architectural Press, provides more ideas on planting for wildlife as well as preventing conflict with the animals.

Planting and Cultivation Strategies

While reading Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, I nodded my head in enthusiasm at the turn of nearly every page; most of the planting and cultivation strategies mirror my own, but Weaner has proven their success in large-scale projects. For further inspiration and ideas on identifying and nurturing plants that are valuable to wildlife but often yanked from gardens, check out my #WeedsNotWeeds series.

Though lists of so-called “deer-resistant plants” are easy to come by in gardening circles, finding species actually preferred by deer is trickier. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but you have to know where to look. Illinois Wildflowers, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the Forest Service fire ecology database have helped me make many flora-fauna connections. More deer-specific information is available from natural resources agencies, universities, and hunting organizations that post guidelines for creating deer food plots. Their motivations for feeding deer are usually different from mine, but I’ve found the advice helpful in learning how to plant for the animals. Some interesting articles include “Know Your Native Deer Foods” and “Whitetail 101: What Do Deer Eat?”

Vegetable Gardening with Wildlife

If a farmer can produce enough plants for commercial sale, feed her own family and nourish the many deer, squirrels, birds and other animals who visit her property, it’s a good bet she’s got some great advice for others, too. Tammi Hartung’s book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener, provides a wealth of practical information for home gardeners. (Tammi is also profiled in my book as a humane gardening pioneer.) For quick tips, check out my latest All Animals column on the same subject, “Sharing the Bounty.”

Historical Perspective

A History of White-Tailed Deer Restocking in the United States, 1878 to 2004 provides a state-by-state account of deer management programs. For a fresh perspective on forest ecology as it relates to deer presence, see The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell.

(Photos by Nancy Lawson)

What Do Wild Moms Need Most? Plants!

Image of raccoon family in tree
Photo by John Harrison

What are you and your family having for dinner tonight? No matter which dishes are on the menu—squash, pizza, salad, pasta, or French fries—fruits and vegetables will inevitably be a part of it. Even diehard carnivores with a distaste for greens can’t avoid relying on the plant kingdom, however indirectly.

And whether you’re eating that food at a table or on the sofa, there’s a high possibility that dead trees were used in the construction of your furniture. It’s also likely that a strong wooden skeleton holds up the walls around you.

Our reliance on plants for food and shelter is indisputable, yet for some reason we forget that other animals share that dependency. Worse, we remove those plants from the landscape on a mass scale, taking away the vegetation that animals need for their nutrition and the fallen leaves and dead trees they use to build their homes.

In celebration of Mother’s Day, we can give the gift of habitat to wild moms by planting more live plants and leaving the naturally decaying plant matter in our gardens.  Here are just a few of the mothers and babies we’ll be helping when we do that.

Mother bees craft fresh leaf pieces into baby blankets

Image of leafcutter bee mom by Christy Stewart
Mother leafcutter bees use leaf pieces of grapevine, roses, and other plants to line nests in logs, tree snags, brick or other materials with small cavities. They spend up to three hours making each nest for a single egg, leaving behind pollen and nectar provisions for their future children. (Photo by Christy Stewart)

Mother rabbits hide baby bunnies among fallen leaves

Image of baby rabbits
Rabbit moms find cozy spots among decaying leaves to create camouflaged nests. They even pull out some of their own hair to line the bed for their newborns. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Beneath logs and leaves, mother salamanders guard eggs

Image of red-backed salamander by Michael Benard
Some salamander mothers, including this red-backed salamander, coil around their incubating eggs for weeks to protect them from predators and disease. Logs, leaves, and rocks provide both shelter and food sources, including insects, spiders, earthworms, centipedes, and other invertebrates. (Photo by Michael F. Benard)

Raccoon mothers uses trees cavities as nurseries

Image of raccoon family by John Harrison
Holes in live trees or standing dead trees offer safe, warm places for raccoon mothers, squirrel mothers, bird mothers, and countless other wild moms to raise their young. (Photo by John Harrison)

Butterfly babies need host plants like we need spinach

Image of American lady caterpillar on pussytoes
Most plant-eating insects evolved to eat the leaves and occasionally the flowers of only certain plant species. We can help butterfly and moth caterpillars by planting their host plants; this little beauty will go on to become an American lady butterfly as long as she can dine on pussytoes, or plants in the Antennaria genus. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Mother bees make baby food from pollen and nectar

Image of bee on bluebells
Mother bees make special food for their young out of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. This early spring bee, likely in the Habropoda genus, is gathering the goods from Virginia bluebells and storing them in her orange pollen baskets. Gardeners often overlook spring and fall plants, but it’s important to remember the creatures who depend on them for their very survival. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Mother birds make baby food from insects who eat plants

Image of Carolina wren gathering insects
Most bird parents, like this Carolina wren, need spiders and insects to feed their young. They need so many, in fact, that even tiny chickadees gathers thousands of caterpillars to raise just one brood of chicks to the fledgling stage. This food supply would be severely diminished without the native plants that feed insects. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Plants protect young deer while moms go off to forage

Image of baby deer by Sally Fekety
Deer, rabbits, and bobcats are among the mammals who leave their young in vegetation while they look for food. Without a minivan to tote around the toddlers and teenagers, mammals must find protected places to put them. Plants provide that. Do a wild mom a favor for Mother’s Day, and plant a native tree, shrub, grass, vine or wildflower. You’re guaranteed to help somebody’s babies! (Photo by Sally Fekety)

Find more tips in my recent All Animals magazine column, “How to Make Your Yard Family-Friendly,” and check out my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.

(Featured image by Michael F. Benard)

The World According to Wild Animals

Image of squirrel in flowerpot
(Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS)

Inside our homes, if we don’t like something, we can change it without much thought. Tired of the pumpkin-colored wall? Repaint it blue. Too cold at night? Turn up the heat.

Our ability to pick and choose the elements of our indoor environments makes perfect sense. It’s our home, and we can do what we want with it.

But when we apply the same strategy to the world outside our front doors, we’re forgetting one key difference: It’s no longer just ours. It’s a space we share with billions of other living beings, from the large mammals to the microscopic soil organisms. Each has a role in the ecosystem, as well as unique needs and approaches to survival.

As citizens of this dynamic community, we can choose to move through these mutual spaces with more intention, taking the time to understand the effects of our actions on other creatures. Shifting to this perspective sometimes involves a rewiring of sorts, as we challenge our long-held assumptions and passed-down myths about the behaviors of wild species.

In my own evolution as a gardener, I’ve found that many of my initial beliefs were ill-informed at best—but more often just not informed at all. Because I love animals, I wasn’t inclined to do anything about their random acts of plant nibbling, but I also didn’t even understand who was doing it, or why.

In the hands of humans who are less sympathetic toward other species, such lack of knowledge can, of course, lead to tragedy for our wildlife. People still shoot opossums for the mere crime of existence. They pour poisons down mole holes and trap and relocate groundhogs to their inevitable doom. They call in “nuisance” wildlife control operators who have been known to do all these things and worse.

StoppingImage of Wild Neighbors cover this madness by learning to see the world through other species’ eyes has been central to the work of John Hadidian, senior scientist for wildlife at The Humane Society of the United States. During his career, John has radio-tracked raccoons to study their behaviors, rescued box turtles, foxes, and groundhogs from the path of demolition, helped develop humane geese and pigeon population control programs, and guided research for evaluating deer impacts in urban parks. He launched one of the nation’s first services to offer compassionate solutions when wild animals take up residence in attics, walls, and other parts of human homes. And he wrote the book on all of it. An invaluable resource, Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife has helped me repeatedly in my own yard, turning it into a frontier of constant discovery.

As many times as I’ve talked with John over the years, I always learn something new, as I did again during a recent presentation he gave to a group of master gardeners. Below are some highlights.

The scenario: Who done it?

Image of box turtle
An unlikely culprit? (Photo by Chris Evans/Illinois Wildlife Action Plan/

A squirrel? A raccoon? A woodchuck? Those were a few of the responses to the question of who ate the tomato (shown below). In the crowd of plant-protective gardeners, John’s big reveal of the true identity of the drive-by snacker in his garden—a box turtle—elicited a collective, affectionate gasp. The reaction was far more sympathetic for the herp perp than it likely would have been for other animals, and that was part of the point. When we assume too much about what’s going on in our yards and initiate a blame game against various species for stealing the fruits of our labors, it can be humbling to learn how wrong we’veImage of nibbled tomato been.

The solution? Tolerance and understandingTake the time to determine who’s really in your garden before deciding on a course of action. And grow more plants—there’s plenty to go around, especially for turtles, who can’t even reach very high. “Let the box turtle have that first row of tomatoes,” John advises. “That’s fine. Share.”

The scenario: Help, there’s a raccoon in my trash/chimney/birdfeeder!

Image of raccoon in tree
Raccoons are “North America’s answer to non-human primates,” writes John in Wild Neighbors. (This photo and top featured image by Will Heinz)

Spilled garbage could easily be the handiwork of neighborhood dogs or other animals. But even when it has the pawprints of our favorite furry bandits all over it, it’s ultimately not their fault either. “It’s not a raccoon problem,” says John. “It’s a trash problem.”

And why wouldn’t members of this tree-based, generalist species take advantage of their surroundings? They’ve been adapting to every U.S. biome for the past million years. By contrast, we didn’t come along in our current form until 800,000 years later. It’s no wonder our trash cans are their food, our chimneys are their dens, and our bird feeders are their local drive-thrus.

Image of a raccoon rescued by Humane Wildlife Services
As far as a raccoon is concerned, chimneys are a great place to raise young. It’s possible but difficult to humanely evict families, so it’s best to wait until the babies are grown. Then you can add a chimney cap to prevent future denning. (Photo by John Griffin/Humane Wildlife Services)

The solution? “Don’t create opportunities when you don’t need to have them,” says John. Secure your trash can with a bungee cord, buy an animal-resistant container, or store garbage in the garage at night. Seal chimneys with chimney caps once you’ve verified they’re empty. If a mama raccoon has already taken up residence there, she and her babies will be gone soon enough. If for some reason you can’t wait, a humane service can help encourage the family to move to an alternate den site.

Protect raccoons from becoming too habituated to bird seed buffets by limiting seed amounts, adjusting feeding times so there’s little left at night, or simply shutting down the restaurant for a while.

The scenario: Rooftop squirrelliness

Image of squirrel leaping
Our favorite acrobats can forge their own paths to unexpected places. (Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS)

It was party central for the cute rodent set: “One weekend squirrels got into the room where all the expensive computer-ware was and kind of did some rewiring,” John says of one of the buildings occupied by his previous employer, the National Park Service. “And all of a sudden the problem was elevated to an actual crisis.”

Before that, unbeknownst to agency biologists, property managers were simply trapping and relocating—an ineffective method that invites more squirrels to the property to fill the vacuum. The practice can also mean a death sentence for relocated animals, who must compete for food and shelter in unfamiliar territory.

Image of squirrel highway branch on roof
A branch makes for a great “squirrel highway” when hanging over a roof. (Photo by John Hadidian)

The solution? Change the environment. “We went out and walked around, and the first thing you see, of course, is the squirrel highway,” says John of the branch hanging over the roof, “and a building that’s probably not too climbable otherwise.”

A tree crew came to cut the branch that afternoon. “And there was never another invasion by squirrels in the time I was there.”

The scenario: Groundhogs Being … Groundhogs?

Image of groundhogs
Woodchucks are nature’s homebuilders. Their old burrows provide shelter for many other animals, including amphibians, reptiles, and even foxes. (Photo by John Hadidian)

Once they dig in, groundhogs can create elaborate burrow systems that last for generations. John has seen some in Washington, D.C., that he believes have been in existence since the Civil War.

Yet instead of admiring their industrious ways, fear-mongering wildlife control operators grasp at straws when trying to persuade homeowners to kill them: “Groundhogs are deceptively pleasant-looking creatures with chubby bodies and squatty legs,” reads the website of one large company. “When cornered, however, they are aggressive defenders of their territory, another reason why you’re loathe to see one in your yard.”

Who isn’t an aggressive defender of their territory when “cornered”? That’s called survival.

The solution? A dose of understanding and, if necessary, humane exclusion. The best approach, as always, is to try to live alongside these animals, who mean us no harm. But for gardeners who’ve lost plants to groundhogs and want to take effective, humane action, a fence with an L-shaped footer in the ground will do the job. Since groundhogs can also climb, John recommends fencing that wobbles in a way that makes scaling it nearly impossible.

Digging up burrows to a depth of three feet once animals have vacated is also an option for preventing new arrivals. (It’s not one I would pursue, as I enjoy the presence of groundhogs, but it’s far preferable to the killing methods employed by so many. One local politician I met at a recent event took great pleasure in relaying how he’d shot a groundhog family living under his deck, though he couldn’t name any actual damage done yet by the animals. It hadn’t occurred to him to explore more humane approaches before launching his outsized preemptive strike.)

The Scenario: What scenario?

Image of baby opossums
Orphaned opossums often end up in the care of wildlife rehabilitation facilities. (Photo by Heather Fone/The HSUS)

Among all the maligned animals in our landscapes, opossums may top the list, simply because some people find them aesthetically displeasing or frightening. “I don’t know how many people I’ve had call me up excited about a giant rat they just saw,” says John.

But these animals are much more afraid of us than we are of them—and for good reason. They are subjected to relentless abuse: set on fire, doused in boiling water, sprayed with insecticide, attacked with bricks, and intentionally hit by cars.

North America’s only marsupial—and a denizen of this planet since the age of dinosaurs—deserves better. Because the moms give birth to live young who nest in their pouches, they need no established home range and will leave as quickly as they’ve arrived. Their passing presence should be welcomed. “Ecologists call them terrestrial gleaners,” says John, “which means they eat a lot of carrion and insects and other things that could be injurious to gardens.”

The solution? Chill out. Since there is no problem, other than misplaced hatred from humans, there is nothing to solve here. They’ll move along soon enough, and so should we.

“Chances are if you have a problem—and I don’t even really know what a problem with an opossum even looks like—it’s going to be gone the next day,” says John.

Who ate the tomato? Last week I posed that question in a post introducing John to readers. Congratulations to correct guessers Donna West and Nicky Ratliff, who will receive free copies of Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife


Urban Wildlife Frontiers

Roundup of Canada Geese
(Photos above by Jim Pfiel)

When I first met urban wildlife expert John Hadidian, I was already concerned about paved-over landscapes and lifeless seas of turfgrass, but primarily because they were boring and chemical-laden. I had antipathy toward lawn mowers and leaf blowers, but mostly out of fear for the ears of gardeners and animals exposed to the loud grind.

It would be years before I fully understood the implications of denuded landscapes stripped of the native plants that many animals depend on for survival. But John, the senior scientist for wildlife protection at The Humane Society of the United States, introduced me more than a decade ago to the serious impacts of our lawn-crazed culture on nesting and migration patterns.

Image of roundup of Canada geese
Government geese roundups, like this one in Delafield, Wis., in 2011, continue to this day. But many communities have successfully implemented humane alternatives. (Photo by Jim Pfiel)

It was the early 2000s, and some communities were waging war with Canada geese. The story John relayed was a sad and familiar one for wildlife protectionists: After hunting geese to near-extinction (twice), humans did what we so often do, launching misguided recovery efforts that moved them to regions they hadn’t previously inhabited. Once there, the geese stayed—and did exactly what we’d asked: they proliferated. And pooped. A lot. So much so that we decided to get rid of them again, initiating government-sponsored killing campaigns that even included mass gassing in improvised “euthanasia” chambers.

Image of Canada gosling in cage
After the roundups, geese have been gassed onsite or sent to slaughter. (Photo by Jim Pfiel)

By the late ’90s, hope had come in the form of proven humane alternatives, including oiling eggs to prevent development, enlisting border collies to patrol ponds, and—most intriguing of all to me—adding native plantings around bodies of water. Geese, John explained, are attracted to areas where turfgrass abuts ponds and lakes and provides easy lines of sight. Especially in summer, when they are molting and can’t fly while raising their goslings, the visible route into the water is essential for escape from predators.

Image of egg addling process
By covering eggs in corn oil before embryo development has advanced too far, trained volunteers can humanely prevent new births. (Photo by John Hadidian/The HSUS)

“It’s a self-inflicted wound,” John said of the goose-related problems experienced by homeowners, businesses, and park managers. The geese who’d been relocated, bred in captivity, and put in unnatural settings now “hang around here all year, and we complain about it, but you know, we did this to them.”

The message was clear: We’d created the artificial landscapes, so why couldn’t we use that same ingenuity to reverse course and restore what had been lost? And I had to wonder: If we’d done this to geese, who else were we doing it to?

Canada Goose Photos
Mowed landscapes provide an easy escape route to the water, making unnatural lake and pond settings more attractive to geese. (Photo by Linda Reider/The HSUS)

Those questions would eventually inspire me to devote all my time to creating and promoting wildlife-friendly landscapes. It’s a passion I share with many others. But in spite of the growing reach of the sustainability ethic, all of us who have joined the burgeoning movement over the past decade still face formidable challenges—and not just in the realm of encouraging more wildlife-friendly plantings. For some people, banishing wildlife entirely, through any means necessary, is a primary goal. As John wrote in a recent essay for the Biophilic Cities newsletter, “Every year, many thousands of wild animals living in cities are killed for simply being perceived as ‘nuisances,’ often for no more of an offense than being seen crossing a yard.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. So many animals—including those in our own backyards—are mistreated out of fear or a lack of understanding of their natural behaviors. Our species can and should do better. And thanks to the work of John and his colleagues, we already know how. It’s up to every one of us to act on that knowledge now.

An upcoming blog will provide highlights from a recent talk John presented about humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife. But first, can you name the animal who nibbled on this tomato from his garden? The first correct response entered into the comments section will receive a free copy of John’s book, Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife.

(Photo by John Hadidian)