Being an animal lover means considering not only our pets and the wild animals we cherish, but also those that have little or no perceived value or legal protection. In many states, groundhogs can be killed year-round, as can coyotes and other animals considered “pests,” with no limit on numbers. Open seasons for raccoons, skunks, and possums often last several months. Add other forms of human destruction – pesticides, habitat destruction – and it’s a wonder these animals still have somewhere to go where they aren’t under constant stress. The least we can do is avoid unleashing our dogs on them too. Here are some steps to keep dogs and wildlife safe.
Don’t rely on fences alone. Fencing prevents quick escapes – a lesson we learned when our dog cornered a possum at midnight. Luckily my husband intervened in time, but that was the end of those no-leash night walks. Especially at night and dawn, when wildlife are most likely to be out, six-foot leashes can help prevent conflicts.
Create structure. We all thrive on routines, and dogs aren’t the only intelligent animals in our environment. Squirrels, deer, rabbits and more take note of the times and places that seem safest. Take your dog outside at around the same times every day when possible and create pathways for him to follow.
Find out who is sharing your space. Do you have a persimmon tree where a possum eats fruit in the fall? A potting bench behind which hides a skunk? A shed where foxes raise their kits below? Your dog will sniff them even if you don’t. Learning the habits of wild animals will help you give them the space they need.
keep an eye out. A dog’s obsession with a certain place in the spring, for example, could indicate an impending attack on a rabbit’s nest. With this knowledge, you can move it away, add a temporary barrier that allows rabbits to come and go but prevents dog access, and leave your dog until the rabbits have grown. When you see dogs harassing wildlife, you can also redirect their instincts, make noise, and offer treats to distract them.
Remove concentrated attractants. Bird feeding leads to some of the most preventable and sometimes devastating conflicts between humans and wild mammals. It can also make wildlife more vulnerable by attracting them in large numbers to one location. Birds find much more food and shelter in native plantings anyway, so I encourage people to create a habitat that helps all animals and spreads their presence across landscapes. (Added bonus: Wildlife Gardens offers the best cat TV for our indoor feline friends!)
Being an animal lover means considering not only our pets and the wild animals we cherish, but also those that have little or no perceived value or legal protection.
Above all, remember that just because dogs were originally trained to hunt wildlife doesn’t mean they can’t be retrained, or at least redirected, now. Terriers may have once been “ratters,” but my neighbor wouldn’t expect him to catch rats any sooner than woolly mammoths. Rather than allow pets to terrorize groundhogs and ratsnakes (which actually are ratters), why not see them as partners in a new endeavor, one that forges a more peaceful coexistence?