By Ron Corbett
Forget about coyote sightings in Nepean and moose on the loose in Bell’s Corners. Forget about fishers dining on house pets in West Carleton and black bears meandering down Moodie Drive. For that matter, forget about beavers, white-tailed deer, the elusive eastern Ontario cougar, eels caught in a water filtration plant below Parliament Hill, and turkeys terrorizing senior citizens in Barrhaven. If you really want to know how plentiful and absurd wildlife stories can be in Ottawa, start with a robin.
Actually, let’s back up a little and start with a chipping sparrow. In June of last year, sightings of chipping sparrows along Holmwood Avenue sparked a row between some Glebe residents and a contractor hired to remove a stand of trees at Lansdowne Park as part of the redevelopment of the park. Chipping sparrows are migratory birds and, as such, are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. According to the residents, if chipping sparrows were living in those trees, then work at Lansdowne had to stop.
To make their point, they chained themselves to trees, gave media interviews, and taped pages from the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax to a fence. Only when it was pointed out to them that chipping sparrows nest in bushes, not trees, did the residents unchain themselves and go home. Surprisingly, no one from the City of Ottawa was able to diffuse the situation. That’s because the city has not a single worker tasked to handle wildlife issues — lots of bylaw officers, but not a single biologist.
Anyway, back to that stand of trees. After the chipping sparrows left, a cardinal’s nest was found. A cardinal is also a migratory bird. Again, it looked as though work at Lansdowne was going to stop until, over the course of several days of round-the-clock surveillance of the nest, no cardinal appeared.
And then came the robin. The bird was caught red-handed, twigs in beak, building a nest on Holmwood Avenue and oblivious to all the interest it was generating among nearby residents. Although they are plentiful and few people give them much thought, robins are also migratory birds. Work around the trees was halted again. And just as before, the City of Ottawa had nothing more than an observer’s role to play in the story as it waited for provincial and federal naturalists to offer updates on the robin and how it was faring in the middle of the construction site.
By the end of July, after the robin had not been seen for more than a week, the province gave permission for the work to resume. To this day, residents still talk about the kerfuffle. “I don’t think that bird ever nested here,” said Holmwood Avenue resident Emad Younis, a business consultant and full-time cynic. “I know a lot of people were running around looking for birds to delay the project, but why would a bird stick around here?” He pointed at the rollers, backhoes, and dump trucks working directly across the street from his house. “Come on, birds can fly.”
The city of Ottawa encompasses 2,800 square kilometres, of which more than a third, or roughly 1,000 square kilometres, is wilderness. If you put all the forests, wetlands, and green spaces in Ottawa together, you would have the 25th largest of Canada’s 43 national parks, slightly ahead of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. It is one of the odd — and beautiful — things about our city. While we are the second largest metropolitan area in Ontario, in many ways we have more in common with Thunder Bay than we do with Toronto. Indeed, our geography and our wildlife are more typical of a northern Ontario town than a southern Ontario city.
“We have all the wilderness issues of northern Ontario,” is how a planning biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) describes the situation. Scott Smithers says because of that dichotomy — a large city in southern Ontario in the midst of great swaths of wilderness — there are myriad news stories every year that have as the narrative line a conflict between people and animals. We have rats taking over Confederation Park. We have coyotes eating lap dogs in Osgoode. We have crow roosts in Alta Vista that would scare Alfred Hitchcock.
Yet despite the constant hurly-burly of people living with animals, despite the inevitable conflicts and debates that arise, the city has no wildlife management department. And because of budget restraints, MNR stopped responding to wildlife calls in the city of Ottawa years ago. To address this shortcoming, in February 2010 Ottawa City Council directed staff to develop a wildlife strategy. Staff were told to convene a joint meeting of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee and the Planning and Environment Committee to explore the issue. Appropriate city departments, the National Capital Commission, MNR, other relevant agencies, and community stakeholders must all be consulted in the development and implementation of the wildlife strategy. Finally, the plan must be based on “wildlife-sensitive planning, with a focus on public education and awareness programs.”
So why did Ottawa wait nine years, after amalgamating in 2001, to draft a wildlife strategy? Well, as staff later wrote in a draft of their report and recommendations: “Council passed its motion in the context of public concern and confusion regarding the hazards and degree of risk to public safety posed by coyotes within or adjacent to urbanized areas of the City, and public debate regarding the appropriate response of the City and other agencies to their presence, behaviour and welfare.” Yep, sooner or later, it all comes down to coyotes.
On the Tuesday after Christmas 2011, early in the morning, Rose Clows saw what she thought was a dog sleeping in her backyard. Later that day, when it was still there, she went to her back door and yelled at it, trying to get it to move. It didn’t. By mid-afternoon, Clows was beginning to think this was strange behaviour for a dog — strange enough for her to keep her 10-year-old daughter inside the house, strange enough to make her pick up the phone and dial 311. She wanted advice from the city on what to do.
“Have you tried to shoo the dog away?” asked the woman at the call centre.
“No,” said Clows, thinking this was a strange question. “It’s acting kind of strange. I’m scared to approach it.”
“Do you know what kind of dog it is?”
“It looks like a German shepherd,” she said, walking to her back window. “It’s thin-looking, like it hasn’t been taken care of. Maybe it’s a stray. Do you not have someone who can come and have … ” And just then the animal finally moved — got unsteadily to its feet and flicked its tail. It turned around — surely not to look at Rose Clows, although the sightline was perfect — and into the phone, Clows said: “It’s not a German shepherd. It’s a coyote.”
For the next six days, that coyote pretty much lived at Rose Clows’ Nepean home. It would nestle in the corner of her backyard and fall asleep, then disappear for a few hours in the middle of the day only to return before dusk. Clows lives in Tanglewood, between Merivale Road and Woodroffe Avenue, where there is plenty of green space, although it’s still a fairly congested urban area. “I was shocked when I realized the animal in my backyard was a coyote. I had read the news stories about coyotes out in Osgoode and Greely, but I’m in the middle of Nepean. I never thought I’d have one living with me,” she remembers.
Clows tried to find some way of getting the animal out of her backyard, but with no success. The city call centre said bylaw services would be in touch, but no one called. She then contacted the MNR office in Kemptville, which told her there was nothing the MNR could do. It was a city problem. So she phoned the city again. This time she was directed to someone in bylaw services who grilled her like a defence lawyer, asking how she could be certain it was a coyote. Perhaps she was mistaken? And if she was right — if it was a coyote — what exactly was the problem?
“This was the sort of help I was getting from the city,” says Clows. “People were acting as though I was being rude to the coyote. It left me wondering if the city has any sort of wildlife management strategy.”
Well, no. It was for this reason that Osgoode Ward 20 Councillor Doug Thompson first hired a trapper, in the winter of 2009, to get rid of “nuisance” coyotes in his ward. “The coyotes were starting to be a big problem, not only in my ward but in all the rural wards,” says Thompson. “At first they were killing farm animals, which was bad enough, but then they started getting bolder and came right into town and subdivisions, going after pets.”
Thompson was surprised, when he started phoning around to see who could help him with the problem, to discover there was no one. The city referred his calls to the MNR, which told him it was a city problem. When he tried the city again, someone suggested he contact the Ottawa police, where he was told police got involved only in the most extreme cases when human life may be in danger (a moose in a schoolyard, for example). In frustration, Thompson ended up hiring the trapper to get rid of some of the coyotes, using his office budget to pay for it and setting off a storm of protest in some quarters of the city about city money being used for a “coyote cull.”
Thompson was unapologetic about his decision at the time and remains so today. “I think a lot of people are woefully ignorant about wildlife issues and what sort of city we live in,” he says. “For a lot of residents, coyotes are a problem. Deer are a problem. This isn’t some Disney movie. It’s an everyday problem for a lot of people, and we need to do something about it.” Largely as a result of Thompson’s actions, as well as a request brought forward by the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre to develop a progressive plan, the city started thinking about a wildlife strategy. Council directed staff to come up with a report on the issue and get all the stakeholders involved, creating the Wildlife Strategy Working Group.
And for the next 2 1/2 years — while the city continued on its merry way without a single biologist or naturalist on staff, while newspapers were filled with stories about beavers damming up storm-water pipes in Stittsville, rats taking over Confederation Park, and coyotes spending Christmas in Tanglewood — the working group broke into factions and fought over what sort of policy the city needed.
Scott Smithers was appointed to the working group and doesn’t have kind words for the experience. “I found it frustrating,” he says. “A lot of stakeholders were involved, and there was a lot of emotion at the meetings. I’m not sure good science is going to dictate the city’s policy.” Smithers, a trained biologist, wondered openly if what might carry the day around the table was an “emotional argument” that animals should never be hurt under any circumstances. “Take coyotes, for example,” he says. “For years, we have been telling people that coyotes are not dangerous, that there have never been coyote attacks on t people in eastern Canada. Well, we can’t say that anymore. There have been attacks. And the truth is, coyotes are changing — their habits, the sheer number of them. It’s a very different situation from what it was even five years ago.”
He says people shouldn’t walk around in fear of coyotes because attacks are extremely rare, but adds, “At the same time, you shouldn’t walk around thinking wild animals are pets.” Yet, he says, many people around the table were adamant about advocating a “coexistence strategy” for the city, one that would never eradicate any animal under any circumstances.
Donna DuBreuil of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre was one of the people in the working group encouraging a coexistence strategy. “People in this city are overwhelmingly in favour of finding ways to coexist with wildlife,” she says. “The old days of shoot, shovel, and shut up — those are behind us, thank goodness.” In her opinion, better planning and common sense would eliminate many of the problems heard about in the media.
Geese in Andrew Haydon Park? Naturalize the perimeters with tall grasses to reduce the sightline and comfort level for geese that congregate there (which is what other cities in North America do). Beavers damming storm-water pools in Stittsville? Install water flow devices to prevent flooding and wrap trees to protect against beaver damage. Coyotes in Tanglewood? Take away their source of food. Which means don’t leave garbage outside, and keep dogs on a leash.
“We have to remember that we created these wildlife problems. We have moved in on their habitat,” says DuBreuil. With this in mind, she explains, many people are looking for effective, cost-efficient, and humane ways to resolve human-wildlife conflicts.
Gerry Lee was not part of the working group, although he sits on the Eastern Ontario Deer Advisory Committee, which provided input to the working group, and he followed its progress closely. The long-time employee with the federal government’s Canadian Wildlife Service says that instead of looking for concrete solutions to real problems, the working group got bogged down in a philosophical debate on what the relationship should be between people and animals.
“The problem Rose Clows was having with that coyote is starting to be a common one, and it’s happening because we have taken away every way of dealing with the problem,” he says. “You can’t discharge a firearm anymore. You can’t trap. The city won’t do anything because it’s afraid of upsetting people. So we’re told to coexist with coyotes, even when they start living in our backyard. It’s absurd.”
Lee, who has trained and worked in wildlife management, believes large cities are horrible at dealing with wildlife issues. There are too many competing interests, too much emotion, and not enough science. He says even the notion of cities being for people — the idea that people should be the top priority in any respectful wildlife strategy adopted by a city — strikes some residents as offensive. “The problem is that a lot of people feel guilty and everyone is afraid to put the ‘wild’ back into wildlife, to treat wild animals as what they are — wild animals,” he says.
The draft wildlife strategy report was released to the working group members in June 2012. It tried to walk a fine line around the competing world views of the group’s members. Perhaps not surprisingly, it satisfied few.
Paul Mussell, the trapper hired by Thompson to thin the coyote herd in Osgoode in 2009, was part of the working group. He was disappointed that the report was long on words but short on specific actions, adding that it was a good first step but fell far short of its goal of resolving the wildlife issues that now seem to pop up in the city almost daily.
A few months after the draft report came out, DuBreuil resigned from the working group. The Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre drafted a response, which it sent to the mayor’s office, saying it wouldn’t endorse the report because it changed little of the “very negative climate for wildlife in Ottawa.” (DuBreuil says the mayor’s office indicated their feedback would become “part of the considerations to come.”)
So it was back to the drawing board for the city, which quickly pulled the report from circulation. The report is now set to go to the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee in early May.
Thompson thinks local farmers, at least, have become tired of waiting for the city to take action and have come up with their own wildlife strategy. While driving around the rural parts of his ward, he has noticed that many farms now have donkeys or llamas in with the sheep, goats, and calves. “Some farmers feel that these animals keep coyotes away.”
But donkeys and llamas aside, Thomp-son says that he’s actually fairly pleased with where the wildlife strategy is right now. As it turns out, he’s a member of the provincial Human-Wildlife Conflict Advisory Group (under the direction of the MNR), which is composed of trappers, wildlife activists, and biologists, among others. He notes that some parts of the 11 recommendations made in the city’s report form part of the advisory group’s recommendations. Says Thompson: “The city wildlife strategy really is a fantastic step forward since the do-nothing strategy of 2009. It has taken a long time and may still need fine-tuning, but we are finally taking this issue seriously.”
Still, you might forgive Rose Clows for not being quite so sanguine. She never heard back from the city after her last phone call to Bylaw Services. The animal disappeared around New Year’s Day, although Clows suspects it is likely still in Tanglewood somewhere. It was last seen in a newsletter from Knoxdale-Merivale councillor Keith Egli in a photo of the animal that Clows sent him. At the time, Clows was still looking for advice on what to do. The Councillor responded by putting the photo in his newsletter, which offered tips from the city on how to prevent conflicts with coyotes, and told constituents to call 311 if they saw one so that the city could record the sighting. If anyone wanted more information, the newsletter said, they could get a fact sheet from the Ontario SPCA called “Living With Coyotes.”