image provided by Castanet

It may have been a tense week if you were acutely aware of the adult cougar spotted casually checking out several neighbourhoods around Kelowna. The animal was caught on camera in Glenmore, nearly attacked two dogs in Rutland, and showed up elsewhere before appearing to disappear. A large, potentially dangerous animal moving through a residential area is worthy of concern from local residents, and attracted media and public attention, though the Conservation Officer Service iterated that its behaviour is perfectly normal and the animal represents a “low safety risk.”

Though the presence of wildlife through British Columbia should not come as a surprise to anyone, urban animals are often a hot topic for local news sources. As our communities sprawl further and further out into wildlands, animals experience a range of negative effects, and are left looking for somewhere to go. In the Okanagan, where suburbs, roads, and orchards occupy nearly the entire available valley from Vernon to Osoyoos (warm, low elevation areas are important winter habitat for many wildlife species), wildlife are left with little area to go about their lives. 

Although these animals’ movements are within the normal range, we continue to make a big deal of their sightings. Cougars, bears, wolves, and even deer, all attract serious news attention when they wander through our neighbourhoods--even if no harm ever comes of their presence. However, harm does, occasionally, occur: a few bear attacks occur every year, and awareness is high. Cougar and wolf attacks do happen, though they are rare and usually a result of a starving animal. Deer attacks usually occur with more regularity than wolves or cougars, typically as a result of an aggressive doe likely defending an unseen fawn.

But what’s most concerning for wildlife is the outsized fear we have for their presence. There were just over 600 reported attacks by large carnivores in all of North America (including non-fatal attacks) from 1955 to 2015, a paltry number compared to the 314 people dead from car accidents in British Columbia in the year 2018 alone (and over 3500 deaths from 2008 to 2018). A study in Alberta found that the public thinks the risk from cougars alone (a species that represents a much lower threat to humans than Canada’s three species of bears) is equal to the threat from car accidents, despite the fact that only one Albertan had been killed by a cougar in the entire century prior. In fact, the threat to your safety from wildlife is much higher from hitting an animal with your car than it is from being attacked.  

If you ask someone who works in the woods everyday about avoiding wildlife encounters, many old bush-hands will tell you the best thing to do is to not be scared. In my experience working in the woods over the last half-decade, people who are overly afraid of wild animals tend to attract wild animals, just like how people who are afraid of dogs tend to get barked at. But if you ask the Conservation Officer Service, or Wild Safe BC, there are many concrete ways to avoid these encounters. Fear is not the answer to a healthy relationship. Respect is.

At home, a key thing to do, particularly for bears, is controlling attractants in your yard. Safe garbage disposal, cleaning fruit trees, and monitoring things like compost and bird feeders. But animals will come around eventually as we destroy more and more of their habitat. Several bear incidents on the west side of Okanagan Lake this summer and fall had the destruction of forests due to the White Rock Lake fire partly to blame.

To give the animals the respect they deserve, one of the most effective things to do is to give them their space. While local governments certainly need to address urban sprawl, individuals can do their part by not approaching animals of any sort. Do not ever try to get closer to an animal--even for the perfect picture. Leave lone deer fawns alone when you stumble on them (fawns are often left hidden by their mothers, particularly in the spring, who will return to them in time). The protocol for reacting to a wild animal is variable by species, but the BC government outlines a detailed list of things to do for each. Consistent reminders include: carry bear spray, travel in groups, and be loud in wild areas. 

However, this fall’s cougar encounters, as with many other incidents in recent memory, highlight a major concern when it comes to human-wildlife interactions: control your pets or expect trouble. The cougar in Kelowna caused a stir when it nearly attacked two dogs, and dogs are a common undercurrent through many of these stories. Wildlife perceive dogs as a threat, given their status as carnivores, and avoid them if they can. But rambunctious off-leash dogs are often to blame in many of these situations. Just this month, a dog mauled a deer fawn in Kelowna, a situation that could have turned worse if the doe had chosen to fight back. In 2017, the translocation and eventual death of a famous bear of the Bow Valley in Alberta was precipitated by harassment of the bear by an unruly pet dog. Across the board, BC Parks and the BC Conservation Officer Service both heavily recommend that when entering wildlife habitat, it's preferable to avoid bringing dogs altogether, but if you must bring them, keep them on-leash, and above all, under-control.

If you live in British Columbia, wildlife is, inevitably, around you. Running scared does not do you or the animals much good. They are going about their lives and they mean you no harm. Treat them with respect by looking after their habitat, giving them their personal space, and controlling your pets.