What happens when wild animals turn up in cities?

A baboon hangs out in a car. We should probably get used to this sort of thing. Image: pixabay.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of finding a fox on your doorstep, you’ll know all too well how jarring it is when wild things appear in populated areas. After all, isn’t keeping out the unpredictability of the wilderness the entire point of cities? What’s the use in paving paradise if wild beasts tramp in anyway?

There are, in fact, scientific reasons why wild animals seem increasingly keen to invade urban spaces: cities and towns are oases of discarded food, rubbish, and exciting smells. And according to Stan Gehrty, a wildlife ecologist, the rising number of people who spend their lives cloistered in cities has meant wild animals are less likely to recognise humans as a threat.

The following are stories of cities trying to deal with the unexpected appearance of wild and exotic beasts, from Bengal tigers to llamas. The responses from the cities themselves generally include terrified police squadrons, hyperbolic local news liveblogs, and, most of all, a complete failure to get over the fact that there’s a real live animal in the vicinity of the bagel place.

The New York coyote(s)

Much to its horror, New York seems to have become home to a new colony of coyotes over the past year. There were six sightings in just six weeks earlier this spring; and this week one attacked a small pet dog in Saddle River, New Jersey (the dog should be fine, by the way).

According to the New York Times, sightings so far have been dealt with by “specially trained members of the Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit”. Unfortunately, these specially trained individuals don't appear to be very good. From the same piece: 

…officers carrying tranquilizer guns, aided by a helicopter, chased one through Riverside Park for three hours, only to have the animal elude capture.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker  illustrated residents’ uncomprehending reactions by noting, when a coyote appeared on the roof of a Manhattan bar, patrnos thought they saw “a fur coat slinking around”. As you do. 

The tiger of Hampshire

Image: Sussex Police. 

In May 2011, a cricket match at Southampton’s Rose Bowl stadium was called to a halt after a member of the public spotted a white tiger hiding in a nearby field through their camera’s zoom lens. A nearby golf club was also evacuated, and a police helicopter descended on the scene.

As gathered police monitored the tiger through binoculars, and a special team from a nearby zoo prepared to journey out equipped with tranquiliser darts, something very peculiar happened: the tiger blew over in a gust of wind.

It turned out that the tiger was a stuffed toy.

It was later taken on by the force’s lost property department.

The mystery lion of Essex

Summer, 2012: an Essex holiday camp is thrown into panic after visitors claim to have spotted a lion; mane, tail and all. As one holidaymaker described it to The Telegraph:

It was one million per cent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane, it was fully grown, it was definitely a lion. It was just standing there, it seemed to be enjoying itself.

To the consternation of the campers, police stopped their 24 hour hunt after finding no trace of any lion prints, hairs or, indeed the lion itself. Later reports suggested a long-haired ginger cat may have been the culprit. This whole incident actually acts useful modern demonstration of the tale of the blind men and an elephant – long hair and tail does not a lion make.

Arizona’s llamas

The eyes of the world turned to Sun City, Arizona this February as the city played host to a high-speed, um, llama chase. The two llamas, one black and one white, galloped through streets and parking lots, chased by police and filmed by news helicopters. Eventually, both llamas were lassoed. 

Here’s the exhilarating chase in full, sped up and set to a weird song:

The elephant seal that hated cars

Elephant seals have big fights with one another during mating season. In the run-up to said time of year, an elephant seal in New Zealand enacted his own Rocky-style training montage in which he battled trucks and cars.   

Everyone seems to be fine with it, though.

London’s beached whale

Prepare yourselves, folks: this one’s pretty sad. Back in 2006, a young northern bottlenose whale lost its way and swam up the Thames.

It swam about confused for a bit, until rescuers loaded it onto what the BBC called an “inflatable whale mattress”(i.e. a lifeboat) in order to transport it back to the Thames Estauary. Unfortunately, the whale died of convulsions, possibly brought on by stress, before making it home. 

Zanesville’s Animal Farm

Once again, despite the town’s jolly name, this is another tragic tale – an alternate headline would be “The Zanesville massacre”

One of the major attractions in Zanesville, an Ohio county seat, was the Muskingum County Animal farm. Run by owner Terry Thompson, it contained over 50 exotic animals, including lions, baboons, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and tigers.

On 19 October 2011, Thompson opened every single cage before committing suicide. The animals ran off into the countryside, and local police were forced to open fire. The majority of the animals, including eight bears, 20 lions, and 18 rare Bengal tigers were killed; a handful were captured and were given to nearby zoos. To add insult to injury, several people were arrested for trying to steal dead lion carcasses. We’re struggling not to end this one with another sad face. 

Vancouver’s garbage bear

Not for Vancouver the tranquilisers, helicopters and specialist police teams brought in by cities in the rest of the world. The video below shows a brown bear chilling on top of a garbage truck in the city, who is slowly approached by a lone police officer.  After a bit of um-ing and ahh-ing, the policeman picks up the bear and throws it into a sack. A job well done.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.