SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — James Woods is witness to an urban menagerie.
The school teacher lives near the center of Shreveport, but his home is tucked inside a wooded South Highlands ravine near Betty Virginia Park. From his backyard, he's seen creatures living so naturally it's hard to believe concrete and neighborhoods surround them.
"On an almost daily basis, I see red foxes, I see raccoons, flying squirrels; maybe not every day but once every week or so, three kinds of owls. We have wood ducks that come in the trees and actually roost in the tree branches. I've seen pygmy rattlesnake, but no other snakes, and a coyote came up the ditch from Bayou Pierre," Woods said.
Man has shared his home with wildlife throughout history. Urban settings continue to push into domains dominated by animal life, but the well adapted, the clever and the lucky have capitalized on human advancement so well conflict becomes inevitable.
"You can make do in the woods, but hundreds of trash cans make life much easier," said Rob McKay, operator of locally based Wildlife Abatement LLC. "You can get fat and live in an attic or under a house. When you give an animal food and shelter and it can live nocturnally, it's got it made."
The story of Shreveport-Bossier's urban wildlife is reflective of its human population — similar in need to its backwoods cousins, but with a distinctively city-slick way of living.
"Take an animal captured in a neighborhood and put it in a wooded environment, it's probably going to die," McKay said. "It'd be like taking a country boy and dropping him right in the middle of New York City. He's going to have a tough time."
Although the ever-expanding city fringes' encroachment on animal habitats forces some into the city, McKay said the majority of his calls — for everything from bats to raccoons to armadillos — are located in or near the cities' most densely populated and oldest neighborhoods.
They aren't transplants, McKay said, but longtime neighbors who become specialized for city living, learn tricks and strategies for staying alive and pass down life lessons to the next generation.
"These are breeding populations," he said. "They know what trash cans are. They know what automatic dog feeders are. They have adapted to our way of living very well."
Raccoons, armadillos, alligators, opossums, coyotes, foxes, bats, deer, moles, squirrels, skunks — if there's a population outside the city limits, likely their cousins are making homes inside, as well.
"I've had a fox family, that I'm aware of, for two years." Woods said. "I've seen foxes in Shreveport for 20 years. I've seen a whole lot of them around Norton Art Gallery and the surrounding streets."
On some nights, Woods said he and his daughter peer through the windows into the thickets behind their home and wait to catch a glimpse of the foxes. Atlhough he doesn't spot every animal living nearby, he said his dog, Bluegrass, is always keenly alert and eager to follow trails.
None of those neighbors bothers him, he said, and he prefers the company to the alternative.
Shreveport-Bossier is dotted with wooded areas that provide havens for those animals, but the comfort of someone's home is hard to pass up, McKay said.
Bats are likely to find homes in attics and small spaces inside the homes of people living near water and insect populations, McKay said. The flying mammals can carry rabies, and guano accumulation can cause thousands of dollars in damage.
"I've seen homes with stalagmites and stalactites from these bats," McKay said. "All they need is an opening the size of a dime to get inside an attic."
Squirrels are a common nuisance and will become so fond of particular houses they'll steal insulation from one attic and bring it back to their preferred home for nesting, he said. The babies they raise aren't going to forget a safe house, either, and wiping out an entire generation is often the only recourse for homeowners.
Raccoons, another vector for rabies and a supremely adaptable species, teach their young how to rummage through garbage cans and even to flip over or roll up fresh sod to get at the bugs underneath. After a raccoon learned a Shreveport resident was leaving dog food outside, McKay said he told a homeowner to keep it locked away in a shed — something that only angered the critter enough so it tore off a piece of the shed door.
Moles, skunks and armadillos are active when the ground is moist and earthworms are near the top of the soil. Their searching is often destructive to lawns and flowerbeds, and armadillos are vectors of leprosy.
"They cause a lot of rooting around in your garden. They will tear up your roots. They'll kill your shrubs. They just make a really big mess of all your flowers," said Chris Cagle, a technician for A All Animal Control. "They are definitely in the city. They are definitely all over the place, especially in the Shreveport-Bossier area."
They cause trouble at the East Ridge Country Club golf course every year about this time, course superintendent Dan Hamman said. As the weather cools, many animals become more active.
"For us, it's a problem because we're trying to maintain the fairways and the grass," Hamman said. "It's an issue for the golfers and a problem aesthetically."
A family of bobcats vacated the course about a year ago, he said. Many former residents — deer, hogs and coyotes — have disappeared since a nearby bayou was cleared out.
Less common are top predators, but even they've been known to make appearances inside city limits.
Alligators are common all across the state's bayou system, but it doesn't take much for them to wind up inside residential neighborhoods, Red River Wildlife Refuge Manager Pat Stinson said.
"Generally, they follow water and ditches, but that doesn't mean they won't strike out across land," Stinson said. "Most of the ones you see moving are probably juvenile males. Early in the year, they're getting kicked out by adult males during the breeding season, so they're being forced to move."
Coyote populations have spent the past 100 years moving and breeding from their ancestral homes in the western United States, Stinson said. The species survives well because of its adaptability and varied diet.
"Coyotes, generally, weren't here and then their range gradually expanded easterly," Stinson said. "They're pretty much everywhere now. They're here to stay. They're just a generalist species."
Some of northwest Louisiana's apex predators responsible for controlling the population of many of those animals — like the red wolf and the Florida panther — are long gone, Refuge Ranger Terri Jacobson said. Their habitat was destroyed by human settlement and the animals themselves were hunted as threats.
CONFLICTS AND VALUES
"The natural predators for those animals aren't necessarily in the cities to take care of the population. But then they have other things — automobiles, getting trapped in a building, getting poisoned, directly or indirectly," Jacobson said. "There's lots of hazards for urban animals. There's lot of things they have to face."
Humans have a tendency to think in their own terms, and many of the creatures we share city space with are viewed as pests. Disease and property destruction make them targets of human ire.
Caddo Parish Animal Control Director Everett Harris said his department is mostly called on to handle stray dogs and feral cats, but his technicians have worked many different and strange disturbances, including alligators as far inside the city as Queensborough.
"It becomes a public safety issue," Harris said. "With the city growing and our population pushing out, we're encroaching on space on animals we're not accustomed to seeing. It's presented some unique challenges for us."
Habitat loss is the biggest problem facing most wildlife, Jacobson said. Without living space, there are two options — move or perish.
Northwest Louisiana doesn't harbor many threatened or endangered species for which habitat loss is a major issue, Stinson said.
"We've got to live, too. It's striking that balance of how much is too much," he said.
Wild animals are always a potential danger, Jacobson said, especially if they're cornered or their homes are threatened. But sharing living space — whether with animals or other people — is a fact of life, and one that should inspire joy.
"I wouldn't want to live in a place where it was all cement and blacktop and not have green space and not have animals," Jacobson said. "You've got to have that balance."
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com