California’s Drought Is Forcing Bears, Bobcats, and Coyotes Into Suburban Backyards

As rivers and lakes dry up, wild animals are migrating to cities in search of food and water.

(Photo: Joe McKenna/Flickr)

Nov 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Amy Anderson woke up Monday morning to the sound no parent wants to hear—her child’s scream.

The mother raced outside to find her seven-year-old daughter unharmed physically but emotionally scarred. One of the family’s two pygmy goats had been slaughtered in its enclosure; the other was nowhere to be found at their Agoura Hills home in northwest Los Angeles County.

“We got the goats from a petting zoo, and they were my daughter’s pets,” Anderson said. “She walked them on leashes around the neighborhood like dogs. Everyone loved the goats.”

Anderson said the killers responsible were most likely coyotes, which she hears howl each night in the hills above her home.

In the search for the missing goat, Anderson headed to the local animal shelter, where she found the facility had been receiving record reports of wildlife encounters this year, including multiple incidents of pets taken by coyotes.

This appears to be a pattern statewide. The reason? Drought, according to officials at wildlife care facilities.

As natural water sources like rivers, lakes and springs dry up, animals are often searching out places where water and food are still ample—such as suburban neighborhoods.

In the state’s Central Valley, bears have been popping up in unusual places since September. California Living Museum manager Lana Fain told KBAK News that the bears are following dry creek beds looking for a water source and the food that comes with it. With the drought limiting food in the wild, black bears have been coming closer to backyards.

“We beg people not to feed wildlife, whether it’s a bear, whether it’s a kit fox, whether it’s a raccoon or skunk, or whatever may be going through your backyard—don’t feed them,” Fain said in a TV interview. “Do everything you possibly can to disinterest them in your area.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the region’s only wildlife hotline has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of calls from people reporting wildlife interactions and sightings.

At the WildCare urban wildlife hospital in Marin County, communications manager Alison Hermance said people have called about raccoons digging up yards, deer invading gardens, coyote sightings, and dogs sprayed by skunks.

“Our medical staff is seeing a higher load of parasites, both internal and external in our [wildlife] patients,” Hermance said. “Internal parasites such as worms seem to be on the increase, but we’re especially seeing more ticks, mites, and other external parasites.”

Why more parasites? The drought has left many of the animals so emaciated and dehydrated they don’t have the ability to fight off the pests.

“If you’re spending lots of time looking for water and food, you’re not necessarily grooming as thoroughly as you should, so ticks, fleas and mites can become well established,” Hermance said.

Melanie Piazza, WildCare’s director, expects the hospital to start seeing more animal patients because of the drought—including animals hit by cars as they are forced to travel farther looking for water—and more poisoning incidents.

“As rodents invade more homes, more people (unaware of the consequences) will be putting out rat poison, and the wild animals like hawks, bobcats, and owls that eat poisoned rodents will get poisoned too,” Piazza wrote on the facility’s website. “We strongly advise against the use of rat poisons to control rodent problems.”

Back in Agoura Hills, Anderson said she’s been checking the local animal shelter daily to see if the family’s missing goat will turn up—but she’s not holding out hope.

“They are tiny goats and pretty helpless,” she said. “We’re just kicking ourselves that we didn’t put the goats in the fully enclosed pens at night.” She hopes others can learn from her family’s eye-opening experience.

“I don’t blame the coyotes—they’re just trying to survive, but I hope other people realize your pets are vulnerable, even when you’re home.”