Stories of wild animals flourishing due to a lack of human activity are spreading virally on social media. From dolphins returning to the Venice canals to drunken elephants draining vats of corn wine in China, these news stories act as a daily dose of happiness. People are searching for signs of hope online because the case numbers are anything but hopeful. This said, it is important that in times of despair we do not propagate false hope. Dolphins have not been seen in Venice canals, and elephants are not passing out in tea gardens. Although these posts are not necessarily harmful, it is an example of greed for virality and social reward taking advantage of vulnerable online users. There are plenty of false headlines regarding the virus itself, and these fake news stories may instigate more distrust. It is also harmful towards our understanding of what is actually happening outside the radius of our homes, and how to move forward. The news has focused primarily on COVID-19’s impact on humans, yet this pandemic has caused plenty of real change in animal behavior and health.
Urban pigeons depend on humans crowding the city because they provide a steady food supply. Their main source of protein comes from intentional feeding, food spillage, and organic waste – all of which have declined since people have gone into isolation. Urban pigeon population is directly related to the human population, and now they are at risk of starvation. Although studies suggest urban pigeons are completely dependent on humans for food, few studies have been done to consider the effects of altering their diet. A German animal rights charity has already organized a campaign to save the thousands of pigeons that are predicted to die from starvation. Pigeons are known to be loyal to their habitat and do not scavenge beyond the city centers, so the charity plans to set up feeding points. Many city residents see pigeons as a pest, but the charity recognizes the species’ importance. Pigeons carry a wealth of information on a local level, and can be key indicators of changes in the environment. They carry out a positive role in urban ecology by eating remains that would otherwise dirty the streets. If their diet is seriously impacted during quarantine and thousands die, urban areas will likely suffer once humans return to their usual habits.
In contrast, wild animals are thriving while humans are in quarantine. The profound emptiness of the streets has sparked curiosity in animals who usually stray further from busy areas. Sika deer have been wandering through city streets and subways likely searching for rice crackers that tourists line up to feed them. Monkeys have been congregating in front of the shops in Thailand, and gangs of wild turkeys have been visiting the neighborhoods of Bay Area, California. The Urban Life Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, IL is currently searching for ways to set up equipment around the city to track how the coronavirus may shift animal behavior. The effects of quarantine will continue to show in the presence of wildlife, and the animals that usually have an unseen presence will likely continue to emerge. An ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is interested in “whether creatures like coyotes and foxes start acting more bold in American cities,” but noting that creatures that subsist on humans, like pigeons, may be driven away. Pigeons and other birds may be forced to graze and hunt in new pastures.
It is important to note that these effects of quarantine were not intentional, and human contact may be more harmful to animals. Virologists are still working to predict which animals are likely potential virus reservoirs since coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted between people and animals. The risk is low, but worth preparing for in order to completely stop the spread.
People want to believe in the power of nature to run its course towards recovery during this pandemic. While optimistic fake news stories may provide happiness and a sense of relief, honesty is crucial during a national pandemic. The country has not experienced anything like this before, and neither has our wildlife.
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