Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Unnatural Predators: Helping NYC’s Urban Wildlife
By Johanna Clearfield

Don't feed the Pigeons by Johanna Clearfield
Greenwood Baptist Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn.
 Photo by J. Clearfield

Urban wild.... what?

Ask yourself this question. What is New York City’s position on urban wildlife? Rat poison might come to mind, or those ubiquitous “Please Don’t Feed the Pigeons” signs planted all over the city’s newly privatized and semi-privatized parks. In fact, many people think the term “urban wildlife” sounds like an oxymoron. According to Livi French, Director of Shelter Reform, “NYC has tens of thousands of acres of natural habitat that are home to a variety of eco-systems, each sustaining a unique collection of plant and animal life.” And yet, the overseeing authority for their well-being is—primarily—the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH). If that sounds troubling, it is.

When the DOH took over the animal control reins in 1994, the NYC Animal Care and Control incorporated as a public/private charity with a newly created board of directors, including several Health and Sanitation Commissioners and the Deputy Police Commissioner. To make matters worse, five years ago, the DOH consolidated its Veterinary and Pest Control Services into one office. French says, “Many New Yorkers believe that the DOH is entirely the wrong entity to oversee animal issues because of its mandate to protect human health and its bureaucratic perception that animals exist only as a threat to humans.”

To prove the point: out of its yearly budget of more than $1 billion, the DOH allocated almost $3 million more to pest control contractors—$9.9 million—than to the NYC Animal Care and Control—a paltry $7.2 million.

Who’s in Charge?

Since there is no over-arching program or office for urban wildlife protection, New York City is an uncoordinated crosshatch of public and private interests; local, state and federal working to protect or destroy the urban critters in our midst. While federal laws protect migratory birds and endangered species, they do nothing for our squirrels, raccoons, sparrows, black crows, pigeons or starlings. As a result, cruel and inhumane extermination practices—including illegal trapping, netting, shooting (with dart guns!) and over-the-counter poisons—are rampant.

In a report that recommends the complete eradication of the starling population in New York State, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states, “Starlings are an introduced rather than a native species and are not protected by federal law, nor are they protected by New York State law. Any reduction in starling populations in North America, even to the extent of complete eradication, could be considered beneficial.”

Anne Muller, Director of Wild Watch, commented on the survey saying, “Of all the wildlife ‘management’ agencies, Wildlife Services (part of the USDA) is perhaps the worst because they have no concern for wildlife.” She said, “They operate much like the Department of Health and see animals as merely ‘pests’ to be removed or destroyed in one way or another.” In the same report, Wildlife Services goes on to recommend the outright killing of 9,000 NYC pigeons without any reason or justification other than their being a ‘non-native’ species.

The Demise of Public Parks

In its report, Health and Disparities in NYC, the DOH actually promotes the use of public parks, saying, “Healthy neighborhoods are those with civic resources such as libraries and parks.” How ironic, then, that over the past decade all of New York’s major public parks have become private or semi-private. In her published thesis, The Privatization of Public Space, Paris-based writer and designer Frederique Krupa says, “The public sphere is an incredibly shrinking one. We give owners of semi-private spaces the rights of private property even if they profit at the public’s expense. Limits to their use should be established.”

Without limits, our parks—and the urban critters who live there—are at the mercy of private interests. For example, the newly privatized Bryant Park (Bryant Park Restoration Corporation)—now in partnership with HBO—has demonstrated a preference for ear-splitting spectacles, and last year began planning the installation of bird-repelling steel coils in its trees. Worse still, BPRC may soon demolish the central expanse of the lawn altogether and replace it with a tourist-attracting ice skating rink.

Please Don’t Feed the Pigeons

Historically, New Yorkers have gone to the park to feed the birds. The Humane Society even states, “Providing food for wild birds will help the winter pass more comfortably for them, while adding interest and activity to your winter days...you’ll have the added pleasure of recognizing many of the birds as individuals.” And, although there are no actual laws against feeding pigeons, the DOH can—and does—issue fines, anywhere from $75 to $150, citing Health Code Section 3.11; Abatement of Nuisance.

Ironically, it was the DOH that stated, in an internal memo, “We have no documented cases of communicable disease transmitted from pigeons to humans.” According to Guy Hodge of the Humane Society of the U.S., “the danger is an exaggeration created by pest control companies looking for business.”

Still, community boards, building commissioners, NYC police, urban park rangers, and real estate managers all prohibit feeding pigeons. Some co-op leases even specify, “No pigeons or other birds or animals shall be fed from the window sills, or in the yard, court spaces or other public portions of the building, or on the sidewalk or street adjacent to the building.”

As a result, the pigeon population in NYC has actually increased. Pigeons, brought to this country in the 1600s are feral domestic birds—they do not eat insects and are hardest hit by “no-feed” policies. In order to compensate for higher mortality rates they reproduce more rapidly. While a pigeon’s natural life span is actually 30 years, the one or two years they manage to survive in NYC are, for the most part, miserable. Wildlife rehabilitators report an epidemic rate of emaciation and sickness related to starvation. And while the DEC prohibits the outright killing or poisoning of these birds, they do nothing to manage, protect or care for them.

Even the dreaded USDA admits that “Complete eradication of NYC pigeons may not be beneficial...as many New Yorkers find them to be aesthetically pleasing.” In fact, Cornell University even has an entire program for school kids devoted to celebrating their diversity, “Project Pigeon Watch.”

The Hook

While the government estimates at least 80,000 pigeons make their home here, NYC does not have one rescue or rehabilitation facility. In fact, a case could be made that “undue burden” is placed on compassionate individuals who feel obliged to fill the gap. While an average veterinarian charges $50 to examine a companion animal, the Animal Medical Center—one of the few animal hospitals that treats pigeons—charges $144 per bird.

According to Garo Alexanian, founder of the Companion Animal Network, pigeon and pigeon-friendly folks have got to find a way to work with the city. “The city may very well be a supporter of a plan to minimize the pigeon population on city streets and instead direct flocks to public parks.” In fact, programs like these have already been discussed by wildlife rehabilitators like Jill Doornick, founder of Animal Nation, who has been touting the idea of strategic “pigeon lofts”—regulated healthy feeding areas—for years. Many experts agree that a relatively inexpensive pigeon management program could humanely and effectively reduce NYC’s pigeon population.

Right now, New York’s two major animal rescue groups, the ASPCA and the NYCACC are off-limits to pigeons. However, Ed Boks—NYCACC’s compassionate but under-funded Director—does hope to open at least one wildlife rehabilitation facility in our town. In order to do this, he will have to establish it as a separate 501(c)3 facility—and keep it apart from any public funding.

Hope

As disconnected and flawed as NYC’s current urban wildlife management is, New Yorkers are demonstrating a surge of interest in reclaiming public green spaces and re-instating wildlife. The recent defeat of the West Side Stadium reflected New York’s refusal to funnel public money into private coffers. Even more exciting, a recent plan to erect a five-foot fence around Washington Square Park has been shouted down by grassroots activists. And it was largely through hawk-friendly protests, combined with expert media outreach by the NYC Audubon Society, that helped place two imperiled red tail-hawks on the front pages of the New York Times and back in their rightful nest.

In addition, larger, organized efforts, such as the Parks Department’s Forever Wild Program, have been established to protect and preserve the most ecologically valuable lands within the five boroughs. And, NYC Audubon’s Natural Areas Initiative is currently working to “ensure long-term protection and management of the natural areas of New York City...[including] 12,000 acres of estuaries, forests, ponds and other habitats.”

In 2002, one 14 year-old girl triggered an initiative, transforming the entire city of Boulder Colorado into a wild bird sanctuary. If one girl was able to do that much surely we New Yorkers can do better.

Johanna Clearfield is a dedicated animal advocate who, during the course of this article, rescued a dozen more distressed critters. In addition to founding the Urban Wildlife Coalition-NYC (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ urban_wildlife_coalition_NYC/), she hopes to establish urban wildlife sanctuaries in NYC. Two great urban wildlife resources are New Paltz-based Wildlife Watch (http://www.wildwatch.org/; 845-256-1400) and the most active grassroots pigeon rescue group in town, New York City Pigeon Rescue Central (http://http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NYCPRC/).