As cities around the world mandate lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing, social media posts about animals frolicking through deserted cities have enchanted people anxiously seeking silver linings.
We must sadly report that many of these optimistic posts have turned out to be fake – there were no dolphins in Venice’s celebrated canals, or drunken elephants ambling through China’s Yunnan province.
But as the coronavirus crisis changes the rhythms of urban life, there are some early signs that animals – especially the creatures that lurk in the periphery of big cities and suburbs – are feeling emboldened to explore.
In Nara, Japan, sika deer wandered through city streets and subway stations. Raccoons were spotted on the beach in an emptied San Felipe, Panama. And turkeys have made a strong showing in Oakland, California, home of one Guardian editor.
“Normally, animals live in the parts of our cities that we don’t use,” said Seth Mangle, who directs the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. “It makes them an unseen presence, kind of like ghosts.”
Gangs of wild turkeys aren’t an uncommon sight in parts of the Bay Area but it seems they’ve got a bit more room to wander through neighborhoods they might not normally visit. Boars have been known to descend upon European cities – but Barcelonans on lockdown have marveled at how the wild animals romp through quiet, deserted streets.
In American cities under shelter in place orders, walks and jogs are one of the few excuses for people to go outside. “It’s going to be a really cool time to spot wildlife,” Mangle said.
In San Felipe, where restaurants and bars have closed and tourist traffic is almost nonexistent, Matt Larsen has noticed some new visitors on the beach near his home. “There were three raccoons, just frolicking along right at the edge of the surf,” said Larsen, the director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “I’ve lived here six years, and it was something I had never seen before.”
The beach, which is right by the presidential palace, is usually kept clear by security guards, said Larsen, who directs the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “But normally there are people all around; the streets are almost always crowded with foreign visitors and Panamanian tourists,” he said.
Larsen, who has been teleworking from home with his wife, was happy to see “nature maintaining itself”, he said. “It was nice to see something a little out of the ordinary.”
Quarantines could continue to affect wildlife in unexpected ways, said Paige Warren, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I’ll be interested in whether creatures like coyotes and foxes start acting more bold in American cities,” she said. At the same time, fewer people in the streets could drive some species away, she said, especially those who subsist on whatever humans feed them – or leave behind in the trash.
That is the case in Nara Park, where the sika deer – which look like Bambi – have grown accustomed to tourists lining up year-round to feed them rice crackers. Now that the park is devoid of human visitors, the deer have begun wandering into the city looking for food. They’ve been spotted crossing city streets and walking through subway stations, snacking on potted plants.
In Lopburi, Thailand, the absence of tourists and their tasty snacks left local monkeys brawling over what appeared to be a cup of yogurt.
But just as many urban animals have adapted to humans, they’ll find ways to adjust during the quarantine, said Warren.
Mangle concurred: “As they said in Jurassic Park, life tends to find a way.” Though his team in Chicago has been working from home and practicing social distancing, Mangle said they were trying to find a way to set up equipment around Chicago for their annual study of urban wildlife and track how the coronavirus crisis may shift animal behavior.
The changes will probably be subtle, the researchers said. Urban foxes and coyotes might venture out of their hiding spots a bit more. Birds might roam, graze and hunt new pastures.
The narrative that wildlife populations will dramatically rebound and retake cities is fantasy – albeit one that might comfort those looking for meaning amidst the crisis. “If anything, these times may serve as a reminder that animals have always lived in our area,” Mangle said. “We may not think of our cities as a part of nature, but they are.”