Despite COVID-19, This Earth Day Brings Animals Closer to Human Society

Sheltering in place during the pandemic has had dramatic impacts on various wildlife, raising questions about our relationship with animals in urban spaces.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, a coyote enjoys the sunshine in the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a popular destination usually crowded with tourists. (Credit: Becca Cook, on Instagram @mostlydogsandmountains, April 10, 2020.)

Two months into a global pandemic, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on human society. But outside of the monumental human suffering and disruption to our livelihoods, Earth continues to turn at the same rate, and the natural ecosystem continues to operate as it normally does. Except this time, the human influence on the natural environment is noticeably less present. As a result, urban wildlife and other animals have been impacted in different and unprecedented ways.

In the context of the tragedy that is this pandemic, many have reported on the increased presence of animals and wildlife in human spaces as a result of shelter-in-place policies:

Lions nap on a tourist road in Kruger National Park in South Africa, taking advantage of humans sheltering in place from the Coronavirus pandemic. (Credit: Kruger National Park, on Twitter @SANParksKNP, April 15, 2020.)

(Note that some similar stories you may have heard about animals during the Coronavirus pandemic are untrue. Natasha Daly with National Geographic debunks false COVID-19 stories of dolphins in the canals of Venice Italy, drunken elephants in a village in Yunnan, China, and an orangutan in a Florida sanctuary washing her hands with soap to mimic her keepers. You can read her articles here and here.)

However, other species of animals have been or may be negatively impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, in the same or different ways than humans:

My reaction to this news is to think about the different ways that human activity impacts wildlife, and which impacts might we take for granted. Our mere physical presence alone deters many species of animals from even being seen in or near our habitats. The various externalities we impose on the world’s ecosystems have a tangible impact on many species, even in more remote places. Other species rely on us for survival, so any catastrophes that impair our ability to take appropriate conservation actions could threaten extinction. And as the pandemic has shown, all of these human impacts can change relatively quickly when the extent of human activity diminishes suddenly and drastically.

More narrowly, the stories of animals exploring some of the areas we typically occupy raises questions about the role of wildlife in urban environments. For example, what efforts—if any—should we take to make spaces more habitable for wildlife? More broadly, can urban spaces simultaneously function as viable habitat for both humans and animals? Should they?

I’m not sure I have answers to these questions or others, but they fit into the general topic of my previous post about equity in access to urban parks or green spaces. In many ways, human access to parks is a similar issue to access to natural habitat for urban wildlife. Each is relevant to the question of what our role should be in the urban environment—and what an ideal urban environment even should look like.

Note that the City of Los Angeles is actively seeking to address the issue of urban habitat in its Green New Deal, which has a chapter called Urban Ecosystems & Resilience that seeks to create more green space and habitat both inside and outside developed areas. In light of the effects of sheltering in place during the pandemic, I now wonder how the city’s strategy might be able to incorporate measures to create more opportunities for animals to live in harmony with humans in our urban spaces.

Although the Coronavirus pandemic has  been a tragedy for human society, the effects of the pandemic on wildlife provide an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with animals in a sustainable urban future.

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Benjamin Harris is the Shapiro Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law for 2019-2021. He previously clerked for the Honorable Stephen V. Wilson for t…

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