Grabbing an Alligator by the Tail—Challenges and Resources for the Human-Wildlife Interface

AVMA Welfare Focus Newsletter - Featured Article - August 2011

David S. Miller, DVM, PhD, DACZM; Mark E. Tobin, PhD; Sharman Hoppes, DVM, DABVP (Avian)

Pumas and coyotes roaming Los Angeles neighborhoods. Bats in the attic. Alligators in Texas ponds. And, deer eating roses in Oregon backyards, not to mention Canada geese fouling ponds and lawns with feces. These are all examples of wildlife that have learned to cope with life in cites and suburbia, and that sometimes thrive there. In many cases, wildlife is a welcome neighbor that enriches our urban environments. Occasionally, it is a nuisance or worse. Often, people have unrealistic expectations of how animals should behave, or underestimate the potential for problems. When challenges to a peaceful co-existence arise, where should people turn for help?

First, it is important to understand that wild animals are wild. They should not be approached, handled, or adopted as pets whether they are young or adult. Feeding wildlife is generally not advisable because of the risk of disease transmission among wildlife and to people. Feeding wildlife can also lead to their inappropriate dependence on unnatural food and animals that get into trouble because of their close proximity and acclimation to humans. When human and wildlife interests conflict, wild animals usually lose. In general, acclimated wildlife in urban settings is vulnerable to injury, death, and disease due to human activities and high concentrations of animals and people.

Veterinarians sometimes are contacted about wildlife that is diseased, injured, adopted, or present a threat to people, pets, or property. The public naturally expects veterinarians to know what to do in such situations, because of their training and expertise in animal health and care. However, veterinary education does not always include substantive training in handling and treating wildlife. In addition, few veterinarians receive training in wildlife management, and therefore have limited knowledge of population management or strategies for resolving conflicts between humans and wildlife. Consequently, veterinarians need to keep several things in mind as they address these situations. First, they should be aware of basic wildlife handling methods and means of protecting human safety when veterinary intervention is required. Second, multiple laws apply to the handling of wildlife, including federal statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state, local and tribal laws that may restrict private ownership of wildlife. Failure to abide by these regulations can lead to fines or other disciplinary actions. Finally, there are situations where the most appropriate responders may be federal, state, or extension biologists; private pest-control operators; or licensed rehabilitators. Enlisting the involvement of professionals with the knowledge and training to handle wildlife challenges maximizes the odds of a good outcome for both wildlife and people.

Where can veterinarians find additional information and help for dealing with wildlife?

  • Local and state wildlife agencies can help for most mammals and some non-migratory bird species. A Web search will help you locate their Web sites and phone numbers for inquiries.
  • The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) can be contacted for concerns regarding migratory birds and threatened and endangered species. The USFWS also has a law enforcement branch.
  • Local natural history museums and extension services often have wildlife biologists who can offer advice.
  • USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services biologists in every state can be contacted for assistance. Their mission is to "provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist."
  • Pest control operators, such as those who are members of the National Wildlife Control Operators Association, can assist with many local wild animal control concerns.
  • Wildlife rehabilitators can help with orphaned and injured animals, and some other wildlife situations. They can often be identified by contacting local governmental agencies or animal-related organizations or The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
  • An excellent source of information on the biology of species of wildlife commonly encountered in urban-wildlife conflicts, as well as guidance on prevention and control of damage, is Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Vols 1 and 2. Hygnstrom SE, Timm RM, Larson GE, eds. Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1994.

Remember, wildlife is wild, and the welfare of these animals can be compromised by inappropriate contact with people. Wildlife usually loses in close human-wildlife interactions. Recognizing wildlife's wildness and knowing where to turn for help can assist in ensuring a respectful co-existence.

Related Publications

Conference papers and journal articles

Hesse G. Urban ungulate conflict analysis. In proceedings, Human dimensions of natural resource Management, October 6-7 2010. Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada: Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology.
Full text:

Paquet PC, Darimont CT. Wildlife conservation and animal welfare: two sides of the same coin? Animal Welfare 2010;19:177-190.
Full text:

Palphramand K, Walker N, McDonald R, et al. Evaluating seasonal bait delivery to badgers using rhodamine B. European Journal of Wildlife Research 2011;57:35-43.
Full text:


Adams CE, Lindsey KJ. Urban wildlife management Boca Raton, Florida: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010.

Braun CE. Techniques for wildlife investigations and management Bethesda, Maryland: The Wildlife Society, 2005.

Conover M. Resolving human-wildlife conflicts: the science of wildlife damage management. Boca Raton, Florida: Lewis Publishers, 2002.

Decker DJ, Raik DB, Siemer WF. Human wildlife conflict management: a practitioner's guide. Ithaca, New York: Northeast Wildlife Damage Management Research and Outreach Cooperative, 2004.

DeNicola AJ. Managing white-tailed deer in suburban environments: a technical guide. Ithaca, New York: Cornell Cooperative Extension, 2000.

DeStafano S. Coyote at the kitchen door: living with wildlife in suburbia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Douglas I, Goode D, Houck M, et al. eds. The Routledge handbook of urban ecology New York: Routledge, 2011.

Feinstein J. Field guide to urban wildlife: common animals of cities & suburbs how they adapt & thrive Mechanicsburg, Penn: Stackpole Books, 2011.
The author's blog about urban wildlife is available at

Gehrt SD, Riley SPD, Cypher BL, eds. Urban carnivores: ecology, conflict, and conservation Baltimore, Maryland:The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Manfredo MJ, Vaske JJ, Brown PJ, et al. Wildlife and society: the science of human dimensions. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009.

Smith AE, Craven SR, Curtis PD. Managing Canada geese in urban environments: a technical guide. Ithaca, New York: Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1999.

« Back to AVMA Welfare Focus Newsletter Library