I first met Mary Ann Bonnell in 2011 when my wife and I attended a talk she gave at REI entitled “Sex, Lies and Rattlesnakes”. Based on the title alone you know she’s an entertaining and fun speaker! And yes, she is tall (you’ll see the connection as you read her answers)! Back then she worked for the City of Aurora as a Senior Natural Resources Specialist and has since moved on to Jefferson County (a giant county west of Denver) as Visitor Services Supervisor in their wonderful Open Space program. I tracked her down for this very cool and honest Q&A. Thanks, Mary Ann!
- How did you become interested in wildlife?
Two things really took my average interest in wildlife to next level. One was a habit, which was art. I loved drawing and I would draw pictures of very nearly every creature I got to see in the wild as well as ones I really wanted to see, such as coral and anemones. As a kid, drawing sent me to field guides and books, where I read more about the animals I’d seen. The observation > illustration > research cycle fed on itself. I was hooked! I also credit a single vole with my ongoing love for observing and learning more about wildlife. I think I was about seven when we went camping near a lake. I was sitting on a rock watching, what I thought was, a mouse. It jumped in the water and started swimming around. I was stunned. I became acutely interested in all of this little animal’s business after that moment. I staked it out from my rock and observed it for hours a day. I found its hole and I even snapped a photo of it, which I still keep at my desk to this day. I had so many questions about this little animal. Many of them I was able to answer just by watching it from my rock. At the end of the trip, I did not want to leave my vole.
- In your experience, what are the most common complaints from residents about wildlife?
Generally, complaints come from property damage or fear. Many people complain about damage from mice, rabbits, deer and raccoons. This is understandable. I have experienced property damage due to wildlife, so I get the concern, I just don’t get the complaining to someone else about it. For example, I just moved into a new condo and woke to find a raccoon had urinated on my dog’s bed on the balcony overnight. Not pleasant, but completely my fault. It would never occur to me to call the city I live in and somehow make that occurrence their fault or call my local representative and demand that they do something about raccoon urinating. I just need to remember to put the dog bed in the storage closet during the night. If that does not work, I probably need to leave a light on or deploy some other deterrents that would discourage a raccoon from visiting my balcony.
Fear is a bigger and more complex issue. I completely understand being fearful of some species and some situations with wildlife. In the past year, I have had a close call with my dog and a coyote and a very close call with my hand and a prairie rattlesnake. The danger to my dog and my hand, in both instances, were very real. Were both instances my fault? Yes. Did I follow my own advice to avoid each situation? No. And this only begins to touch on the complexity of the fear and wildlife complaints issue. Again, it would not occur to me to call the golf course I was on and complain about the coyote and demand that it be removed. I changed my behavior and decided it was a really bad idea to walk my 30# dog on the dark golf course at 4:45 a.m., even if my dog is on a leash. We took to suburban streets for nighttime strolls following our close call. Nearly one year later, I have not strayed from my new rule for dog walking.
On the rattlesnake side, I was talking with a park visitor and reached down to grab a beer bottle someone had littered next to the parking area. Before I could change my mind, a rattlesnake darted away from the bottle as I grabbed for it. I could, just as easily, decided to strike. Instead, it darted just about 18” away and started to rattle. In this instance, I failed to follow my own advice, which is to look before you reach or point in rattlesnake country. This is not the first time I have had a close call with a venomous creature. Calling to complain is not the first thing that comes to mind. Changing my behavior does. You can bet that all trash removal from that day forward has been aided by a trash picker!
- What are the most important steps you wish everyone would take to coexist with wildlife and coyotes in particular?
I started to hint at this in the previous response. I think it is important to look at our behavior first. Lots of folks don’t like this answer. I just worked an event last weekend where we were approached with the question, “How do I get mice to leave my garden?” I asked the woman who asked the question if she had bird feeders in her garden. She replied, “Yes. And, don’t ask me to get rid of my bird feeders. I am not going to do that.” Hmmm… Does anyone else see the problem here?
When it comes to coyotes, I have encountered a lot of folks that are unwilling to adjust behavior to avoid conflict. A big one is directly supervising pets in yards, particularly at dusk, dawn and after dark. I know of three households where one pet was injured or killed by coyotes in the yard and the owner failed to adjust behavior only to have a second pet injured or killed. One woman called me at 3:10 a.m. and exclaimed that coyotes had just killed her cat on her back porch for the third time. In my mind, this person should be cited for abuse and/or neglect and not be allowed to adopt any additional animals. It may not be convenient to keep your cat indoors or supervise your dog in the yard, but it is the safest option. Period.
I am not implying that changing human behavior is the answer to all conflict. There are some animals that, for whatever reason, take on anomalous and unsafe behavior. In these situations where there is a real threat to human health and safety, removal has to be considered.
- I have read that many experts recommend hazing any coyote that people come across. I understand the concept but that seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach and reinforces the idea that wildlife is a dangerous thing. No doubt coyotes can be dangerous, but do you encourage hazing as a matter of course? Will a habituated coyote inevitably come into conflict with people?
I don’t agree with the idea that people should haze every coyote they come across. The occasion to haze is contextual. It is not black and white. Here are the situations where I think hazing is in order:
Coyotes that directly engage humans should be hazed. For example, if I am walking my dog on a leash and a coyote looks right at me and starts to escort us as we travel, I think that coyote should be hazed, if for no other reason than to maintain a safe distance. If I am strolling along on an urban trail next to a pond and a coyote comes out of the cattails just in front of me and stands and stares at me, that coyote should probably be hazed as it is showing a level of comfort with people that makes me uncomfortable as a manager.
Coyotes that are exploring or loitering in an inappropriate location such as a backyard or playground should be hazed. They may not know it is an inappropriate location, but they potentially can be taught this through aversive conditioning.
The most intense hazing I have done was when I was riding my bike around a local reservoir and a coyote looked at me, trotted right up to the edge of the road where I was headed, dropped a pocket gopher right in my path and looked up at me without moving as I approached. I was not about to ride right past this animal. I imagined food guarding behavior or worse, so I stopped, got off my bike and used my bike as a hazing tool to move the coyote away from the road. I knew other cyclists and vehicles were coming, so I continued to haze the coyote away from the road until it was clear of the area. I felt this was the safest course of action for both the coyote and other park users.
Coyotes that are engaged in normal coyote behavior in an appropriate location should not be hazed. One of our coyote watch volunteers noted a coyote hunting rodents in a field more than three blocks from the trail. Three visitors had stopped to observe it. I don’t think this coyote needs to be hazed. It is exhibiting normal behavior in an appropriate setting. Let it be.
5. In Predator Paradox by John Shivik you accuse some advocacy groups of “creating controversy for contributions.” Can you expand on that?
I don’t recall saying it exactly in that way. A comment along those lines might have stemmed from being bullied by species advocacy groups for specific management actions. For example, I received a call from a resident following a targeted removal of a coyote in my jurisdiction. The caller indicated that she knew about the removal, that she had called several news outlets and that I should expect extensive media coverage on the issue. She also indicated that she had contacted other members of her group in the community and they would also be calling the media and me. When I returned her call and engaged her in a conversation about urban coyote management and the complexities associated with it, she told me that she had been letting her dog play off leash with the coyotes in her community for months, very likely making her a contributor to the dangerous interactions between coyotes and humans (including one bite to an adult female) in her neighborhood. Some species advocacy groups rely on bullying public servants to get media attention and get agencies to back off from important management actions due to fear of negative, one-sided press related to the action. Wildlife management actions come from a complexity of management triggers, which don’t lend themselves to a quick bite on the local evening news. It is often more dramatic and efficient to cover one vocal resident with an emotional stance than a manager or agency with a reasoned, data-driven set of metrics.
6. If wolves (or even grizzlies) were to repopulate Colorado, what do you think would be the number one factor contributing to their continued presence?
I am not sure. I have not studied either species enough to comment intelligently on the issue. I do think that, when it comes to individual species success, it is all about habitat. As long as wolves have access to appropriate habitat and they are afforded some protection from over harvesting, they should be able to succeed.
7. What role do you see the media playing in the way predators are perceived by the general public?
As I stated previously, it is far more interesting and efficient to make any story emotionally charged. Emotion sells much better than facts. So, I get why things are covered the way they are. It does not mean I have to like it. I would love to see even just a few facts thrown in with the emotion. I have been known to shout at the screen, begging for just one more sentence about prevention or behavior change toward reducing conflict. I don’t know how many missed opportunities there are, but there are many. Just one more sentence about the safety afforded by a leashed pet, securing trash or direct supervision would make me stop yelling and being forever disappointed. I would love for a reporter to look into the camera and say, “Please remember that coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. Your pets, however, need your help protecting them from coyotes. Please go outside with your dog in the yard. Don’t rely on your fence to protect your dog from local coyotes. It may not work. Please keep your house cat in the house.” Even something that simple would blow me away and make me feel like the coverage is actually accomplishing something rather than generating more fear and anger. Just a simple statement like that puts the risk in perspective and gives the viewer some simple actions they can take to reduce risk.
8. Changing gears slightly, please tell us about your work with rattlesnakes.
I was a volunteer research assistant for a mark and recapture and radio-telemetry study of a population of prairie rattlesnakes in Aurora, CO. The lead researcher, Bryon Shipley, recruited me because of my height. Apparently, being tall makes it easier to see the rattlesnake before it sees you. That’s the trick when you are trying to briefly capture prairie rattlesnakes so you can take a variety of measurements and get a PIT tag on board. Prairie rattlesnakes readily avoid people, given the opportunity to do so. We had to master the art of “sneaking up” on them so we get them away from their escape cover and get them to slither into our handling tubes. I helped for three summers and learned a lot about rattlesnakes, the prairie and myself. I think what fascinated me the most about the species was the way they manage their energy budget, down to the way they would arrange themselves in the light and darkness of a prairie dog burrow opening.
9. You recently changed jobs. How have your duties and responsibilities changed?
Yes! Life offered a tremendous opportunity for me to return to the Front Range foothills and montane zone and I seized it! I am now the Visitor Services Supervisor for Jefferson County Open Space. I am the supervising ranger for a team of 15 fantastically dedicated park rangers. I also assist with public education and outreach related to visitor safety, resource protection and individual stewardship. My previous experience with coyotes, rattlesnakes and prairie dogs has come in handy in this new role. With 24 parks and somewhere around 50,000 acres and 220 miles of trail to patrol, we definitely have visitors and their pets interacting with wildlife. Most of it is very positive!
10.What would you like to get involved with or study next?
We’ve had three moose sightings in our parks since I started four months ago. I think I need to study up on moose and how to reduce human-pet-moose conflict. I think it is only a matter of time before moose are “regulars” in our system. Moose are notoriously intolerant of off leash dogs, so I think we will really need to step up public education on yet another really good reason to keep your dog on a leash while you enjoy your local open space. Also, since Bryon’s rattlesnake study was focused on rattlesnakes that are associated with black-tailed prairie dog burrows for winter hibernacula, I would love to do a comparative study on prairie rattlesnakes that live at higher elevation and hibernate in rock formations rather than prairie dog burrows. I think it would be fascinating to compare their movements and how they manage their energy budget differently, if at all.
11.In your years of dealing with wildlife is there an incident or particular animal that sticks in your mind?
Yes. I was on duty when a young man was attacked by a mountain lion at Roxborough State Park (April 1998). I remember hearing about the attack and seeing Andy for the first time as he emerged on the trail in front of me. He had blood all over his face from two wounds to his forehead, very likely from the canine teeth of the lion. I was on scene to interview Andy & provide first aid until the helicopter arrived to take him to a local hospital where he completely recovered from his encounter. I remember all the negative press mountain lions and our beautiful park got following that event. I remember thinking about it when I found a mountain lion deer kill site while on patrol on Christmas Day. The lion’s tracks were visible in the snow, so I took off my skis and measured the distance between track sets, which was 22 feet. The hair still raises on the back of my neck when I think about counting out 22 and looking back up toward the Lyons Formation with a clear visual of a lion headed for a deer just hours ago. After that, I always sang as I headed to my car alone in the dark at the end of my shift with the rock formations towering above me. I had a similar experience looking at a deer carcass in Sampson Gulch in extreme southeast Aurora. A park employee had reported that the kill did not look like the work of coyotes. My colleague and I were investigating the dead deer. He pulled back the skin on the neck to reveal two clean puncture wounds at about the spot a lion would grab a deer with the intent to bring it down. I looked up and there were ponderosa pines towering over us. Once again, I got the chills thinking about a lion perched up in one of those trees waiting for darkness to fall so it can have safe access to its kill. I covered the back of my neck with my hand, like that was supposed to make me feel better. All this and I have never seen a mountain lion in the wild. I am constantly reminded of their hunting skills and I am a bit haunted by the thought of running into one. It is probably just fine that I’ve never seen one. I am certain they have seen me and that is what makes the hair on my neck rise when I think about it. It is something I can’t control. All I can do is respect my innate fear and sing when I am particularly creeped out.
12. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to respond to these questions. If any readers wish to engage with additional questions, comments, cusses, or corrections, I would be more than happy to continue the conversation.