One of the breakout jokes on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the “nature is healing’ meme, which features absurd contradictory images of both real and imaginary animals reclaiming landscapes once occupied by people. From swans in Venice’s canals to dinosaurs roaming downtown New York, social media users have been having fun coming up with strange wildlife encounters in unusual landscapes. After several months of provincial park closures and recommendations to avoid travelling to cottage country in Canada, you may be wondering if there will be an increase in wildlife sightings on trails and roads once restrictions ease. However, as the pandemic has only lasted several months, a very short period on an ecological timescale, it is unlikely you will return to your cottage or favourite park to find an Eden of wandering wildlife.
Patrick Moldowan, Communications Director at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, is skeptical of anecdotal reports of increases in wildlife encounters because of the brief period over which the lockdown has occurred. “For us, it feels like a long time to be trapped in your small home space,” Moldowan says. But with animals, which operate on seasonal and annual cycles, it’s unrealistic to see a change in abundance or behavioural patterns in such a short time.
That said, there could be minor shifts in how wildlife behave following the lockdown. “If we’re not driving large cars and operating heavy machinery,” says Moldowan, “it seems fairly plausible they could be using more roadside habitat” in cottage country.
While our thoughts typically turn to large mammals like moose, elk, foxes, and bears when we think of wildlife encounters, there’s a whole slew of small animals that regularly travel across roads and trail systems, whether or not people are there to see them. In regard to insects, snakes, and turtles throughout the pandemic, Moldowan says, “I suspect that a lot of these animals have gone about their life and habitat-use pattern relatively unchanged. These are animals that when they move across the landscape, I think they’re using human space incidentally.”
And while some mammals shy away from human presence, others are actually drawn to areas with human activity. Benefits like food hand-outs and shelter space in human infrastructure can cause mammals to go where the people are, says Moldowan.
Regardless of the effects of the pandemic, it’s important to remember that human-wildlife conflicts can always occur where people share space with wild animals. As restrictions ease and people start moving back into cottage country and other rural areas, it’s a good time for a refresh on ways to safely co-exist with our animal friends. Moldowan recommends driving slowly on roadways, especially on warm, rainy spring nights when amphibians are moving in large numbers. You should also drive with caution to avoid collisions with large animals like moose and smaller critters like turtles.
A key phrase to remember when enjoying the outdoors is “leave no trace,” says Moldowan. Remember to pack out all food or waste products with you, so that animals don’t become accustomed to using humans as a food dispenser.