Helping Your Neighbors Learn to Love Wildlife

I received an email from my friend, Lisa Gustavson at Get in the Garden, which, while sad, gives us an opportunity to to come together to  brainstorm solutions. The email said:

Thank you for letting me bend your ear! I’m growing a bit frustrated and thought you may be able to share a bit of wisdom. Spring hasn’t even arrived and the neighbors (we are friends as well) are plotting to remove the “wild animals” from the area. Mind you the “wildest” animal that has appeared is a small fox and I was THRILLED! We have possums, woodchucks, deer and a slew of snakes and other small critters. It’s quite the little habitat. :-)

At first I don’t think anyone really “noticed” them. As others have begun to plant gardens etc. the populations are increasing and the neighbors aren’t thrilled. Bugs=bad enough, wild animals=BAD. I’m working to educate them, I’ve been on a soapbox for months. I’ve seen possums shot (yes, quite illegal in our town) and woodchucks trapped with the same fatal intention. We were able to get the trap and transport the animals to a local park instead. I was aware at the time that the odds of survival were not good, but not good is better than none.

I’m stumped! We’re in what was once an agricultural town which is now undergoing a population explosion. Of course the natural habitats of many animals has been destroyed and they’re looking for a safe place to live. Our yard is not huge (1/2 acre total) but being the only one on the street with mostly gardens it naturally attracts everything. How do we create a peaceful co-existence here? I can’t stand the thought that every animal that shows up is going to be removed, trapped or killed if we’re not here to stop it. Any advice is greatly appreciated…though we’ve been living with “critters” for a few years I think we’ve been found out.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, I’d love to hear any ideas you have!

My first response: I would be so thrilled to see a fox in my neighborhood!

Why do we kill what we do not like?

I am very saddened that we live in a world where our first response is to kill what we don’t understand, don’t like, or are afraid of. We see this tendency in bug zappers, pesticides, and shooting opossums, coyotes, wolves, snakes, and raccoons. We say “That critter is some kind of inconvenience to me, so let me kill it.”

We are killing in more subtle ways, too. In our continual march toward “progress” and “development” we are killing all manner of wildlife by destroying their habitat and leaving them no place to go.

All too often gardeners who want to reverse this trend by giving something back to wildlife are met with resistance, anger, and rules to prohibit this behavior.

I have a friend who has been fighting her township for years because she has a wildflower garden in her front yard. Because it is not the traditional lawn, her neighbors continue to file complaints against her with the township, who in turn proceed to levy fines and directives to get rid of the “eyesore which may harbor rats.”  Never mind that this meadow is full of many different kind of beautiful butterflies from spring through fall.

How do we educate our neighbors, and help them to at least respect wildlife if not learn to love it?

Here’s some things I’ve done to encourage more respect for wildlife:

  • When I divide my native perennials, I make gifts for my neighbors and always tell them “This one is really great for butterflies” or “Hummingbirds just love this” They may not care about that, but they appreciate the gift and plant them in their yards.
  • I talk to the neighborhood kids and show them birds nests, baby birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, or any of the other critters in our neighborhood. Kelly Senser talked about nurturing the Sense of Wonder with her kids, and I try to do that with all of the children in the neighborhood. Adults may be less likely to kill what their children love.
  • Most of my neighbors use Facebook, and ironically we often have more communication this way than any other way, especially in the winter. My status updates are often about the wildlife in my yard: the first hummingbird of the season is at my feeder; there is a pair of Eastern Screech Owls calling back and forth; a Monarch Butterfly emerged from its chrysalis today, etc. Some of my neighbors have been inspired to ask me how they can see wildlife in their yards, too.
  • I lobby the city to stop mowing the medians and roadside edges and especially to stop spraying them. Seems like a win-win to me: the city saves money and wildlife gets some habitat. We have won that argument several times.

These are just a few suggestions for enlisting your neighbors to create habitat for wildlife and educate them on how to help wildlife instead of killing it.

But that is just the beginning. This is a conversation that needs to happen around the country, and can definitely benefit from the wisdom of all of you. So how would you answer Lisa’s question? What have you done in your neighborhood?

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  1. says

    Lisa, it sounds like you have a wonderful garden. How exciting to have all those critters nearby!

    As to the problem, I don’t have any real suggestions. I think there are 2 barriers you are facing. People are scared of things they don’t understand. Some critters do damage property and/or can be harmful to people – I don’t think anyone wants them inside the home. Mice chewed telephone cables inside my home one time. Chewed power cables would be a fire risk (some rodents will do this). Squirrels have chewed my deck and a concrete board windowsill. Birds nesting in the attic bring in things like silverfish and carpet beetles. In the Kansas countryside wood rats (packrats) are a problem – they nest inside parked vehicles and within 1 week can cause significant damage through chewing cables. One person I heard of had a vehicle fire caused by this. Another had damage to their brake cable. Most people would rather just not have to deal with critters near their home on top of all the other things they are taking care of. This is where the second factor comes in, value system. If your value system does not include respecting and appreciating wildlife then why would you be open to dealing with risk from it?

    That doesn’t solve any of your problem, does it?
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last blog ..Why Do You Garden? =-.

  2. says

    Lisa, why exactly do your neighbours want the animals removed?

    If the animals are actually causing problems (e.g. racoons turning over garbage cans and making a huge mess) maybe you could help your neighbours find better ways to prevent the problems?

    On the other hand, if they have unrealistic fears (e.g. that a garter snake is a danger to their kids or pets) you could educate them a bit?

    Removing or killing the animals is not just unethical, it is not going to work, as more will just come in to take their places. Hopefully you can find a way to help your neighbours peacefully co-exist with them.

    Alison, when I was too young to remember, we had a flying squirrel living in our home (came on its own, not a pet), and it wasn’t a problem. My mom photographed it sitting in our Christmas tree!
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Probably not Zizia aurea seedlings =-.

  3. says

    No, but you raise valid points that are right on! I agree about the inconvenience, we’ve had mice chew under the siding and get inside…cats took care of that. That also illustrates what’s happening outside. Rabbits and mice showed up first when we began planting. Now we have possums, snakes, a fox, deer, woodchucks, a weasel and a falcon. All of which eat mice among other things.I believe that over time the eco-system balances itself…if human intervention would let it. Most of our neighbors are from what I call the “Raid generation”. Have bugs? Spray them. Mice? Get poison. Large animals? Pellet guns. So many have become disconnected from nature’s life-cycle! I feel like I’m luring wildlife to its impending death by having gardens in the yard. It’s so unfair…

    • says

      “I believe that over time the eco-system balances itself…if human intervention would let it.”

      Yes, I agree, but not to a complete extent. Natural systems will balance themselves, but when we throw our own stuff into the system we then need to expend energy/time/money to control. For instance, we might supply wood rats with great homes in the form of a stationary vehicle. There might be snakes nearby which feed on the wood rats, but that is no comfort to the vehicle owner who’s brake cables will be chewed if there is no physical barrier to entry. Now the vehicle owner can: take the “bomb” approach and try and wipe out every wood rat; pay to build a wood rat proof garage to house the vehicle; or give up driving.

    • Carole Brown says

      “The Raid Generation” is quite funny as a description, but sadly names a practice that comes, as you’ve said, from a disconnection from nature.

      Yes, the ecosystem balanced itself for millenia, until we humans took it upon ourselves to cover the face of the earth with non-porous paving, introduce all manner of invasive organisms, and destroy all wildlife habitat. Now ecosystems are having a much harder time achieving any kind of balance.

      The sad fact is, that for many species of wildlife, our gardens are the only place left for them to go. And this is the crux of the problem as many folks consider all wildlife to be garden pests.

  4. says

    True, of course, we are accounable for the “homes” we provide to wildlife. We haven’t had any complaints of nuisance or damage, there’s just the prevailing notion that yards and wildlife don’t mix… if wildlife shows up it needs to be removed. As a wider variety of animals move into the neighborhood (others are planting gardens now) I fear reckless and unnecessary killing. I LOVE the link Rosemary! Thank you!! I ‘m going to share it with our friends and neighbors and maybe we can learn together! :-)
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Why I Garden =-.

    • Carole Brown says

      Lisa, sometimes I find that attempting to educate my neighbors is just too exhausting and often pointless. But then one neighbor will express interest, and I become so excited it wipes all those other feelings away. I try to focus on those good events as much as I can.

  5. says

    Small success! I’ve had an opportunity to share this discussion with one friend/neighbor and we were able to agree on a few points. Taking the time to observe the fauna as well as the flora teaches us so much! She has agreed to wait and watch before acting when wildlife appears in her yard. I may have found an ally! That’s how it starts…one person at a time. (I do believe in miracles…I think that helps!!)
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Flower Power =-.

  6. says

    It is one of those areas I do feel so hopeless at times, but once in a while I see a glimmer of hope. I really like the idea of educating children. Nothing like a little guerrilla tactics ;-) Education will have to be the long term solution, but for the short term, where there is a direct and immediate danger to the life of wild animals. The only thing that I can think of (other than what you say about removing the trap and releasing an animal) is to maybe surreptitiously spray a neighbor’s yard with some kind of odorous repellent, or get them to do it. I believe there are some sprays which deter various types of animals. Not the easiest or cheapest way, alas, but all I can come up with.

    Unfortunately education often needs to appeal to the person’s own interests for it to work, like the fact that killing wildlife will upset the natural balance and be of long-term damage to all life on earth, including man. As long as man sees himself as something separate from the rest of the animal kingdom and nature, it is an uphill struggle and probably a loosing battle. Still, we soldier on, one convert at a time. Hopefully we’ll reach critical mass for it to turn around.

    I am really glad there are people like you to help make a difference. Thanks.
    .-= judyofthewoods´s last blog ..Other bits of News =-.

    • says

      (I’m not proud to admit I have sprayed repellents late at night while the neighbors are away.) Today (2/23) an elderly neighbor friend stopped over. He stayed for 3 hours and we talked among other things about wildlife in my yard. In the time he was over he mentioned 5 different bird species he saw out the window as well as rabbit tracks. When I told him of the deer and other animals he asked HOW TO GET THEM IN HIS YARD! Yes, today was a small gift for me. We’re not alone in this! I think education is key as well as teaching tolerance. Hooray!
      .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Winter Interest Wednesday =-.

      • Carole Brown says

        Lisa, I so love your gentle approach! Yay, you for teaching your neighbors in such a wonderful way.

        I don’t think we can win people over by being some kind of in your face eco-dictator. That’s not a way to make friends at all. I want to find ways to encourage people to take whatever small steps they can: plant one native plant, put up one hummingbird feeder, make a wildlife pond not a koi pond. These small steps usually encourage people to want to make another step, and another after that. I want to be able to celebrate every one of these small steps.

  7. says

    Many people are turning to organic ways of dealing with pests, so that it does not harm the environment, but there aren’t really any alternatives for dealing with pests without killing them.

    • Carole Brown says

      Parson, I think you may just be a little biased because you are an exterminator. Not knocking that at all, but killing wildlife is never on my list of options. I’m hopeful that many others will remove killing from their list of options too.

  8. says

    I just recently found the Ecosystem Gardening website but Carole seems to be my long lost twin when it comes to opinions about gardening for wildlife. I think this site is wonderful!

    I think that the best thing we can do is to continue to set a good example for our neighbors. It took awhile for re-usable shopping bags to catch on, but they did. Hopefully, wildlife friendly landscapes will follow suit.

    Below is an excerpt from the book How to Take Care of Your Share of the Planet

    How to Influence Others
     Educate Your Neighbors. Adjacent yards with wildlife habitats are even more effective. Share seeds, cuttings and informa-tion with neighbors that are interested in creating their own habitat.
     Share your stories, your pictures and your journal with neighbors and friends. Enthusiasm for wildlife is contagious!
     Have your yard certified in the National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. Erect a sign and display it proudly.
     Share cuttings and seeds of native plants or wildlife friendly plants at garden club meetings or plants swaps.
     Remember, your goal is to educate, encourage and assist, never coerce. Enthusiastic wildlife gardeners are much better received than arrogant or extreme environmentalists are.
     Submit wildlife friendly topic ideas to local newspapers.
     Help schools to create schoolyard habitats or butterfly gar-dens.
     Open your yard to garden tours and explain your wildlife ha-bitat elements to visitors.
     Participate in on-line wildlife and garden forums.
     Give a copy of How To Take Care of Your Share of the Planet as a gift.

    • Carole Brown says

      Thanks for the great suggestions, Betsy. I’d love to review your book here at Ecosystem Gardening. It looks like a winner to me.

  9. Bryan says

    I am so excited to have found your post and site today. My family has a very similar problem. We are not only growing wildflowers in the front yard, but also started up tomatoes, blueberry bushes, and even planted apple trees. We still have more “grass” than garden, but our intentions are to reduce the lawn over time, grow a modest chemical free sampling of edibles, and foster the birds and critters. Today we received an anonymous letter “from the neighborhood” concerned about “weeds” just after discovering three monarch butterfly caterpillars. We do benefit from a very diverse group of neighbors and so many of them love our yard and ask about it, but the negative comments resonate louder to me.

    Your advice about Facebook is great. I’m wondering if any of your readers have success with posting updates to “neighborhood websites” or if that’s more of a trap.

    • Carole Brown says

      Bryan, kudos to you for reducing your lawn, welcoming Monarchs and other wildlife, and growing chemical free edibles! Yes, it is discouraging to hear those negative comments, but maybe you can win them over by showing off your Monarchs and telling your neighbors about their amazing flight to Mexico every year and how much trouble they are in. Showing off the really cool stuff and sharing your excitement may help to get them on your side. Here’s hoping, anyway!

  10. Yolanda Facio says

    I know we’re mostly talking critters here but how can critters share my space if my neighbor insists on having me chop up my trees!!! I have the most beautiful mesquite trees, 12 of them, and one neighbor who hacks away at the tree and complains over the fence about the tree at the very back of his property. I can’t believe in Az that someone wouldn’t want some shade! The birds and lizards love those trees. Very frustrating!

    Okay, I’m done. Thanks for letting me rant!

    • Carole Brown says

      LOL, rant away Yolanda! Having spent a lot of time in Arizona when I was in grad school, I totally agree with you about the shade! Wow, it’s hot there. Trees are such an important element in wildlife habitats, and I’m sure your birds and other critters would not appreciate their removal. Besides, if the trees are on your property, why does your neighbor have the right to do anything to them? I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you can help him appreciate the value of those trees!

  11. says

    I haven’t received any complaints yet, but we have been replacing our lawn with gardens ever since we moved into this house 4 years ago. The first time I was worried was when a neighbor came by and said, “This place looks like a jungle” he hesitated, then said, “but in a good way!”

    You never know how neighbors are going to react, but your idea to spread the love by giving away split perennials is great! I’ve considered planting a garden for my neighbor, but perhaps giving them plants and suggestions would get them involved more – which would hopefully allow them to appreciate the benefits of gardens vs lawns.

    Thanks for posting this.
    David Sanchez recently posted..Soaked Potatoes

    • Carole Brown says

      David, good luck in your quest to help your neighbors appreciate a garden that supports a lot of LIFE! It’s kind of neat that your neighbor thought it was “in a good way.” There’s your key. I think sharing some plants with him is a great idea.

  12. says

    I started turning my yard into “Native Suburbia” in 2004. Now it is a tiny little plot filled with native plants in a desert of lawns. It is constantly visited by birds, bees and butterflies. Complaints from neighbors caused the city to come out and mow all the plants in the parkway recently. Luckily they have not decided to fight about the rest of my yard.

    Reading blogs like this makes me happy that I am not alone in this world of lawn lovers. I just wish that I wasn’t so isolated.

    • Carole Brown says

      No Don, you are not alone. There are like-minded people out there, and our numbers are growing all the time. And most of that comes by each of us convincing our neighbors to do just one thing to help wildlife or be more sustainable in their gardens.

      I’m part of a team of wildlife gardeners who are striving to help redefine what is beautiful to help people take this step. Check out our Facebook page, Wildlife Garden, where you can show off your beautiful garden and meet other wildlife gardeners too.

  13. says

    I just want to say, I love your blog! I also like your suggestion about making a gift of the natives. My mom’s property here in Florida has always been a forest in a town of manicured lawn, it’s a wildlife and native plant habitat. I love to visit and sit under her diversity of trees and shrubs. I love the energy and life surrounding her house. Unfortunately her neighbors just kind of find it kookey and annoying I think. She’s also had fines and had to appear in court because her property looked disheveled in comparison to the managed lawns surrounding it. I think her defense was that there were no regulations for native yards in place soooooo – all the rules where set up for lawns but how do you follow lawn rules if you don’t have a lawn? I think Florida is slowly coming around though. I think people are realizing that creating habitats with native plants conserves water, doesn’t require pesticides, or fertilizers etc. IE saving them money. Unfortunately a lot of people want to know the benefit to themselves. We are still in such a “me” culture. I think though, at least from my own experience, that once someone starts thinking about other forms of life besides themselves, once that thought of “oh I’ll plant this for the birds” occurs, you can’t really turn back. It becomes a whole new way of thinking. It’s a turning on of a switch. Getting that switch to turn on happens through awareness and education I guess. Also, if we plant more habitat for them, doesn’t it make sense that wildlife will have other places to go rather than our attics and cars? There are also a lot of re-location companies springing up I think that will re-locate animals to other areas where they wouldn’t be considered so much of a problem. I have friends that do bee relocation and are just starting to get into bat relocation.

    • Carole Brown says

      Annie, your mom’s Florida garden sounds lovely! And what a welcome oasis to the critters who are making their home there.

  14. says

    Creating incentives of different sorts might help in some cases.
    I have been telling this true story to home owners and gardeners. A friend of mine sold her house recently. When she put it for sale she expected that it would take months in this depressed market. She sold it in less than a week!
    Her house has a Wildlife Habitat Certificate from the National Wildlife Federation and that is exactly what a buyer was looking for. She had not realized until then what a valuable selling point that would be.
    To create a Certified Wildlife Habitat see:
    Perhaps, if we put our heads together, we can come with other ideas to convince people that wildlife is good for them even if they are not interested on it.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Lawn for Pollinators Part II

  15. lisa says

    A woman in my town (Carole Berney, Watertown, MA) does a slide show every so often of wildlife in and around our town… can’t remember off hand what she calls it, but it is accompanied with beautiful music, words, poems, and her own narration. It is phenomenal to see organic gardens, intermingled with our very limited wild areas, and then see bird’s nests, butterflies, foxes, frogs, coyotes, possums, raccoons, turtles, etc., all in one urban town. People FORGET that they (animals) were here first and are having to adapt to us taking over their turf with those ridiculous lawns… her slide show brings people to tears, it’s so wonderful, and it will be shown at the library and then local schools… kids can then talk to their parents. In my office, we have a garden club, and have a person come in and talk about wild edibles now and then AND bring goodies made from same. Nothing like dandelion jelly or Japanese rhubarb coffee cake to shift a few perspectives. :-) Good luck!

    • Carole Brown says

      Lisa, your friend Carole (love how her name is spelled :) ) is doing a wonderful thing. When people see gardens that are full of life, that have birds and butterflies and all manner of other critters they often want to have some of that, too. It’s all about education. We need to learn what is the best thing to do to help wildlife in our gardens.

  16. says

    I’m reading this a bit late…
    I’ve gardened under some adverse conditions… as a kid when the cows and goats and stuff had free rein, and I was still trying to grow cool natives…
    Later, when I had possums and raccoons tearing up stuff in my kitchen, and armadillos that dug plants out of the ground as quickly as I could plant them, even when I went out and replanted them… I had plants that I replanted 5 or 6 times in a single night!
    I had a garden where the deer were in herds of 25 and 30 plus… They tend to be willing to eat almost anything in those conditions, and get a little crazy, jumping uphill over fences that they can neither see through or over… into tiny courtyard gardens!
    I promise, when the wildlife is destructive enough, they start looking like they belong on the menu, It’s no longer a case of trap and relocate, there is a lesson to be drawn from the story of “Old Yeller”… Other people don’t want our pests.
    At the same time, my garden is a welcome haven to black widow spiders and rattle snakes… those animals are helping.
    stone recently posted..Wild collecting

  17. Deborah Dale says

    HELP! After years of battling the City of Toronto to push them into upholding their much vaunted “Green Standards”, I’ve just discovered that the Licensing & Department is proposing adding a $200 fee (to fight spurious charges against individual sites) and adding more restrictions on those attempting to establish ecological gardens.

    The committee meets November 16, 2012. Please send letters protesting these restrictions to


  1. […] Gustavson of Get in the Garden asked me a question by email this week about how to educate your neighbors about wildlife in the garden when they think all critters are pests. Please come add your thoughts to this discussion. It’s important and we’re building on […]

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