Human-Animal Encounters at the Park

By Shay Perryman, Ana Cruz, and Justin Brady §

Woodward Park lies on the northwest edge of Fresno in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley. Fresno is California’s fifth largest city with a diverse population of just over half a million residents. Established in 1968, a local resident donated the 235-acres, and an additional 65 acres were added later.  It is the “only regional park of its size in the Central Valley” and it is a cherished part of the community.  

Every day, hundreds of people visit the park to partake in a variety of activities, including: fishing, biking, bird watching, dog walking, trail running, skateboarding, frisbee golf, and picnicking. Woodward Park is also a geographical, socioeconomic, and ecological boundary zone. It is located at the northern tip of the City of Fresno, which has a higher concentration of parks and hosts higher income residents than the poorer and more ethnically diverse parts of South Fresno. It is also a gateway from the Valley floor to the Sierra Nevada foothills and a section of the San Joaquin River runs through it.

Different sections are pieced together with ponds, picnic and amphitheater areas, a Japanese bonsai garden, and an expansive bluff area supplemented by tributaries and wetlands of the San Joaquin River. Given its ecological and geographical location, the park is home to a diverse array of wildlife, creating unique opportunities (both voluntary and involuntary) for humans and wildlife to interact.

Ernesto Bravo unwinds by fishing one of the ponds at Woodward Park. Photo by Ana Cruz and Shay Perryman.

We wanted to learn more about the natures and cultures of these relationships. How do animal encounters affect humans, and how is the human presence in Woodward Park affecting wildlife? How can we create park spaces that balance the benefits that humans receive from spending time in green spaces, and the health of the regional ecosystems and resident wildlife?


Deconstructing the Nature-Culture Binary in Parks

Urban nature parks are an important part of community health for city dwellers.  Berg et al. argue “that adults who live in green neighbourhoods report better mental health and have a lower risk of dying than adults who live in less green neighbourhoods” (2015).  The people we interviewed at Woodward Park concurred with these findings, in their own words. Fresno resident Ernesto Bravo  stated that Woodward is “the only place close to home to escape the buildings, noise, and traffic” of the city.

Over the past 100+ years, the social functions of parks have evolved. City and state governments initially conceived of parks as spaces for social integration. Later, the idea of having “open spaces” for aesthetic enhancement and community recreation became the justifications for creating urban parks. In these ways, parks are integrated into urban life, but also create boundaries within our lives. Parks and nature are seen as distinct from other urban spaces. Parks are places where we go to escape our everyday lives, realities, and landscapes.

Woodward Park. Photo by Ana Cruz and Shay Perryman.

Parks are also political spaces, where other boundaries are constructed regarding who or what belongs in park space. In a letter to Fundy National Park managers, University of Boston professor of theology Harold DeWolf requested that consideration be given to his African American friends the ability to accompany him to the park in 1960 (Marsh & Hodgins 1998). Those friends were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.

This separation between nature and cities is very much a cultural construct based on the idea that nature is different than culture. In reality, people create parks, and parks shape people. Although park designs are made by people, they are still envisioned as natural spaces, void of culture. Human relationships and encounters with and understandings of wildlife are also very cultural.


Human-Animal Relations

Megan Daley Olmert, a researcher and author of documentaries published by National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and PBS has written about the human-animal bond. She explores how natural areas and biodiversity have long inspired humans across cultures. In her TED talk, she argues that humans possess an “urge to merge.”  

Ice Age cave art and archeological evidence indicates prehistoric humans were fascinated by animals. Some prehistoric populations also domesticated certain species, like canines, as pets.  Animals are incorporated into our cultural fabric and cosmologies, like the Mayan creation story the Popol Vuh, or the animal-themed morality tales of Aesop.  

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Thalia, Education Coordinator at the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (CCSPCA), holds a red-eared slider, a turtle species routinely rescued from Woodward Park. Photo by Shay Perryman and Ana Cruz.

However, what happens when human appreciation and observation of animals and the natural world turns into fetishization and commodification? Wildlife featured and anthropomorphized in Hollywood films are increasingly shaping pet ownership trends in the United States; many of these pets are sourced from vulnerable ecological zones, or are found abandoned in natural areas, including urban nature parks like Woodward Park.

For example, Journalist Ben Child’s notes that sales of clown fish and other tropical fish species increased upon the release of Finding Nemo. Meanwhile, Australian marine life conservationists report marked decreases in wild clown fish populations in the already threatened coral reef habitats. Turtle and owl sales also increased with the release of other popular films, and, subsequently many of those pets were unceremoniously disposed of.  In Woodward Park, red-eared slider turtles are routinely dumped in the ponds. The area SPCA rescues some of them.

While Woodward’s ponds may seem like a viable habitat for red-eared sliders, the turtles are an invasive species in California and much of the Pacific Northwest. The University of California’s statewide network of scientists, agriculturalists and natural resource advisors offer that “because [red-eared slider turtles] are aggressive and bold, they compete for both food and space with native turtles, where they are introduced.”  This has ripple effects for the health of the entire ecosystem at Woodward Park.  


Don’t (Accidentally) Feed the Mountain Lions…

The tensions between love and fear of nature and wildlife exemplify the paradoxes between acceptable and appreciable and unacceptable and uncontrollable nature and human-wildlife interactions. What are the consequences of these constructs for humans and wildlife in Woodward Park? And, how are the boundaries between wild and tame becoming blurred in urban park spaces?  

With social and technological evolution, “we dwell in and among our own creations and are increasingly uncomfortable with the nature that lies beyond our direct control” posits David Orr (1994). Juxtaposed to this discomfort is biophilia, characterized by extreme human attraction to and altruism towards animals. This seeming benevolence may have unintended and harmful consequences, including the euthanization of protected species. The notion that wildlife cannot survive without human intervention reveals a severe disconnect between our natural world and our own, which ironically lends to the part of Orr’s argument that we see nature as an aspect very far removed from our human existence.  

Today, with more and more people living in urban areas, and with the expansion of urban, suburban, and exurban zones of human habitation, transportation, commerce, and industry into rural zones, human-wildlife encounters are getting more attention and official responses from local, state, and federal agencies. Unexpected encounters with unfamiliar wildlife evoke a number of reactions from people, from awe to fear. The juxtaposition of Woodward Park visitors feeding the ducks and fretting a potential encounter with a mountain lion provide insights into the tensions and contradictions of human-wildlife interactions in Woodward Park.

Recently, Woodward Park visitors encountered what they described as a mountain lion (which are a species indigenous to the region).  Although police and animal rescue teams  shut down the park and planned to tranquilize and relocate the mountain lion to the foothills, they were unable to locate it. This left some people feeling uneasy. It is less often considered what impact human behaviors are having on wildlife like mountain lions, or even the beloved geese and ducks, and at one point, California’s state mascot, the grizzly bear. Yosemite National Park is approximately 50 miles north of Woodward Park. Fewer than 100 years ago, park managers would pile trash to entice bears purely to entertain visitors. Today, strict rules prohibit people from feeding the bears and efforts to reteach bears wild hunting and foraging, and to teach people to bear-proof, have improved the health of bears as well as the experiences of human visitors to the park. Still, some bears are adapting in sophisticated ways to these cultural park management efforts. When visitor safety is jeopardized by bears’ smarts, they too are euthanized. What, then, are the ethical implications of these kinds of human-wildlife interactions, at Yosemite, and at Woodward Park?


Loving Nature by Feeding the Ducks?

Thus far, there have been no bear sightings in Woodward Park, but bears have come down from the foothills looking for food and water within Fresno’s city limits (which bears do not recognize!)  But, human interactions with other kinds of wildlife, like ducks and geese, are creating other problems that are largely invisible or unknown to visitors. Ducks and geese are not routinely “euthanized” the way large game animals like bears and mountain lions are, because they are not considered threatening to humans. Still, humans purposefully visit the park to feed waterfowl. This seemingly innocent activity causes great harm to the ducks and geese. Their quality and length of life can be severely diminished by a diet of processed foods and grains. In addition, discarded fishing line and other trash, when it wraps around a bird’s legs, can result in amputation.

When asked about their favorite park activities, a group of youth enthusiastically proclaimed, “feeding the ducks!” Many park visitors bring bread to attract and feed waterfowl that have settled semi-permanently along the banks Woodward Park’s artificial ponds.  Anthropologist Barbara Jones in her article Marshmallows for Alligators: Defining ecotourism in Southwest Florida (2015) advocates for increased resource and wildlife protection through community awareness and responsible ecotourism practices. The development of ecotourism should incorporate the most recent research on ethical and responsible practices regarding wildlife interactions and conservation. Visitors should be provided “the opportunity to appreciate nature and a region’s cultural heritage in a sustainable way” (Jones 2015).

People are increasingly seeking out ecotourist operations because they believe that they are supporting efforts to preserve and protect the ecosystems and species that they pay to engage with. Jones notes that marshmallows are not an appropriate food for alligators, and questions how loosely ecotourism is being applied as well as how human-animal interactions construed as ecological may actually be causing harm to vulnerable ecosystems and species. Community involvement in the development of best practices as applied in ecotourism operations and urban parks can facilitate the protection ecosystems and the enhancement of public education. These benefits can influence the cultural learning that shapes human-wildlife relationships and these knowledges and ethics can be passed on from generation to generation. In other words, a cultural shift is needed to ground necessary behavioral changes in humans that will better ensure the health and welfare of ecosystems.  

In the case of the ducks, Michelle Mitchell, a reporter with The News Virginian, touches on this seemingly benign nostalgic tradition in her article, The Problems with Crackers: Ducks Struggle Due to Human Charity.  Mitchell reminds us that “when people feed ducks junk food it impacts their health, water quality, and their natural behavior.”  Mitchell reminds us that “mallards would normally eat aquatic vegetation, aquatic insects, earthworms, snails and seeds,” not white bread and stale cereal.

Trash accumulated during 10 minutes of walking, including the plastic bag. Photo by Ana Cruz and Shay Perryman.

On top of ill-informed feeding practices, during every visit to Woodward Park for research, we observed severe physical deformities among the ducks and geese. These were the direct result of human trash left behind. We ended up calling the Fresno SPCA to assist the injured waterfowl pictured above. Fishing line can be removed from birds’ ankles, but when the line is tangled too tightly, it can result in an amputation. With this, there is little that can be done ensure that the waterfowl will survive in the wild.  Thalia at the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) confirmed that officers frequently receive calls concerning ducks with deformities (broken wings or wire around ankle) caused by human activity and debris.


Woodward Park: Trash or Ecological Treasure?

While Woodward Park is not a formal ecotourism site, there is potential for the principles of ecotourism to shape human behaviors at the park. Environmental anthropologist Patricia Townsend reminds us that “despite the pleasure that humans take in diversity, we are also the most important threat to biodiversity” (2008:81).

We want to extend Townsend’s discussion of biodiversity to rethink our relationships with wildlife in urban parks. While some naive practices of urban park visitors are unintentional, they can still cause a lot of harm  Among the most easily mediated of these “collective harms” are behaviors that have been normalized- like feeding wild waterfowl bread and crackers, dumping unwanted pets in parks, and improperly disposing of trash. These practices are not only physically harmful but they also alter ecosystems by changing animals’ relationships to their own environments.

Researchers Bauer and Tynon have researched the motivations of park planners and patrons alike to become active participants in maintaining the health of parks while also benefiting from the physical and mental restorative properties that they provide.  They offer that “simply placing a natural park in any urban community will not necessarily precipitate rapid improvements in individual and community well-being,” but rather “residents will benefit from participating in park development [and maintenance] as well” (2010: 199).  What this means is that the community should be engaged through park initiatives to be informed about how to keep the park and its many and biodiverse inhabitants sustained and healthy.

To conclude our think piece on human-wildlife interactions in urban parks, we want to present some possible interventions. Most of us living in Fresno don’t have any direct experience with the wildlife in Woodward Park. Our knowledge of these animals is very poor.  A study conducted at Cantanhez National Park, in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, explored people’s knowledge about the resident chimpanzee population. Researchers found a positive correlation between people’s knowledge of chimpanzees and their interactions with the chimp population. Woodward and other parks’ ecology and wildlife could be incorporated into more school curricula to foster community investment, appreciation, and understanding of wildlife starting at a young age. Park managers could incentivize non-harmful human-wildlife interactions in parks by welcoming local schools to research and organize stewardship projects.  The damaging effects suffered by some wildlife and the saddening effects felt by park patrons who happen across them can perhaps be best mitigated with multilingual informational plaques and interactive exhibits displaying the very real consequences of human behaviors for wildlife. For example, a coin-operated seed dispenser with interactive and educational components would allow humans to keep feeding the ducks without making them sick, and could also serve as a fundraising opportunity for city parks.

Woodward Park would not be the same without its wildlife. We argue, however, that it is the flawed nature-culture binary that contributes to ecosystem destruction. Mostly all people we interviewed in the park admitted to feeding the ducks bread even though they were not aware whether feeding them bread was beneficial.  Education is the keystone to minimizing the negative aspects of the human-animal interaction in Woodward Park. Our suggestions are put forth in the spirit of an applied anthropology of parks: to use our research to educate the general public, and to create cultural changes that work to preserve and maintain ecosystems and create non-harmful relationships with wildlife, in the parks and beyond.

Works Cited

Baur, J., & Tynon, J. 2010. Small-Scale Urban Nature Parks: Why Should We Care? Leisure Sciences 32(2):195-200.
Jones, B. 2015. Marshmallows for Alligators: Defining Tourism in Southwest Florida. The Journal of Culture and Agriculture. 37(2): 116-123.
Kellert, S. R., & Berry, J. K.. 1987. Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behaviors toward Wildlife as Affected by Gender. Wildlife Society Bulletin 15(3): 363–371.
Leong, K. 2009. The Tragedy of Becoming Common: Landscape Change and Perceptions of Wildlife. Society & Natural Resources 23(2): 111-127.
Maceachern, A. 1998. Where He Didn’t Spend His Summer Vacation: Martin Luther King, Racism, and Fundy National Park. In J.S. Marsh and B.W. Hodgins (eds.) Changing Parks: The History, Future and Cultural Context of Parks and Heritage Landscapes, pp. 135-139. Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, Inc.
Nelson, Robert. 2003. Environmental Colonialism: Saving Africa from Africans. The Independent Review 8(1): 65-89.
Orr, D. W. 1994. The Coming Biophilia Revolution. Earth Island Journal 9(2): 38.
Sousa, J., L. Vicente, S. Gippoliti, C. Casanova, C. Sousa. 2014. Local Knowledge and Perceptions of Chimpanzees in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea-Bissau. American Journal of Primatology 76(2): 122–134.
Townsend, P.K. 2008. Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policies, Second Edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
van den Berg, M., W. Wendel-Vos, M. van Poppel, H. Kemper, W. van Mechelen, J. Maas. 2015. Health Benefits of Green Spaces in the Living Environment: A Systematic Review of Epidemiological Studies. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 14(4): 806-816.

Shay Perryman is an anthropology and geography student at California State University, Fresno. This summer, she will be traveling to Ghana, West Africa and in the fall, she will be interning with Mi Familia Vota. After graduation, she hopes to work with the Peace Corps in Latin America.

Ana Cruz is majoring in criminology at California State University, Fresno. Recently, she completed an internship with the Lock It Up Project, which aims to reduce prescription drug abuse by educating young people about proper storage and disposal of pharmaceuticals.

Justin Brady is an anthropology major at California State University, Fresno, with an emphasis on archaeology. He is learning how to work with California Indian tribes and construction crews when cultural sites are unearthed during roadwork and other infrastructural development.

This post is part of the series: Student Environmental Ethnographic Journalism.