Inconsistent human behavior around animals endangering wildlife

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A computer model suggests wildlife may face survival issues if some humans in the environment help wild animals while others hunt them

The life


March 16, 2022


Feeding wild animals could give them the misleading impression that all humans will offer to help

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Well-meaning humans could inadvertently endanger wildlife by being kind and generous, in a world where not all humans are kind and generous.

Wild animals could quickly tell if humans are trustworthy, based on their own experiences and those of their group members. But different humans act differently toward animals — and those ‘mixed messages’ put animals at risk for trusting the wrong humans, says Madeleine Goumas at the University of Exeter, UK.

“When we feed wild animals, for example, we feel good and it’s a selfless thing we do,” she says. “But we don’t know later if that animal is going to walk around to someone who won’t be so grateful.”

Unlike other animals — especially predators — humans show very different individual behaviors toward other species, Goumas says. Some people ignore or avoid wild animals; others approach them, feed them or even caress them; and still others pursue them, capture them, injure them or drive them away. It is therefore complicated for animals to know how to interact with humans – especially because they can benefit if they feel safe around people, unlike their non-human predators.

Goumas and his colleagues developed a computer model to assess how wild animals cope with the mixed messages humans send. The model allows animals to learn information about humans in different ways – learning by observing other animals, for example – and at different speeds. It also allows human populations to contain different mixes of friendly or hostile people, and gives animals different abilities to recognize and remember which humans were which.

The model suggests that animals that learn quickly whether to trust humans are better able to survive in places where humans generally act the same way – either being friendly or hostile to animals – says Goumas. Transferring these findings to the real world means, for example, that deer can enjoy more grazing in urban areas, where people leave them alone or are even friendly to them. Deer living in wooded areas popular with hunters, on the other hand, can survive better by quickly learning to hide from people.

However, the model also suggests that learning quickly in places where different people in the human population have different attitudes toward wild animals can be detrimental, Goumas says. Simulated animals in these environments quickly drew conclusions about all humans based on a single good or bad experience. “We tend to think that learning fast is good, and it always has to be better,” she says. “But the problem is…it might be a little overkill.”

The model suggests that being able to clearly recognize humans as friendly or hostile isn’t always beneficial, Goumas says. Indeed, by learning about each new person individually, rather than generalizing, she says, animals can waste valuable time that would be better spent either taking advantage of available resources or fleeing imminent danger.

Not all species are capable of individually recognizing humans anyway — although well-meaning humans sometimes make such dangerous assumptions, Goumas says.

“I’ve seen people on social media say, ‘Oh, it’s good to feed these animals, because they know me, and they wouldn’t go to anyone else,'” she says. “But you just don’t know that. is to put them [the animals] in a very vulnerable position, especially when we still don’t know much about how animals perceive us.

Journal reference: Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211742

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