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May 20, 2015updated 26 Apr 2022 8:40am

What happens when wild animals turn up in cities?

By Barbara Speed

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of finding a fox on your doorstep, you’ll know all too well how jarring it is when wild things appear in populated areas. After all, isn’t keeping out the unpredictability of the wilderness the entire point of cities? What’s the use in paving paradise if wild beasts tramp in anyway?

There are, in fact, scientific reasons why wild animals seem increasingly keen to invade urban spaces: cities and towns are oases of discarded food, rubbish, and exciting smells. And according to Stan Gehrty, a wildlife ecologist, the rising number of people who spend their lives cloistered in cities has meant wild animals are less likely to recognise humans as a threat.

The following are stories of cities trying to deal with the unexpected appearance of wild and exotic beasts, from Bengal tigers to llamas. The responses from the cities themselves generally include terrified police squadrons, hyperbolic local news liveblogs, and, most of all, a complete failure to get over the fact that there’s a real live animal in the vicinity of the bagel place.

The New York coyote(s)

Much to its horror, New York seems to have become home to a new colony of coyotes over the past year. There were six sightings in just six weeks earlier this spring; and this week one attacked a small pet dog in Saddle River, New Jersey (the dog should be fine, by the way).

According to the New York Times, sightings so far have been dealt with by “specially trained members of the Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit”. Unfortunately, these specially trained individuals don’t appear to be very good. From the same piece: 

…officers carrying tranquilizer guns, aided by a helicopter, chased one through Riverside Park for three hours, only to have the animal elude capture.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker  illustrated residents’ uncomprehending reactions by noting, when a coyote appeared on the roof of a Manhattan bar, patrnos thought they saw “a fur coat slinking around”. As you do. 

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The tiger of Hampshire

Image: Sussex Police. 

In May 2011, a cricket match at Southampton’s Rose Bowl stadium was called to a halt after a member of the public spotted a white tiger hiding in a nearby field through their camera’s zoom lens. A nearby golf club was also evacuated, and a police helicopter descended on the scene.

As gathered police monitored the tiger through binoculars, and a special team from a nearby zoo prepared to journey out equipped with tranquiliser darts, something very peculiar happened: the tiger blew over in a gust of wind.

It turned out that the tiger was a stuffed toy.

It was later taken on by the force’s lost property department.

The mystery lion of Essex

Summer, 2012: an Essex holiday camp is thrown into panic after visitors claim to have spotted a lion; mane, tail and all. As one holidaymaker described it to The Telegraph:

It was one million per cent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane, it was fully grown, it was definitely a lion. It was just standing there, it seemed to be enjoying itself.

To the consternation of the campers, police stopped their 24 hour hunt after finding no trace of any lion prints, hairs or, indeed the lion itself. Later reports suggested a long-haired ginger cat may have been the culprit. This whole incident actually acts useful modern demonstration of the tale of the blind men and an elephant – long hair and tail does not a lion make.

Arizona’s llamas

The eyes of the world turned to Sun City, Arizona this February as the city played host to a high-speed, um, llama chase. The two llamas, one black and one white, galloped through streets and parking lots, chased by police and filmed by news helicopters. Eventually, both llamas were lassoed. 

Here’s the exhilarating chase in full, sped up and set to a weird song:

The elephant seal that hated cars

Elephant seals have big fights with one another during mating season. In the run-up to said time of year, an elephant seal in New Zealand enacted his own Rocky-style training montage in which he battled trucks and cars.   

Everyone seems to be fine with it, though.

London’s beached whale

Prepare yourselves, folks: this one’s pretty sad. Back in 2006, a young northern bottlenose whale lost its way and swam up the Thames.

It swam about confused for a bit, until rescuers loaded it onto what the BBC called an “inflatable whale mattress”(i.e. a lifeboat) in order to transport it back to the Thames Estauary. Unfortunately, the whale died of convulsions, possibly brought on by stress, before making it home. 

Zanesville’s Animal Farm

Once again, despite the town’s jolly name, this is another tragic tale – an alternate headline would be “The Zanesville massacre”

One of the major attractions in Zanesville, an Ohio county seat, was the Muskingum County Animal farm. Run by owner Terry Thompson, it contained over 50 exotic animals, including lions, baboons, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and tigers.

On 19 October 2011, Thompson opened every single cage before committing suicide. The animals ran off into the countryside, and local police were forced to open fire. The majority of the animals, including eight bears, 20 lions, and 18 rare Bengal tigers were killed; a handful were captured and were given to nearby zoos. To add insult to injury, several people were arrested for trying to steal dead lion carcasses. We’re struggling not to end this one with another sad face. 

Vancouver’s garbage bear

Not for Vancouver the tranquilisers, helicopters and specialist police teams brought in by cities in the rest of the world. The video below shows a brown bear chilling on top of a garbage truck in the city, who is slowly approached by a lone police officer.  After a bit of um-ing and ahh-ing, the policeman picks up the bear and throws it into a sack. A job well done.

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