LSC partners with Urban Canid Project for interdisciplinary research

Story by Ysabella Bhagroo. Ysabella is an undergraduate student majoring in LSC and the Department of Life Sciences Communication’s 2017-18 Lenore Landry Scholar.

A fox wanders through a city street in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the UW Urban Canid Project.
A fox wanders through a city street in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: UW Urban Canid Project.

As Wisconsin’s red fox and coyote populations grow, Madison is seeing an increasing number of these urban canids establishing their homes closer to campus. Recently, LSC chair Dominique Brossard, associate professor Bret Shaw, and faculty associate Don Stanley teamed up with the UW-Madison Urban Canid Project, a project that investigates the way canids are living in Madison and how we coexist with them.

At that time, the urban canid project was already leveraging social media to communicate. It had a popular Facebook page, and had been featured in videos that had aired on PBS and other news outlets. Although the urban canid project was already well-attuned with using social media for outreach, David Drake, the project’s director, sought LSC out.

“I wanted help understanding how to better educate the public about urban canid research and management, and I trusted LSC’s expertise with communicating science,” said Drake.

To this end, Brossard, Shaw, and Stanley worked with Drake to cultivate an interdisciplinary opportunity for graduate research. Anne Nardi, UW-Madison Life Sciences Communications alumna (M.S. ’17) and current Marketing and Communications Specialist at the UW Environmental Resources Center, took advantage of this opportunity, devoting her master’s thesis to studying how to effectively communicate about urban foxes and coyotes.

For her research, Nardi first needed to get a better grasp on what the public thinks of urban canids. To do so, she coordinated a survey at four locations throughout the Madison metropolitan area to understand people’s opinions, attitudes, and beliefs toward urban foxes and coyotes. She also performed a small content analysis of the project’s Facebook page to get a better idea of the type of language the project was using to talk about these animals.

As it turns out, when it comes to the perception of urban canids, risk and benefit are key players. For example, some people like that canids reduce local rodent populations, others think they are a risk to domestic animals, and others still have both these views simultaneously.

Nardi found that once people form opinions about the “pros and cons” of canids, they were likely to act a certain way when encountering them in city settings.

Central to Nardi’s research was the concept of hazing. According to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, hazing is the process of disturbing an animal’s sense of security. If done right, hazing encourages animals to avoid or move away from humans.

“In short, you must take steps that may seem counter-intuitive. You must convince the animal that as a human, you are scary and should be avoided,” said Nardi.

Wildlife experts recommend hazing urban foxes and coyotes, but do people actually heed that recommendation? Nardi explored what affected people’s tendency to haze in the Madison area.

“Interestingly, we found that those who have the least favorable attitude toward these animals were the most likely to haze these animals – a key co-existence practice,” said Nardi.

Nardi also found that people who lean left ideologically or pay more attention to wildlife news tend to have a positive view of canids, whereas right-leaning individuals who pay less attention to wildlife news tended to feel indifferent.

But the biggest takeaway from Nardi’s research is that the judgments people make about urban canids are complicated—popular culture, news representations, cultural history, risk/benefit perceptions, and value orientations, all play into their public perceptions.

One way to help shift these perceptions is through social media.

“Given the low cost and accessibility of social media, these platforms often become the main form of communication for small organizations like the urban canid project,” said Nardi. “Thus, it’s imperative we know how to communicate through these outlets.”

Based on her research, Nardi provided the UW Urban Canid Project with recommendations of how they could better tailor their messages to fit their target audience. For instance, she recommended targeting Facebook communications to people of certain political ideologies who tended to have certain risk and benefit perceptions toward urban canids.

“I think what made this project unique is that David and his team realized a large part of their work was not only researching these animals but also talking about these animals with the Madison community. That made partnering with LSC a great fit,” said Brossard.

LSC is looking forward to partnering with other organizations like the urban canid project in the future.