Research from interdisciplinary LSC collaboration demonstrates the impact of public attitudes toward urban foxes and coyotes

Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison
Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison

A new study based on the collaborative work between LSC and the Urban Canid Project has now been published in the Journal of Human Dimensions of Wildlife. David Drake, head of the Urban Canid Project and Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, first reached out to LSC in 2017 wanting to get a social science perspective on local attitudes and behavior toward urban canids in Madison, WI.

“I was also curious if we were just preaching to the choir,” Drake explained. “How do we get beyond that and reach people who just might not be interested in this [project], but the information would benefit them too.”

The study was led by Anne Nardi (LSC M.S. ’17), at the time an LSC graduate student who conducted the research as part of her thesis. In addition to Drake from Forest and Wildlife Ecology, the research team included LSC professor and chair, Dominique Brossard, as well as LSC associate professor, Bret Shaw, and LSC faculty associate, Don Stanley.

Nardi surveyed community members at four local events to gain information on public attitudes toward both foxes and coyotes as well as how these attitudes are shaped by different variables, such as political ideology and attention to local urban wildlife news. She also analyzed content on the Urban Canid Project’s Facebook page to better understand their communication strategy.

Results showed that participants had a more positive outlook on foxes as shown by greater perceived benefits and lower perceived risks compared to views on coyotes. The reasons why may be due to media coverage and information exchange between social groups.

“Most of the stories we hear about urban canids are about accidents,” Brossard commented. “The negative aspects are really amplified in the media, and most of the time, that’s coyotes more than foxes.”

The study looked at how these public perceptions play into promoting coexistence with each of the species. One key coexistence practice the Urban Canid Project emphasizes to the public is 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.

“We found that the more some people heard about coyotes and foxes in the media, the less likely they were to haze the animals,” Shaw pointed out.

Drake emphasized that insights from this research influenced how he and his team engage with the Madison community. They now work to promote a two-way dialogue that enables the team to communicate information based on the concerns of the public and what will resonate most with different audiences.

“It is critical that we incorporate communication research where possible to ensure outreach efforts [like the Urban Canid Project] are as effective as possible,” Nardi stated. As the current Marketing and Communications Specialist at the UW Environmental Resources Center, Nardi continues to put her LSC knowledge to good use.

Story by Jessica Knackert, LSC B.S. ’20 and LSC’s 2019-20 Lenore Landry Scholar