New Lincoln Park Zoo initiative to focus on animal-human relationship

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • January 14, 2009 @ 3:00 PM

The Lincoln Park Zoo is launching a program that will study how Chicagoans and wildlife can share the urban landscape harmoniously.

The zoo's new Urban Wildlife Institute will explore ways to manage conflicts arising from human interaction with animals, including the spread of disease, says zoo spokeswoman Sharon Dewar. It will draw on animal epidemiology as well studies of animals' habitats and movement patterns within the city and its suburbs.

As illustrated by last spring’s fatal conflict between a cougar and Chicago police, close encounters with coyotes, deer and even big cats are raising hairy issues of cohabitation for Chicagoans and other urban dwellers.

“As development expands, interactions between people and animals are increasing," as are cases of diseases transmitted between humans and other species, says Eric Lonsdorf, director of the institute.

Lonsdorf says the institute will use science to develop new ways of negotiating these interactions that go beyond “the extreme solutions of relocation or extermination.”

Humans are increasingly exposed to an array of animal-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, rabies, West Nile virus, and bird flu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases originate from animals.

The institute will coordinate its efforts with the city’s health department, the park district, and surrounding forest preserves, says Lonsdorf.

The zoo launched two pilot projects this summer, including an analysis of avian predators in backyards and a study of raccoon roundworm, a parasite that can be fatal to children.

The roundworm study, a collaboration with Wheaton College, is aimed at finding ways to manage raccoons to limit risks to humans.

The institute plans to use its research to inform public education programs that the zoo will be rolling out this summer. These include a citizen science initiative.

One idea is to assemble kits -- including motion-triggered cameras that can be used at night -- that will enable people to do observational work in their own backyards.

The institute can then process digital photos from the public with its geographic information systems to catalogue the location and habits of area wildlife, says Lonsdorf.

The zoo is already successfully using such research to monitor “depollination,” the recent decline of bee colonies, says Lonsdorf.

Dewar says the institute will make Chicago a laboratory for other cities dealing issues of disease, animal rehabilitation and relocation. The project will also help establish a national surveillance network for diseases transmitted between animals and humans.

The project is funded with a $1.5 million grant from the Davee Foundation.

Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News