American attitudes toward coyotes have changed. Reviled 40 years ago, coyotes are now regarded far more favorably. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

American attitudes toward wild animals are growing more positive, according to a new study published just last month in the international journal Biological Conservation. Between 1978 and 2014, our thinking about eight historically stigmatized species—including bats, coyotes, vultures, sharks and wolves—were found to be significantly more favorable.

On the surface, that sounds like good news. But will our gentler, kinder views on certain species ultimately result in any meaningful wildlife management changes? Could they actually wind up hurting our nation’s fauna in a different way?

One Mexican free-tailed bat can eat 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. ©U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Attitude adjustment

Almost four decades ago, researcher Stephen Kellert surveyed more than 3,000 Americans to gain insights about their attitudes toward wildlife. In 2014, that survey was repeated using a nationally representative sample of 1,287 U.S. residents. The results showed that while attitudes toward all animals were remarkably similar in 1978 and 2014, attitudes toward eight species that in the past had been greatly despised had significantly changed. Where people had, on average, felt neutral towards wolves and coyotes, they now feel positive. Bats, sharks and vultures rose from “disliked” to “neutral” or even “liked.” People were even a bit more welcoming to rats, rattlesnakes and wasps.

The only species whose reputations dramatically dropped were those of raccoons and swans. Mosquitoes replaced cockroaches as the least liked.

Befriending bison can be bad

To tell you the truth, while we may now place wolf posters on our walls and purchase audio recordings of their calls in the woods as a relaxation aid, I don’t see much of an official change in policy when it comes to tolerating the presence of real wolves in our landscapes. And, in some cases, this new, caring attitude toward animals that were previously hated and almost extirpated is actually harming them.

I still haven’t seen much evidence that Americans are willing to tolerate the nearness of wolves. ©Brad Josephs

Earlier, this year, in May 2016, we were hit with headlines about the now infamous case in Yellowstone National Park where officials had to euthanize a baby bison after two international visitors showed up at a ranger station with the calf in the trunk of their SUV. They said they thought the calf was cold. Park officials explained that they were then forced to put the calf to death after attempts to reunite it with its herd failed.

Not quite so notorious is the American—a National Park Service (NPS) supervisory natural resource specialist—who made the same mistake when he attempted to help a sickly bison calf in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. A recently released U. S. Department of the Interior report states that in May 2010, the official brought the calf to his house. It died at the employee’s home.

An investigation by the Office of Inspector General concluded that the park’s acting superintendent had authorized the removal of the Badlands National Park calf, but it violated NPS policy, as well as state and federal law. The local police chief chose not to cite the supervisory natural resource specialist for the misdemeanor violation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined prosecution.

It’s a myth that vultures prey on healthy livestock. Still, farmers and ranchers regularly persecute them. ©Stefan van Bremen, flickr

In both cases, well-meaning people who thought they were caring deeply about bison ended up causing the animals harm.

Don’t  consider yourself part of the family

The researchers in the new study say that they don’t yet understand the exact reasons for the change of heart regarding certain wild animals. They do, however, mention research by social psychologist Michael Manfredo, who has found that Americans are shifting away from an ethos of domination and mastery over nature to instead viewing wildlife “as part of an extended family, and deserving of caring and compassion.”

It pays to remember, though, that wild animals shouldn’t be treated as our extended family members. For proof, there’s the well-known case of Timothy Treadwell, who got a little too familiar with the bears of Katmai National Park. In another example, Smithsonian Magazine reported in June 2015 that a self-taught “lion whisperer,” Kevin Richardson, gets dangerously close to his charges at his private wildlife sanctuary in South Africa. Although he imagines a world in which we do not meddle with wild animals at all and his sanctuary isn’t necessary, according to article author Susan Orlean, many people are placing bets on when he will be eaten alive.

Despite their reputation as ruthless predators, sharks are much more likely to be killed by humans than the other way around. ©Elias Levy, flickr

All in all, finding out that we are changing our attitudes about certain wildlife species is a positive development. I just haven’t seen it translate into better wildlife management policies for those animals yet. Caring more for them isn’t taking them in out of the cold or taking them home. We need to make certain that our new, more positive attitudes metamorphose into caring of the right kind.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,