Nature Has A Clean Up Crew That Can Teach Us A Lot About Waste

A new CBC documentary shows us that Nature Has A Clean Up Crew That Can Teach Us A Lot About Waste!

Urban wildlife has increased as cities encroach on natural habitats and with advancing climate change. While we might consider urban wildlife pests, even dangerous and responsible for spreading disease, scientists have determined these are misconceptions, and that some animals – like opossums that have migrated to Toronto, Southern ON, QC and BC from the Southern States, as well as ants, foxes and vultures – help eliminate consumer waste in cities. NATURE’S CLEANUP CREW, hosted by David Suzuki, sheds light on the urban environment. Filmed in Toronto, New York City, Berlin and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), the one-hour documentary premieres on The Nature of Things, Jan. 31, at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC & CBC Gem.

I got to talk with Suzanne MacDonald, York University Professor of Psychology and Biology and wildlife behaviour expert (listed as SM in responses) Robin Bicknell, director (listed as RB in responses) about the film and its important message. 

1. What kinds of animals are becoming more urbanized in Canada? 

SM: Raccoons, opossums, coyotes, rats, skunks and foxes are the main animals becoming more urbanized in Canada. What they have in common is that they are able to eat a wide variety of foods, so they are generalists rather than “specialists”. They are opportunistic, and eat whatever they can find. Coyotes, for example, eat small wild mammals, like rabbits and mice, but they can also eat small domestic pets. Obviously, people aren’t too pleased about this. Similarly, raccoons do very well in cities because they can eat absolutely anything, which means they eat a wild food diet, and what we wasteful humans throw out. Opossums eat whatever raccoons and other species leave behind, and can digest bone, so they really are nature’s cleanup crew. 🙂

RB: Suzanne covered the bases from the animal kingdom, but what most people don’t know is that there are also billions of pavement ants living in colonies in our cities under our sidewalks and roads and medians. In New York City, researchers have discovered that ants clean up more human food waste than rats! This species has uniquely adapted to living in the cracks and curbs and the interfaces between pavement. They exist in pretty much every city on the planet.

Related: Why We Need To Ditch Salt On Our Roads

2. Why is this happening? 

SM: Our cities are growing every year, and are gobbling up more and more land that was either farmland or untamed space. Basically, we are encroaching on natural habitats. Most species will not survive this human onslaught, but some, like the ones I’ve listed, can survive. Others, like raccoons and opossums, not only survive but thrive!

RB: Ants are uniquely adapted to the urban environment. Just like the wildlife Suzanne has mentioned, they seem to thrive in spaces that humans inhabit. We should not view them as pests but as amazing members of nature’s cleanup crew, quietly and efficiently eliminating bits of food and waste we messy humans drop on our sidewalks and in our public spaces.

3. What are some of the misconceptions regarding these animals? 

SM: Many city dwellers consider urban wildlife pests, dangerous or dirty and carriers of disease, but these are misconceptions. They provide an important ecosystem service by consuming what we throw away. What we call garbage, they call dinner.

hundreds of ants eating fruit

Opossums are relatively new to Canada, having migrated from the Southern States due to climate change. They look like a species created by committee. They are the size of a small raccoon with the same kind of coat. They have a rat-like tail, ears like a mouse and a crazy mouth full of teeth. They look like something out of a nightmare and are often feared. That’s the biggest misconception. They are, in reality, the most gentle little creatures, not out to harm anyone, and without any real defences against predators. They will not bite humans or pets. In fact, they are terrified of pretty much everything and will fall over and play dead at the slightest provocation. In addition to consuming our food waste, they are known to eat ticks. A sizeable proportion of ticks carry Lyme Disease, which causes severe pain in humans and is difficult to treat. Opossums eat thousands of ticks with great delight.

RB: Ants are often viewed as a pest or infestation that carries disease. But, they do not carry anything that would possibly make us sick. Evolutionarily, they are very distant from humans, unlike mammals such as rats and mice. They provide an essential service in that they pick up and eat the food that people drop quickly and efficiently. Foraging ants in New York can lift over ten times their weight. They have to be quick because they have competition from the city’s massive rat population.

Related: Could “Clean” Meat Be The Solution To End Factory Farming And Help The Planet

4. How much waste do they eliminate? 

SM: Data indicates an opossum can easily eat thousands of ticks per season. But it’s difficult to estimate how much food waste they generally consume. More studies are needed. Opossums work quietly at night, consuming food waste, and eating the leftovers other species, like racoons and skunks, leave behind so they really are nature’s cleanup crew.

a small Opossums in a backyard

RB: Pavement ants are only starting to be understood and it is hard to say exactly how much waste they consume, but in New York City, on Broadway alone, researchers estimate there are 2,000 ants for every human and that they consume the equivalent of 250,000 donuts per year.

5. What can homeowners do to help? 

SM: The best thing to do is to leave these sweet little creatures alone. Don’t shoo them away. They work at night so you usually don’t even know they’re there. They do not break into houses like raccoons, they don’t remove roof shingles, they don’t even get into the garbage on their own. They don’t dig dens or nests, just share or use spaces that other species have already established and left behind. They don’t do any damage at all. Unlike many other species, opossums need to find food throughout the winter months (they don’t hibernate), and they are very susceptible to frostbite while they are out foraging for food during our long cold winters. Finding an adult opossum that doesn’t have frostbitten ears is pretty rare. On the coldest nights, I put out dry cat or dog food near their dens, just so they don’t starve to death. 

RB: It is understandable to not want ants in your home, but in your yards and outdoor areas surrounding homes, leave ants in peace. They are providing a wonderful service and deserve to be here a much as we do.

a group of large vultures eating a dead animal

6. Why is this an important story to share? 

SM: It’s important for us to learn more about opossums – they are relative newcomers to our country. Their ranges are only now extending into the southern parts of Canada, thanks to our changing climate. Many people freak out when they see them for the first time. There is NO NEED TO PANIC! Just observe them from a distance and learn how darned cool they are. And thank them for ridding our backyards and parks of unwanted food waste and those horrible ticks. 

RB: I think when it comes to urban animals, we need to adjust our way of thinking – they aren’t invading OUR space, they are sharing cities with us, and like our human neighbours, they deserve to be treated with respect.

NATURE’S CLEANUP CREW, hosted by David Suzuki, sheds light on the urban environment. Filmed in Toronto, New York City, Berlin and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), the one-hour documentary premieres on The Nature of Things, Jan. 31, at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC & CBC Gem.

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