Research Spotlight: Mary Paglieri, Human-Animal Conflict Consultant

"I'm really into modifying behavior so that you're drawing invisible boundaries in a language that wildlife understands."
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"I'm really into modifying behavior so that you're drawing invisible boundaries in a language that wildlife understands."
Mary Paglieri. (Photo: Lisa Wiseman)

Mary Paglieri. (Photo: Lisa Wiseman)

Humans have clashed with other animals for all of human history. Today, our expanding population is rapidly shrinking wild habitats, forcing people and animals into closer quarters than ever before. And in a human landscape, animals' natural behavior can be problematic: Coyotes hunt down beloved pets, bull elephants raid croplands, beaver dams trigger destructive floods.

Mary Paglieri found her niche in the overlapping territories of humans and animals; her work as a conflict consultant marries the study of animal behavior with conservation science to find the best ways to reduce conflicts so that both humans and animals prosper.

In "The Coyote Whisperer," Paglieri weighs in on San Francisco's coyote conflicts and one woman's quest to teach the city how to co-exist.

Paglieri began working on human-coyote conflicts in the late 1990s, after a string of encounters between coyotes and pre-dawn joggers in California. Six coyotes were killed—an over-the-top and ultimately fruitless response, according to Paglieri, given that removing some coyotes only eases competition for territory and resources in the region.

"We can't just go out there and massacre coyotes," Paglieri thought, and began looking for a better way to alter "problem" animal behavior.

Over time, Paglieri’s methods have evolved to become more sophisticated and science-based, from scare tactics to her current practice of VEXING.

VEXING is grounded in aversive conditioning, a technique that punishes animals' undesired behavior with a negative experience. Animals quickly learn to link their actions with the negative outcome, and change their behavior to avoid it. Laboratory studies have found that many animals learn avoidance behaviors quickly, and the lesson tends to stick. But, according to Paglieri, the practice is not widely used among conservation organizations.

That's largely because modifying behavior requires an understanding of how animals learn, and how they adapt their behavior in response. That takes time that many animal control agencies just don't have when conflicts create an outraged public that demands action. But eliminating animals from an ecosystem can have unforeseen consequences.

So Paglieri, in 1999, formed her own non-profit to tackle conflicts with behavioral strategies. "The idea is to transform these conflicts so that there is co-existence between people and wildlife," Paglieri says, "because every single animal out there and every single species out there has a role that they play in nature that we benefit from."

SUCCESS STORIES

  • Paglieri created the first non-lethal livestock protection program in California's West Marin sheep ranching community. Now in its 15th year, it has protected sheep and wildlife by providing ranchers with a way to keep predators at bay.
  • When coyotes were hunting pets in San Francisco, Paglieri placed placards along their route. As creatures of habit, the coyotes changed course to avoid the signage, which acted as psychological, rather than physical, barriers.
  • Now, Paglieri is studying the behavior of crop-raiding elephants in Kenya, which can decimate entire crop fields in minutes, and working with farmers to develop techniques that will teach the herbivores to avoid breaking fences on farmers' land.
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