Most adults will look back on their teenage years and recognize that they were challenging times. Puberty, dating, school pressures, and difficult relationships with parents all come to a head during that time.
But it’s not just people who struggle through adolescence. Many animals do, too. And now is the time when adolescent animals are struggling with many of the same pressures as human teenagers, a time when they sometimes end up making a mess of things right in front of us.
Every fall, as mature animals are preparing to breed again, they realize that they’re stuck with a bunch of unruly youngsters from their previous litter. Like in human families, it’s often the males that are the biggest problem. They start to challenge their parents for dominance, sniff around for their first sexual encounter, and always behave like they’re angry at the world. Eventually they set off on their own or are kicked out of their mother’s territory and have to fend for themselves.
For coyotes, it usually happens in October when they are eight or nine months old. They wander into adjacent territories and have run-ins with other coyotes. Or they end up hugging the edges of mediocre habitat and the zones between established packs.
“They aren’t street-wise yet,” explained Numi Mitchell, who has studied the coyotes living on Aquidneck Island for more than a decade. “They may naively sit on people’s lawns and wander urban areas. They’re out at odd hours and tend to have encounters with people.”
She has seen the same thing happen in the autumn with young raccoons and squirrels, too. Even horses and cattle. “That’s when they all start to have their own opinions,” she said.
Mitchell said the wandering of adolescent animals is the reason for the increase in roadkill every fall. The animals don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing, and they aren’t smart enough yet to run from oncoming headlights.
University of Rhode Island Professor Tom Husband has made similar observations about bears, bobcats, beavers, fishers and other mammals. And he said that part of the challenge is that the landscape has become more and more urbanized, which makes it increasingly difficult for these unsophisticated animals to find suitable habitat that isn’t already occupied. It causes them to explore areas where an adult animal might not go.
“I remember a bear scratching his back on a tree and holding up a bird feeder, chugging it like a Bud Light,” said Husband. “A mature bear in its own territory isn’t going to do something like that. They’re just somewhat desperate and naïve about how to find food and a territory.”
Most of the bears observed in Rhode Island in recent years are believed to have been adolescent males evicted from their parents’ territories in Connecticut and Massachusetts and searching for a place to call home. After stumbling around on their own for a few weeks or months and showing up on the television news, most of them head back where they came from.
So if you spot an animal this month that looks lost and hungry and a little beaten up, give it a break. Don’t feed it, because that will cause all sorts of other problems. But treat it like you would your own teenage runaway – with a dose of kindness and understanding and just a little bit of suspicion about what it’s gotten itself into.
This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on Oct. 22, 2016.